Dandong on the Korean Border

Written by Jul 5, 2006 02:07
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Escape from Beijing

Living in the giant fishbowl of Beijing is enough to confuse any foreigner about what they're doing in China. It draws you in with promises of opportunity and then leaves you circling the ring roads for however many years it takes you to realise it's just a cosy sofa for an idle resolve, keeping you busy enough to earn your survival money without requiring the guts to make the big time. Or so it seemed that afternoon when Owen, my fellow New Zealander in exile, and I decided we'd had enough and needed to get back to our Dongbei roots for a weekend. Both of us cut our China teeth in Dalian, and that warm Liaoning atmosphere just seems to bounce off Beijing's glass wall. We decided to head for a weekend in Dandong – Liaoning's North Korean border town on the Yalu river – just close enough for a full weekend's easy travel and certainly interesting enough to leave all thoughts of Beijing's concrete block parades behind for a couple of days.

Two days in Dandong will give you everything you need to get the city in your head. Dandong is one of those rare Chinese towns that is simple without being backward, somewhere you can spend a weekend and leave feeling that you know the place as if you'd lived there for a year. The city's unique attractions, however, are unexpectedly fascinating – Dandong regularly surprises tourists who make the mistake of expecting a few trinket stores on the river border and a dry museum. The Korean presence gives the town a flavour poles apart from the predominantly industrial clone cities of small-town Liaoning – it has that clean, prosperous feeling of Dalian with a touch of boisterous North-eastern charm. Above all, a simple stroll along the Yalu river looking out at the bare North Korean farmlands will bring you that peace of mind China sometimes promises yet fails to deliver.

The K27 from Beijing arrived in Dandong at 7.30 in the morning, and we walked into the station yard with light bags and in good spirits. Posing before the station in full salute, a chocolate-brown statue of the Great Helmsman stands erect in the fresh river air, beckoning majestically towards a city where the proximity of Korea engenders a strong sense of nationalism – one that's easy to appreciate when staring across the Yalu at the comparative economic desert of the Sinuiju Development Zone – a name that sits uncomfortably on a congregation of farm cottages and unsophisticated facilities. The riverside was our first stop, and I encouraged Owen to leave finding accommodation for the evening – I promised him I had a trick up my sleeve – so we headed out immediately.

Dandong is small enough that you can walk anywhere, and the important sightseeing area of the Yalu River is just a few blocks away to the south of the station. After a brisk 15 minute's walk we were already on the riverbank. Culture Square is just a short stroll to the right, lined along the river's edge with bright, decorative flags – and in the morning it's host to the usual crowds of exercising oldies and fan dancers. We bought cheap breakfasts here from roadside stalls, and rested awhile before moving on to examine the bridges that give the city its minor claim to fame.


The icon of Dandong city is the broken bridge, bombed by the Americans in the Korean war to frustrate Chinese support of North Korea – a provocative move that could have seen the war escalate to an invasion of Chinese territory. Supposedly, the bombers were instructed to only destroy the bridge on the Korean side, and now only the supports are left there, a short row of lonely struts poking out of the water – on this side, however, you can still walk out to the end of the shorn bridge in the middle of the river, and stick your fingers through the bullet holes. Apart from the torn-up metal at the end, it doesn't seem like a war zone – looking back towards Dandong, one sees a peaceful and well-developed city, and wandering back on the shoreline through the Yalu River Park, there was a positively industrious air about the place as locals prepared themselves to enjoy the morning – whilst the tourist trade folks were already moving. Photographers were everywhere with their camera for hire, enticing travellers to pose in front of the broken bridge and its complete counterpart, the new rail bridge, taking carriageloads of Chinese tourists across to see a shadow of their own country from twenty years before – and almost nothing coming back over from Korea. You can even put on traditional Korean clothing – billowing hanboks for girls – and given that Korean dramas are so popular with the young Chinese these days, they were pulling in some fairly good business.

The chance to see a foreign country, particularly one as mysterious as North Korea, is a good reason to get onto a tourist boat and sail as close as you can get to their border. Signs warned against taking photos, but the situation on the river is far more relaxed than one might imagine – there was more than one wedding party cruising the centre line taking videos of the bride and groom in Titanic-style poses at the front of the boat in full view of the Korean side. Everyone was taking out their cameras and I did too, stopping to wave and bellow inappropriate ahnyonghasaeyous out at the Korean fishermen, who waved good-naturedly.

