adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Crossing the North Korean border

Update(6/2009): Time flies! Just wanted to add the obvious disclaimer that although I managed to cross the North Korean border and return successfully, you shouldn't attempt this. As of now two American journalists are being held in North Korea after being captured near the border, and in 1994 an American was arrested by North Korea after swimming across the river near Dandong.

This story starts on a lazy afternoon in the States browsing Google Earth. A friend and I were looking at North Korea, when we noticed a city that seemed to be right on the border of North Korea and China. Zooming in, we noticed a city divided by a river, the two halves connected by a bridge. On one side was Dandong, China, the other side Sinuiju, North Korea. I thought it was interesting, but at the time I wasn't even planning to go to China.

Fast forward several months to last Friday.

It's not often that you get to fulfill your craziest, most trivial desires, or even make an attempt at fulfilling them, but there I was getting on a 14-hour train to Dandong with my infinitely patient travel companion Rebecca, having no return tickets and no idea of where we were going to stay. The mission: See North Korea and set foot on North Korean soil!

Chinese trains have four classes: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. I've heard that hard sleeper is the best choice for long train journeys, but they were all sold out by the time we bought our tickets(on Tuesday). We settled for soft seat and hoped to withstand the train ride.

The people standing in the aisle have standing(no seat) tickets.

Passing a mountain up in the Northeast...

I've always had this strange fascination with train travel, even though I had ridden on trains maybe once in my life before this trip. The train car was nicely air conditioned, with two-person seats that faced each other and a small table in between. There wasn't much leg room, and the only comfortable way of sleeping was hunching over the table, but it wasn't bad, and we got to practice our Chinese with a guy who lived near Dandong, who told us "I don't like jiaozi(dumplings), I've been eating them every day for the past 20 years!"

We'd never been anywhere outside of Beijing, so seeing the countryside and passing through smaller towns on the way to Dandong was an interesting experience. Arriving at Dandong, we were greeted by a massive Mao Zedong statue outside the train station. Which was totally cool, since you don't even see big communist statues in Beijing. a word: charming. Notice the Chinese and Korean bilingual signs.

Eating jiaozi in a Dandong hole-in-the-wall in honor of our train friend, we decided we liked Dandong, despite having arrived all of 30 minutes ago. It felt a lot smaller and more relaxed than Beijing, with its narrow, tree-lined streets and light traffic. The neat thing about Dandong is that there's Korean on almost all the street signs - Dandong has a large Korean-Chinese population and attracts a decent amount of South Korean tourists. As for westerners, Rebecca was the only one I saw in the entire city. The only thing I didn't like about Dandong was all the aggressive taxi and pedicab drivers near the train station that kept bothering us.

Discovering that there was only hard seat left for the Sunday and Monday evening trains back to Beijing, and finding that the local CITS(Chinese government-run travel agency) and hotels couldn't help us buy train tickets, we were faced with our first major dillema:
1. Tough out the 14 hour ride back on hard seat, the lowest class of Chinese rail travel
2. Buy tickets for Tuesday evening, miss two days of class, and be really bored in Dandong(which we had only planned to stay one or two days in)
3. Buy plane tickets back(a bit expensive at CNY600-800 each or USD70-100)
4. Try our luck in getting a train back from Dalian, a large city about six hours away by bus

Right as we were buying plane tickets, I had a sudden change of heart and decided we should see Dalian, and settle for whatever seat we could manage from there, even if it meant hard seat(although there was a small chance that we could get better seating from there). I mean, if we were stuck with hard seat, we could at least see another city.

Having settled our travel arrangements, our first destination was the riverside, where you can look across the river to North Korea. As we walked towards the river(the city center was small enough that walking everywhere was no problem), we noticed a large smokestack in the distance. Then we noticed the river in front of it, and realized that that smokestack was in North Korea!

North Korea!

Behind Rebecca is the Sino-Korean Friendship bridge.

It looks far away in the pictures, but the North Korean side really feels rather close. You can even see people walking around on the other side. There's a bridge connecting the Chinese and North Korean sides, which had absolutely no traffic on it while we were there(and was closed to pedestrians), as well as a bridge that was bombed by the US during the Korean war. You can walk all the way to the end of the bombed-out bridge, which ends halfway across the river(the North Koreans didn't bother rebuilding their side), where there are binoculars set up for you to look across. Looking at the North Koreans going about their business on the other side, it really didn't feel real. You could see schoolkids in their uniforms with red kerchiefs tied around their necks, people hanging out and squatting around the shore, washing their clothes in the river.

Chinese side of the river (first pic) and North korean side (second pic)

Next, we hired a speedboat to take us to the North Korean side. The boat goes right up along the other side; you're about 20 feet away from the shore. Schoolkids with red kerchiefs waved at us as we approached; it was the weirdest feeling waving back at them. Everyone on the shore looked at us with some interest, even though it seemed that speedboats from the Chinese side were taking tourists past pretty regularly. The one thing I remember best was passing a North Korean boat and seeing a guy storm up to the side and lean over, angrily watching us. We were only along the North Korean side for maybe 5 minutes, but it was definitely an experience.

