I’ve always been fascinated by North Korea and living only two hours away from one of it’s only easily accessible border cities, I had to go take a look.
My first trip outside of Dalian was to a small city called Dandong. I have been trying to save money while studying here by not going out often, eating cheap, and saving the traveling for after I leave, but this city was so close I decided it would be a worthy small weekend trip. My Japanese friend, Nobu, also wanted to see this place, so we decided to go together.
Dandong is famous for being the largest city on the Chinese-North Korean border. On the North Korean side is the city of Sinuiju in North Pyongan Province. The two cities are situated on the Yalu river delta at the western end of the border, their waterfronts face each other and are connected by the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge.
This was my first time taking a train in China, so after asking around a bit, I found the most convenient and relatively cheap way to buy our tickets would be through a site called Ctrip. There might be cheaper options, but if your Chinese isn’t up to par, Ctrip has a full English site and accepts international credit cards. They charge 30 yuan for the booking fee, which at the time of writing this is equivalent to about $4.50. This means that all you have to do is show up to the train station, go to the ticket counter, and either show them your booking number or passport. They will be able to quickly look it up and print your ticket for you. You don’t even have to speak Mandarin. Although, just a note, most people you might interact with know very limited English, if any at all, unless they are younger college students.
We also booked a hotel room on Ctrip, for only 117 yuan ($18), so $9 each. I normally stay in hostels, but it was hard to find one in Dandong online, and this was a last minute trip so I didn’t take the time to look harder.
After a short 2 hour train ride from Dalian to Dandong, we arrived. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain when we got there. The first hour was spent walking from the train station toward the direction we believed our hotel was. A lot of the city was pretty dirty, but it was charming in a way. We came across a man with a pet monkey on a leash. He started making the monkey do tricks and then asking me for some money to eat, I gave him the few yuan I had in my pocket.
We were very hungry and I was trying to find some “local Dandong food” but had no idea where to look, or what to look for. We ended up just going into this Chinese restaurant that ended up being a little pricey.
While we were sitting down, about 3 or 4 kids kept walking by our table and staring at me. I kept hearing them say “waiguoren” which means foreigner. They were playing tag and taking any chance to come over by our table. It was a new experience for me, because i’m only half white, and most Chinese don’t even believe me when I say i’m American, because they think all Americans have blonde hair and blue eyes. They didn’t pay much attention at all to my Japanese friend, it was amusing.
A bike on the streets of Dandong.
After eating, we were able to find our hotel in about 10 minutes of walking. The room was pretty nice, the floors were a little dirty but nothing special. There were two twin beds and a big bathroom. It also had AC.
After dropping our stuff off we set out to go find the famous bridge. The walk to the river was only about 20 minutes. This was the first time I saw North Korea, across the river was the famous Hermit Kingdom. It was still extremely foggy from the rain, so everything had a tint of grey.
One of the first things we came across was a large Chinese military style ship parked on the edge of the river. There was a sign nearby that I thought was interesting, it was rules about not giving food to North Koreans, trading with them, talking to them, taking pictures of soldiers, etc. I wanted to take a picture of the sign, but as soon as I raised my phone up to do so, a Chinese soldier starting screaming at me and walking toward me. That was a little unnerving. We hurried off in the other direction. I did go back later in the night and was able to sneak a pic really fast.
We walked toward the famous bridge that was bombed by the US during the Korean war. You could actually walk on the bridge all the way to where it was destroyed halfway. It costs 30 yuan to get access to the bridge. On the bridge there were a lot of Chinese flags as well as some historical facts about the bridge and the war. It’s all in Chinese. The end of the bridge has a large screen playing some Korean war videos.
When you reach the end, you look across the distance to North Korea and see what looks like an amusement park. There was a water slide and a Ferris wheel. Didn’t seem to be in operation though. Maybe they needed a break from all the fun?
As you walk on the edge of the river, there are a ton of people trying to sell North Korean products an souvenirs. The first guy we decided to stop at had these books filled with North Korean money. It was pretty cool to be honest, and I thought it would be something interesting to have. He said it was 20 yuan for this book of each kind of paper money. To me, it sounded like a decent deal, he also threw in a free North Korean flag and a pin of Kim Jung Un. I was sold. I thought this guy really liked me and gave me a good deal, until a few blocks later a lady was selling the same exact thing for half the price. It’s okay though, 20 yuan is about 3 dollars.