A short bus ride away, the Museum to Commemorate American Aggression is a stern and intriguing record of the Chinese perspective on the Korean War. Dioramas and detailed displays record that Dandong city was quite openly bombed, and a 360º rotating panorama of a battlescene is subtly disturbing. It was built during a time when the Chinese loved to hate the Americans, and is an ostentatious monument to the success of the Chinese and North Korean forces in beating the Americans back down to the parallel.

By the time we'd had a look around the city and seen these couple of attractions, it was getting towards evening and time for me to test my accommodation tip – I'd had it on good information that some of the restaurants along Dongchen Park, just to the north of the train station, have small, comfortable rooms for rent. It turned out to be correct, and before long I'd found us a twin room for a mere 50RMB out back of a seafood restaurant. Sleeping there was one thing, but eating was another – we went out instead to find one of the famed Korean restaurants that Dandong is host to. For the kimchee lover, it's a search which rewards in spicy delights, rich mixed pot rices and thick pockets of saucy beef wrapped in the folds of fresh crisp lettuce leaves. Dandong must have a hundred good Korean restaurants and a hundred more seafood diners far better than the one we'd chosen as a hotel.

Taking Tiger Mountain

The Great Wall at Tiger Mountain is a lonely outpost that wasn't even discovered until 1992 when it was recognised to be the true eastern terminus of the Wall, and extensive renovations were carried out after the fact – now the entire section is completely restored and builders occasionally still work on the trickier parts – if you go on the right day, you can hand over a brick and claim to have participated in the construction of the Great Wall.

As a reconstruction, the Hushan Wall looks brand new. The original Wall here was built with soil, wood and stones, which is why it's had to be completely rebuilt rather speculatively using common features seen at other Wall sections in its design. It may seem fake if you're a purist, but it's a genuine attempt to restore something once lost and the climb rewards some quite impressive views of the North Korean countryside. Once you've scrambled down to the far end of the Wall, you'll come to a shallow creek which marks the border – on the other side, uniformed border guards on second-rate bicycles are on patrol with scary looking guns.

We found the bus out to the Wall early in the morning – the ride takes about 40 minutes – and started the climb to the top. It only takes about an hour to walk the whole stretch – counting the time it takes to photograph Korea – and once we were back at ground level and past the final watchtower, we scuttled the stream and made our way to the wire fence at the seemingly unoccupied guardpost. The guard was inside, but he was sleeping, so we stuck our hands through the wire to claim we'd actually been to North Korea, and then ran away when a scrawny Korean border policeman pointed a huge gun at us.

We were back in Dandong with plenty of time to spare before the K28 would leave for Beijing at just before 6.30pm, and so took the last chances to wander through the town before we left. Dandong city is small in scale but as modern as they come, and the impressions we were left with as we headed back to the capital were entirely favourable. If only I could find a comparable hanguo banfan in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, the daily grind would seem that much easier.

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2. California's Xingcheng MISHEN from NZ Feb 6, 2006 02:02
3. A Wedding in Jinzhou MISHEN from NZ Feb 3, 2006 02:02
Comments (4)


Jul 9, 2014 11:07 Reply

Ms.YI XIN from Singapore said:

Looking to go Dandong from Dalian over the weekend. Any suggestions on how to go there and any suggested local tours to take up?


Jul 23, 2012 02:36 Reply

Ms.KELLY from China said:


I am actually heading out to Dandong this wekeend. I want to see the Tiger Mountain as well. You said that you found a bus station that was going to the mountain. Was this easy? Or is your Chinese good enough to navigate your way around?


Aug 31, 2011 22:59 Reply

Mr.CV from thailand said:

Does anyone know is there the late afternoon or evening bus from Dandong to Tonghua ??
I find that there is only the morning bus. But I wish to see Dandong in the day, and stay at Tonghus that evening for further going to Changchun. Thanks for yoru advise.

Sep 1, 2011 20:57
Mr.LIUPING from China replied:

Didn't find any evening bus from Dandong to Tonghua. As you said, there are two morning buses from Dandong to Tonghua. Maybe, you can take train from Dandong to Tonghua.

Train number: K7378/7379
Ticket prices: CNY 50 for hard seat, CNY 97, CNY 100, CNY 103 for upper, middle and lower hard berth and CNY 151, CNY158 for upper and lower soft berth.
Time: it leaves at 14:42 and arrives at 2:53, 12 hours and 11 minutes in all.


Jul 7, 2006 18:32 Reply


Fabulous writing about your trip to the N. Korean border, and such good timing. Keep it up!

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