Afterwards, we had lunch in one of the many North Korean restaurants in Dandong. These aren't just restaurants serving North Korean-style food; they are actually owned by the North Korean government and staffed by waitresses from North Korea. I ordered dog(kaegogi) for our lunch, since I'd never tried it before. It was alright; it tasted a little bit like beef(Rebecca thinks it tastes like mutton, but I haven't had enough of that to know what it tastes like).

North Korean style kaegogi (dog meat)

The rest of the day was spent strolling around Dandong, enjoying its small-town charm. In the evening it seemed like lots of locals would come to the riverside and hang out; some of them brought little nets to catch fish in, others just leaned on the railings gazing over at the North Korean side. We had dinner at yet another North Korean restaurant. This one offered live entertainment - North Korean waitresses singing songs and dancing in various costumes, pulling guests up onto the stage to join in the fun. The dinner here was really great(no dog this time), and I finally gave into Rebecca's pressure to take a picture with a North Korean waitress.

Pyongyang Koryeo Restaurant

North Korean entertainment

Pyongyang cold noodles, a North Korean specialty. They were really delicious. To the back left is a seafood-filled omelette type thing and to the back right is bulgogi.

Walking back to the hotel, it was already dark; everything on the Chinese side was lit up, but across the river the North Korean side was pitch black. The weirdest thing was the bridge across the river: the Chinese half of the bridge was lit up, but the North Korean side wasn't.

Dandong at night

North Korean side at night. Notice how the bridge lighting stops abruptly at the halfway point.

Our hotel in Dandong was comfy and cheap: CNY140(less than 20 bucks) for a double room. The room was pretty much like what you'd find in an economy hotel in the US, with a western style bathroom, TV, lamps, phone, complimentary toothbrushes and shampoo, and so on.

Heading up to Hushan great wall

Me on the wall

Hushan great wall is very steep in some spots.

The next morning was my big day. We got bus tickets to Hushan great wall, the easternmost end of the Great Wall. It took about an hour to get there. The Great wall here wasn't as nice as Simatai/Jinshanling near Beijing, mainly because it was so well restored that it didn't feel real. It was a nice hike though. Near the end, there's a branch: to the right, you continue down the wall to the Great Wall museum, to the left, the way to "Yi Bu Kua"(one step cross), the famed North Korean border crossing spot!

I was amazed Rebecca was able to negotiate the trail to "Yi Bu Kua" given the type of shoes she was wearing.

The way to "Yi Bu Kua" was a 20-30 minute hike along the riverbank; although there was a railing, it already felt like a bit of an adventure hiking along such rough terrain.

I may be smiling, but inside I'm very disappointed at the lack of obvious North Korean border crossing spots.

You're looking at North Korea. If you click on the photo to get a bigger version(which you can do on all the photos, by the way), you can see a small guardhouse and a guard on top. He was very bored when I looked at him through the binoculars. There were also some farmers working the fields that you can't really see in the pic.

When we finally got to the spot, there were quite a bit of tourists crowded around(apparently you can get here by riding a boat along the river from the museum). The only problem was that it was completely unapparent where the North Korean border crossing spot was. The river, although more narrow here, was definitely not narrow enough to allow a one-step crossing, or a several-step crossing, for that matter. It also looked fairly deep. I had read a few websites about this place that said the crossing would be very simple. I'm guessing the river is lower or frozen depending on what time of year you go in. They had binoculars set up for you to look across; besides a bored-looking teenaged North Korean guard sitting on a watchtower, you can't see much. On the other side, crops came right up the riverbank.

Leaving the tourist-filled area, I came across a sign forbidding tourists to go any further. If there was any place to cross the North Korean border, past this sign would have to be it. At this point, you had to start walking along stones in the river and getting your shoes wet, and Rebecca, the only sane one of us, decided to stay back. At first I came back because I didn't want to get my shoes wet, but really, did I sit on a train for 14 hours just to look at a narrow part of the Yalu river? Rolling up my pants, taking off my shoes, I headed past the sign into the bushes, walking upstream on stones in the river.

Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, just itching to cross the North Korean border! The sign says "Tourists go no further", by the way.

A little ways upstream, there was a trail that led to a small farmhouse. Chickens walked about, pecking at the ground. There didn't seem to be anyone around. I stepped into the river to find that the water was actually fairly deep, and freezing cold. The water was near neck level, but the river was flowing strongly enough that there was no way I could wade across without being swept away downstream. I tried hanging on to bushes, grasping onto rocks at the riverbottom, but I could tell the river was strong enough that it was impossible. Even if I could get across, there would be no way to make a hasty return, which was crucial. I saw some North Korean farmers in the far distance and heard some voices occasionally, but there was nobody where I was. Exploring the area(so far almost an hour had gone by in failed river-crossing attempts), I noticed a part of the river with rippling water that looked like a bend; stepping in, the water was up to my shoulders, and the water was moving slowly enough that I didn't feel I was being swept away. Slowly, I walked across the river and reached the North Korean side.

One of my many failed attempts at crossing the river. The point I crossed at was further down the river.

