Joining a research team from Young Pioneer Tours, M G Martin discovered a world of weirdness along the hinterlands of the world’s most secretive state.
There were five of us, a minibus and a Chinese driver. Although being chauffeur driven always feels a bit like cheating, there’s simply no other way to explore this rarely visited corner of the world.
Starting in the relatively well-known border town of Janji, our first stop was a nearby border crossing where there’s been an attempt at creating something of a tourist attraction. There was a little parade of shops selling DPRK memorabilia and the flood plain below the soaring bridge had been pleasantly landscaped, with gravel paths and bird boxes in the trees. We went for a wander, past signs saying “no farming” “no swimming” and “no photographs” to the banks of the frozen river. Here the Hermit Kingdom was just a short, albeit slippery, walk away. On the far bank, day-to-day North Korean life was clearly visible: Old men were pulling rickety carts of firewood, woman were washing clothes through holes in the ice and soldiers kept up constant patrols. Chris decided to test the ice, and walked out onto the river. Suddenly there was commotion on the far side as, with shouts and whistles, soldiers began to converge on the opposite bank. We scarpered. None of us wanted our trip to end in a diplomatic crisis quite so soon.
Soon after, our van was winding its way through a scenic wooded valley. We were still discussing our border incursion when the driver slammed on the brakes. Suddenly appearing around a bend in the road was an armoured troop carrier, and within seconds there was a grim-faced Chinese soldier at every window, some shouldering sub-machine guns and others holding huge alsations on metal chains.
The commander, who was carrying a field medical kit (perhaps more sinister than a gun, when you think about it), questioned the driver through the window before ordering us out. Passports were demanded, and taken away for inspection.
For a while things were somewhat tense as we stood shivering on the roadside, but they soon concluded we weren’t any threat to the People’s Republic, and it was all smiles and friendly questions. Even the dogs started wagging their tails. After taking some souvenir photos of us, the soldiers drove off, waving cheerfully through the grilled rear window of their vehicle.
That evening we stayed at an unpronounceable town called Erdaobayhe. This is an odd little resort town serving the nearby Chang Bai national park. This mountain straddles the border, and is known on the Korean side as Mount Paektu. Like Mount Fuji in Japan it is considered a sacred place to Koreans. For those living in the south of the divided peninsular, the only way to visit the place is via the Chinese national park, and in the summer they flock here in droves.
Typically, the northern regime has appropriated the mythical significance of the place, by claiming it as the birth place of Kim Jong Il. According to the official account, his arrival was heralded by a new star appearing in the sky, the sudden flowering of spring blossoms and numerous rainbows. Cynics, however, maintain he was born in a guerrilla camp over the Russian border while his father was on the run from the Japanese. Either way, as is now traditional, Kim Jong Un represents the Paektu constituency in the DPRK’s Supreme Assembly.
Our evening in Erdaobayhe wasn’t much of a success. It was a typical out-of-season resort, like Blackpool on a wet winter’s Sunday. It seemed the only place to find a beer was a club on the outskirts of town with the delightful name of ‘Coco Banana’. This was an odd, but typically Chinese, nightclub. Although it was more or less empty, the music was earsplitting, and we were compelled to buy 20 beers between us, and pay up front. A huge video screen over an empty stage flashed the words “analogue” and “recycling” on a constant loop. The manageress of the place — a burly girl with beady eyes and all the charm of a constipated badger – sat at our table and demanded that we pay some bored-looking girls £20 each to join us and drink our beer. Hardly the offer of the century, so we refused.
Keen to be gone, we took our unopened bottles and left. As soon as we reached the street, the manageress came shrieking out the door and demanded we return our unopened drinks. As her screams were reaching a crescendo — and the male security staff began to muster in the doorway — a taxi arrived right on cue, and we left the wicked witch of Coco Banana mouthing curses on the street.