After some more walking, we found this North Korean restaurant Nobu’s friend had recommended. It was inside a hotel called PyongYang. Hmm. Well after ordering our food from these straight faced North Korean waitresses, who were all above average in the looks department, we were seating in this large dining room with a stage in front. A North Korean flag was displayed on the stage. What came next was very surprising in the best way possible.
A group of beautiful North Korean women started playing the drums, electric guitar, keyboard, and alternated between a bunch of other instruments. It sounded like some indie girl band you’d hear in the Europe or the States. I was honestly mesmerized for some reason. I mean, it’s just an odd situation. North Korea, weird funky indie rock, China, beautiful girls, eerie restaurant. It was a cool. I tried taking pictures, but the waitress came over frantically to tell me I wasn’t allowed, but of course I figured out a way to secretly get a video. At the end of our meal, one waitress tried making small talk in Chinese and asked where I was from. Nobu told me to lie and not say American, but I said I was American anyway. She gave me a weird look and it became a little awkward.
After this, we headed back to the hotel and got a good night’s sleep. The next day, we wanted to see the nearby Great Wall. It’s called Hushan Great wall. The best way to get there is a bus that goes from across the Dandong train station to the entrance of the Hushan Great Wall. Once we got to the Train station from our hotel, we were bombarded with guys trying to take us to the Great Wall for a “good price”. They were extremely pushy and would even grab your arm. I know enough not to trust any of these guys.Even if it sounds like a good deal, or he seems like an honest guy, there is always some chance of a scam. So instead we waited about 40 minutes for the bus to set off, it was only 4 yuan each. Although, even while you sit on the bus, the “taxi” guys will still try to get you to go with them.
The bus ride was nice, you can see a lot of beautiful scenery on the way. It took about 45 minutes to get there.
The entrance fee to the Hushan Great Wall is 60 yuan, but only 30 yuan if you have a student ID. We used our DUT student cards and were able to get the discount.
The Wall has nice views, some parts are very steep, but nothing crazy. At some parts you can see China and North Korea with the river in between. It’s an interesting perspective. We also got to use this military binocular for 10 yuan and look at what the North Koreans were doing. I saw people working, while soldiers with big guns watched them. There wasn’t much infrastructure on the North Korean side. The Chinese guy with the binoculars also showed us a site where they had fake airplanes. Interesting indeed.
Near the end of the wall, there are people who ask you if you want to take a boat ride on the river to see North Korea. It might seem shady and unsafe, but after our experience trying it, I would say it’s worth it. She said it would be 50 yuan a person and it’s about 45 minute boat ride. We agreed and at the end of the wall, some guy in a van picked us up, as well as two Chinese tourists and drove us (rather fast and recklessly) to the area where a bunch of boats and tourists were.
We paid the money and got on the boat. You get to see some really stunning scenery. The guide on the boat only speaks in Chinese and everyone else on the boat were also Chinese tourists.
Everyone I saw was just working, and they looked very poor. There was always a soldier nearby watching them while holding a large rifle. There were a lot of random soldier barracks too. We even passed by a boat full of North Korean soldiers. The Chinese people on our boat were waving and saying hi to them, a couple of them waved back. I’d say the boat was definitely worth the 50 yuan for the experience.
After the boat returned to land, we had to get a taxi back to downtown Dandong, because we weren’t at the Great Wall entrance where the bus would leave from. We found a guy for 15 yuan each, who also drove extremely reckless and almost gave us a heart attack after playing chicken with oncoming cars several times.
When we got back to downtown Dandong, we had a few hours before our train would leave back to Dalian. We ate some Korean food and spent the rest of the time just walking around. Nobu bought some North Korean cigarettes for his friend.
If you have any interest in seeing North Korea, but don’t want to actually take a tour to Pyongyang, I think Dandong is a great alternative.
I’m going to start posting more informative and detailed blogs. Let me know in the comments what you think! Was this blog too long? Any questions about Dandong or in general? Thanks for reading!