At this point I wasn't thinking straight because I was so nervous. What if the North Koreans had been watching me the entire time? As I emerged from the water, I raised my hands. It seems like a really silly thing to do, but like I said, I wasn't thinking straight. I walked a bit up onto the bank and grabbed some rocks to stuff my pockets(one of my classmates in Beijing had mentioned that it would make a good souvenir). Further up was a trench. At the time I was scared that it was filled with antipersonnel mines, although in hindsight it was obviously an irrigation trench for the crops. Stepping into a section of the trench that looked mine-free, I ran hunched over downstream, where Rebecca could see me. After all, if I was going to risk my life crossing the North Korean border, I might as well get a photo out of it. At this point I was nervous again. You know how sometimes you make a seemingly harmless decision that you end up regretting so much you wish you could turn back time? My common sense was telling me that I might regret this; that just for the sake of some photos I might be arrested and spend the rest of my life in North Korea, and for a moment I wondered what it would be like. But I kept running. Through the bushes, I saw her sitting on the other side! I yelled over to her to take a picture, but then realized that this low down the bank, you could only see bushes. I yelled over to her again to get ready because I was coming up the bank. I took a deep breath and ran up to the top of the bank, in full view of any North Koreans that might have been behind me. I stood up there for maybe 30 seconds at most, but it seemed like an eternity; when it seemed she'd taken at least a few pictures, I started running for my life. If they hadn't noticed me by now, my loud yelling in English and posing on the bank would have definitely alerted them. As I ran, I thought that to any North Koreans watching, I looked exactly like someone trying to escape the country. Then again, I was someone trying to escape the country. I remember clearly running down the trench, splashing through a puddle, slipping and falling in the mud, realizing I had already run past my crossing point, running back, getting into the water, wading across, and feeling an immense sense of relief to be back in the PRC.

Movement in the bushes...

That's me in North Korea!

Soaking wet, shivering, I pulled myself onto the muddy bank and started back. I ran into a group of several men in plainclothes who stopped me and started discussing among themselves if I was a North Korean. Overhearing this, I broke in and vehemently denied being a North Korean, saying I was a tourist who had gone across the border for the hell of it. They seemed skeptical and asked what I had in my pockets (North Korean rocks). I didn't have my passport on me, so I showed them various forms of American ID I had. At this point they bought my story, but still wouldn't let me leave, kneeling down and explaining, through drawings on the ground, that China was this side, North Korea was that side, that the river marked the border, that I had crossed the border, and that this was illegal. One of them got on his cellphone and called the police. After finishing the call, he turned to me and mentioned something along the lines of "if you give us some cash, we can pay the fine for you when the police get here." Geez, if they wanted a bribe, they could have just said it in the first place! I handed them a few bills and got the hell out of there. As I got back to the sign, a man in the distance asked if I had crossed the border or not. This time I knew better, so I screamed that I hadn't, and that what's more, I was South Korean and didn't speak any Chinese (for some reason, all Chinese think I'm Korean, so it was a good cover). BTW, North Korean refugees fleeing to China is a very real issue, and being repatriated to North Korea is no joking matter.

I was soaked and had no second change of clothes, so I wore Rebecca's clothes to dry off. Chatting with the taxi driver as we headed back to Dandong, walking through the streets dressed in women's clothing, and buying a brand new set of clothes, I felt great. Crossing the North Korean border was one of the stupider things I've done in my life, but at least I can say I did. And really, it's been putting everything into perspective. I mean, if you can risk your life crossing the North Korean border, what can't you do, really?

It's not women's clothing; it's the latest North Korean fashion.

We came back just in time to grab some street food for lunch and hop on our bus to Dalian. But what would await us in this gleaming metropolitan city to the North? Stay tuned to find out!

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You didn't happen to have your "The North Korea" shirt on hand? Darn.


Hey pravit! I sent you an email! I sent it to pravit726 beim yahoo, can you check that one?

that must have been so awesome. I'm glad you got to go with your friends, traveling alone is unsettling to me.


Trains are so romantic arnĀ“t they. Expecially when you are traveling with hot swedish girls eh?

Pravit did not mention something important in this blog.


Allyson's got me curious. What important thing did he fail to mention? Does it involve Foxy Rebecca? Ooh, that'd be good.


I think rebekah is way more foxier than rebecca. Rebekah is a haposa!
Haposa=Fox in portuguese


No way, Rebecca is twice the haposa that Rebekah could ever hope to be. Rebekah is still delighted with the compliment and learning a new word. I see a "Haposa" T-shirt in my future....


pravit you are such an adventurer!

i'm glad you didn't die crossing the border.

in 3 more days we won't be neighbors anymore.


Great story! You did the right thing by crossing into North Korea. I'm sure you will never forget it as long as you live. :-)


Awesome tale. I really, really wish that I was there to wade across with you.


well done young man...i've been in country a number of times and it does leave yolu kind of breathless. keep it up!


cell phones in north korea.....well well.......


Looks an absolutely amazing thing to do, well done! I wonder what the best time of the year is, on the photos and youtube videos where you can see people literally walk across the stream and the water barely covers your shoes. Makes me want to go to China just to do that!


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