The next day it was off to explore the Chang Bai national park. In typical Chinese style, this was quite an expensive excursion that involved numerous tickets. First there was a shuttle bus from a huge visitor centre to the foot of the mountain and the official entrance. Then it was all change to a fleet of four-by-fours for the drive up the mountain. To be fair, this made the price worthwhile. Our driver was obviously a frustrated rally driver, throwing us around the back of his vehicle as he skidded round the icy bends as the road snaked up the 2,700m mountain.
The mountain is actually a volcano; at the peak you look down on a huge crater lake that is large enough to have its very own clouds scudding across the frozen surface. It was a stunning, otherworldly place, ideal for the magical birth of Kim Jong Il.
Despite the amazing views, it was blisteringly cold – within minutes I had icicles growing on my moustache that made me look somewhat like a walrus. We headed back down to the entrance and hopped on and off shuttle buses running between the other sights. There are a couple of temples, forests that promised the possibility of wild tigers and hot springs where you can buy boiled duck eggs and slightly sulphurous corn-on-the-cob.
We could have spent much longer exploring, but we had to move on to our next stop, Chang Bai village. Despite its name, this was several hours from the mountain. Somebody obviously has big plans for the place, as there are numerous building sites ringed by billboards depicting scenes of typical German life: There were wooden chalets, men in lederhosen spanking each other, buxom wenches with big foaming steins of beer and sinister grinning snowmen eating what I hope was chocolate. It seems odd that anyone visiting this place would want to pretend they’re in Europe, but who am I to say?
Our hotel for the evening was even odder than the planned German resort. It was furnished throughout in the style of a Renaissance palace – the walls were covered in cheap copies of old master paintings, the bannisters and cornices were all painted gold and even the plug sockets and little filigree decorations. But the oddest thing were the en suite bathrooms – these were glass cubicles offering absolutely no privacy. It’s hard to fathom the logic of this – even if you’re on a honeymoon, you don’t necessarily want to lie on your bed and watch your partner having a poo.
That evening we found a half-decent place for a drink, another typically Chinese club, but with friendly staff who didn’t rip us off. There were a few other customers there, who were drunkenly keen to meet us foreigners. Pier was propositioned by a very pretty girl, who invited him to stay at her place. He thought his luck was in, until her boyfriend materialised and repeated the offer, before playfully sticking his tongue into his earhole.
The next morning we discovered that our hotel directly overlooked the border. It was an odd feeling to sit on a throne-like chair of purple and gold watching the people of North Korea scratching their living across the river.
We had a walk along the riverside and were struck by how the Chinese side resembled the Great Wall. Stone built ‘fortifications’ rose vertically from the water to a height of about 40 foot. However, this barrier obviously wasn’t intended to be impregnable, as there were ladders and even stone staircases placed at intervals. But this is typical of the border in general. Just along the river were short stretches of tall fences topped with razor wire. At either end of these ‘defences’ the ground had been beaten flat by the passage of many feet.
Close to the river there was a fairly extensive retail park that seemed to have been set up in anticipation of thriving cross-border trade. Although there was no sight of any customers, I wonder if it could be a hint of how the DPRK’s relationship with the outside world may be set for change?
Soon it was back on the road, passing through more stunning scenery and tiny unvisited villages. In one place we stopped we were soon surrounded by curious old men, all wearing old-fashioned Mao jackets. It was obvious they had never seen foreigners before and were delighted to pose for photographs. They were all absolutely tiny, and with my frosted beard I felt like Gandalf visiting the Shire.
After feeling that we had left civilisation far, far behind us, it was a shock when we turned a bend in the river and saw something like Las Vegas illuminating the horizon. This was the neon city of Lin Jian, where every building is lit up as if for Christmas.
Although somewhat surreal, it seemed a smart and prosperous place. If the movie Back to the Future had been made in China rather than the USA, it would have been set in a place like this.
When we arrived, communal dance exercises were taking place in the central square, men on one side and women on the other. We found ourselves on the ladies’ side, where three instructors in pink jump suits were standing on the city hall steps leading a large crowd in a merry dance. Unable to resist, some of our party joined the pink-clad leaders, to hoots of laughter and mock-scandalised giggling.
