As a child, I had been scolded many times for things I did which I clearly told not to do.
As an adult, things are different when you’re being scolded. Especially when the scolding is given by North Korean military.
By now you know all about my trip to Dandong and how it is the best place to get a glimpse inside of what is North Korea.
Yes, for whatever reason, I have this weird curiosity about the NK, ever since I realized that Changchun (where I live) is only a few hours away from the China – North Korean border.
I had read about the possibility of taking a boat to watch the North Korean border from Dandong.
Having learned that in China not everything is as advertised, all I thought it would be was a small boat taking us to the other side of the Yalu River, with the boat only going as far as the Chinese border would allow.
I hate being wrong….
My friends and I too a taxi outside of the city towards the Tianyi Wharf port, only a few minutes away from the Hushan Great Wall entrance. So here we were a Canadian, a guy from England, and an American, about to take a boat inside North Korean waters.
Americans, as you may already know, are not allowed to enter North Korea since the beginning of September 2017, following the unfortunate death of Otto Warmbier while in North Korean custody. So why on earth would my friend, an American, agree to get on a boat inside the NK??? Beats me…….peer pressure?
As we arrived to the port, we saw the tourist ferry leaving right down from our noses. Not wanting to wait outside in the cold for an hour until it came back again, and then some more until it gets full again, we opted to hire “a guy” who could take us the same route with a speed boat.
Don’t Photograph People
“No photos of people”.
That is what the man said as the boat raced leaving the pier.
As we approached the other side of the Yalu River, the contrast between China and North Korea could already be felt. The colorful highway from the China said was replaced by dull-brown and dry hay.
Nothing could be seen on the land.
At least nothing worth taking a shot of.
That is, until we passed a first group of farmers near the shore.
As the boat continued to go further inwards inside North Korean waters, we came across some boats near us, all of which seemed to be handmade. Some were fishermen trying to get their catch of the day, while some others were vendors trying to sell Korean souvenirs to tourists like us.
As we continued, I had totally forgotten where I was, and without thinking twice, I took out my camera, snapping pictures of whatever scenery I could get. Some of land, some of people, some of buildings I could see far away.
Everything was going OK, I was enjoying myself, until we passed a sentry tower and some guards standing on top of a hill.
North Korean Guards
With the sun opposite to us, I saw two dark figures coming out of the tower, approaching the edge of the hill towards us. I didn’t think much of it, until our “guy” started going towards them, and turned off the boat.
What the fuck???
As the guards and the boat driver start speaking in Korean, I sense the tone of the conversation getting louder and less pleasant. I didn’t worry too much until that point, as I thought that this might be an attempt from the guards to get a bribe from the driver. However, the driver turned around and asked me…
“You took photos of people?”
Of course not! (yes).
“They saw you take photos”.
At that point, all I could think of was shit! shit! shit! My friends in the back were more worried than me, especially the American, who by no means should have been on that boat to begin with.
I hid my camera under my bag.
That is when the guard started looking at my direction, pointing his left hand at me. His right hand holding the gun on his belt.
“Dan, what the fuck did you do?”.
I turned around and saw the fear in my friend’s face. Whether they were worried too much or I wasn’t worried enough was unclear to me.
Relax dude, I replied.
It had been 5 minutes since we were stopped, the guards arguing with our driver in a language that none of us could understand. Part of that conversation was about me, as the guard wouldn’t stop yelling and looking at my direction.
“They want us to get out of the boat”, our “guy” said.
“Fuck no! We’re not getting off the boat! Don’t even think of going near the shore!!!”, my friend replied.
Yeah, let’s not do that, I said.
It would take an extra 2 minutes for the tone of the conversation to change. It seemed that our boat driver was finally able to “appease” the guards. I wasn’t totally convinced until our driver turned around and asked…
“Do you want to buy Korean cigars?”.
As the boats left the guard point, we continued going deeper inside North Korean waters, the boat making the round of a small island inside before returning to the Chinese side.
As we were on our way back, I thought that one last selfie wouldn’t hurt……so I snapped one.
Little did I know that there was a guard on one of the sides of the shore, who as soon as he saw us waived in our direction to go his way.
Luckily, our driver just “stepped on it” and kept moving forward, paying little attention to the guard.
We felt a sight of relief as we reached China. We quickly took a taxi and got back into the city, heading to the train station for our return train to Changchun.
But before we did that, we had one last stop in Dandong. One to feel that we were not trapped in North Korea, and that we were indeed in China enjoying it’s “freedom” (whatever that means).
So we stopped at Starbucks…..
This was, by far, one of the most thrilling (and scariest) experiences of my travel life! What is yours? Share it in the comments!