From the Middle Kingdom to the Hermit Kingdom Travelling to North Korea

Article by John McGovern

I’ve been living in Xi’an for three years now, a city I have made my home, and its always great seeing the South Gate lit up in the early evening, strolling through the Muslim Quarter or stumbling upon a new place to eat paomo or hulutou. But one of the best reasons for living in Xi’an is its central location in China, using it as a base to travel to the different corners of this huge country and of course beyond.

1My favourite trips have always been out to the border regions, to Xinjiang, in the Kazakh regions in the north but especially the Uyghur regions bordering on Kyrgyzstanin the south, to Xishuangbanna along the border with Myanmar, and up to Harbin and beyond on the border with Russia. But my favourite border of all is the one with North Korea.

I have been working for Young Pioneer Tours, specialists in travel to North Korea, for three years now, guiding tours in North Korea and China too, and I have just got back from a week in the far northeast of North Korea and then a week travelling along the China-Korea border. Visiting Pyongyang and its surrounding area, heading down to Panmunjon and the DMZ, are, of course, the most popular things to do, in North Korea, but the northeast is where we really get down and dirty.

2We crossed the border from Tumen in Jilin province, walking across the bridge that separates the two countries where the river can be only 20 metres wide. Our Korean guide Mr. Kim met us on the other side, and instinctively I offered him a cigarette. “Mr. John, sorry, our country is in the middle of a 3 month campaign to stop people smoking.” “Oh I’m sorry,” I said. He laughed, “don’t worry, nobody will see us around the side of the building!”

The Korean guides are part of what makes travelling to North Korea so much fun. With only rudimentary Korean and only a few chances on our itinerary to speak to Koreans, engaging with the guides is not only fun but also the best way to get more of an insight into this country. As we struggled up a steep hill to visit a site where Kim Il Sung held a meeting of Korean guerrillas while their country was still occupied by Japan, I shouted back “Mr. Kim, where’s your socialist spirit?” He gave me a wry smile and replied “I think I left it in the bus.”

3The week was spent driving along bumpy roads through the cities of Hoeryong and Chongjin to the Chilbo Mountains, where we stayed in a homestay, drinking the local beer and soju, playing volleyball with the locals and dancing around a bonfire on the beach. For the last two days we travelled up to the Rason Special Economic Zone, visiting the local markets, the Golden Triangle Bank (where you can even open a North Korean bank account!), middle schools where we chatted with the English students and the textile factories and port. Rason is a far cry from Shenzhen in the 1980s, but as a SEZ we have more freedom to move around and see how society is changing in the far northeast of the country.

Crossing the border back into China is a completely different Korea-related experience. We came out of the Quanhe border near the tri-country border of North Korea, China and Russia, and made our way back to Tumen, and here the road trip started. From Tumen we spent a week driving along the Tumen River, climbed Changbai Mountain – the sacred Mt Paektu to the Koreans – and along the Yalu River to Dandong in Liaoning province.

Our first stop was a point along the Tumen River where we could drive down to a little hill overlooking Hoeryong city, to the exact point where we had been standing a week before. As we were standing there in the afternoon drizzle, a car drove up and two men got out, also here to look across at North Korea. One man, Piao, was particularly talkative. “My mother was born over there. We’re not Korean, but back in the 1950s lots of Chinese moved across the river to work in Korea, including my grandparents. At that time North Korea was more prosperous than China, and also more relaxed politically. They came back with my mother in the 1960s when China’s economy had recovered a bit, and the political situation over there became tense. I’ve been coming here since my childhood to look across, I’d love to just go and wander around there, but obviously that would be impossible. It’s always seemed mystical to me, nothings changed at all since I first saw it in the early 1990s.”

We carried on our journey down the river, passing Korean villages and towns which we could at last photograph freely, even getting waves from the Koreans washing clothes or fishing in the river. We reached Mother Kim Jong Suk town, named after Kim Il Sung’s wife who died shortly after the Korean War. Here the locals were transporting logs down the river. They were tying them into huge rafts and floating them downstream, the pilots particularly forthcoming with waves and greetings.

The Chinese border towns are all fascinating to look around. Changbai county, Linjiang and Ji’an all sit opposite Korean cities such as Hyesan, Chunggang and Manpo. We boated down the river within a stone’s throw of the Korean bank, the border guards watching vacantly. All these border crossings are closed for everyone except for Chinese and Koreans. Ji’an is a particularly interesting city, home to the ruins of the cities and tombs of the Goguryeo kingdom, one of the three kingdoms of Korea established over two thousand years ago.

Our road trip came to an end in Dandong, where the main road and rail crossing to North Korea is. Next to the main bridge stands the half-destroyed old Japanese built bridge that was bombed by the US during the Korean War. Further down is the new Chinese built suspension bridge that remains unopened because the Koreans haven’t built the connecting road on their side.

Our final meal is in one of the numerous North Korean restaurants lining the Yalu River, where the waitresses giggle at my few lines of Korean songs. It doesn’t take much to convince them to get the accordion out and do an impromptu performance of some Korean classics, culminating in the Moranbong band classic ”We Will Go to Mt Paektu” and the beautiful folk song, “Arirang.” Posing for a group photo the girls reminded us not to forget the Korean etiquette for taking a photo: “1…2…3…Kimchi!”

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