By this time, we were all ready for some western treats, so took dinner at a restaurant that offered things like steak and pizza. As we were eating, a couple arrived, the woman staggeringly drunk and the man angrily pushing her. He shoved her into a seat with loud recriminations and obvious threats. Thankfully, it didn’t turn violent. It’s one of the awful things about provincial China, if you ever tried to intervene the locals would always take the side of a wife-beater over that of a foreigner. Many a westerner has found himself savagely beaten after an attempt at gallantry, often with the wounded woman joining in too.
By this time snow was falling thick and fast, and we enjoyed an atmospheric walk around the psychedelic city before finding a pleasant bar serving some decent cocktails.
We enjoyed a leisurely start the next morning. First stop was a statue of Chen Yun, one of the more interesting of China’s revolutionary leaders. While Mao was in power, he was one of the few people to criticise his policies. “Too Communist,” he said. Then, when Deng Xiaoping came along, he spoke out against the pace of reforms. Despite consistently sticking his neck out, he was never purged, and died a peaceful death in 1995.
It was then a long drive to the small provincial city of Jian. Despite it being home to four million people, we struggled to find anywhere to eat. After tramping the slushy streets for quite some time, we eventually found a very grubby barbecue place, serving nothing but meat on skewers. After trying some beef, lamb and the usual sort of stuff, we just pointed at some random items on the menu, which was painted on the peeling wall. We had some success with chicken hearts and spicy lamb, but then they brought out a pile of skewered moth cocoons. They were about the size of cocktail sausages and the stench of them was awful – somewhere between wet paint and wet dog. Only Pier was brave enough to try one. As he was crunching through the charred outer shell the lady behind the counter indicated that he should spit this out, and just swallow the white goo it contained. It made me feel sick just to watch.
The next day we went to visit some old tombs of the original Korean kings, who founded their dynasty in what is today China before moving south. Along the way we passed sections of the little-known Great Wall of Korea. Obviously, not as impressive as China’s but, I think, older. We weren’t able to make it to the tombs. They are atop a mountain reached via a snow-covered road that was just too steep for our van to cope with. After turning back we noticed an odd building perched on the side of a nearby hill. It looked like a cross between a Disney castle and a high-security prison. After making enquiries, we were told it was a new hotel, so introducing ourselves as tour guides on a reconnaissance trip, we paid a visit.
The place had only just been completed, and although buzzing with dozens of uniformed staff, was not due to open for several months. The detail inside was staggering, wood panelling, mediaeval tapestries and inglenook fireplaces in every room. We were first met by the deputry manager who gave us all a business card and chatted in broken English until his boss arrived.
The general manager eventually turned up and told us how he used to live in England. He looked genuinely sad as he looked around him at the strange mediaeval kitsch and said: “I miss Birmingham so much.” He then smirked, and asked if we’d had a good look at his colleague’s card. I checked, and there in black and white was the poor chap’s name – Peter Pan.
It was quite a fitting name for the place though. Behind the hotel was a vast man-made cave complex, I think aimed at one day being China’s largest wine cellar. It was easy to imagine Captain Hook lurking around every corner.
After this diverting tour it was on to our final destination, Dongdang. This splendidly-named place is the main destination for people to come and do what we’ve being doing all week – peering across the river into North Korea. After some of the places we had visited, it seemed like a positive metropolis, with bars, restaurants and coffee shops.
It also has the catchily-titled ‘Oppose American Imperialism and Aid the Korean People War Museum’. This focuses of the many thousands of Chinese volunteers who flooded into North Korea to fight alongside their Communist comrades. This huge contingent wasn’t mentioned at the Pyongyang War Museum. I suppose it detracts from the narrative of Kim Il Sung single-handedly leading the resistance. But it was an interesting place, and gave a slightly more balanced view of the conflict, with at least one foot planted in reality.
After relaxing in a cafe run by American missionaries – they’re hanging out on the border to protect defectors from the DPRK, I guess – it was onto a sleeper train bound for Beijing. Although I was still in the ‘culture shock’ stage of my relationship with China, it felt like I was on my way home.