Dandong- At the doors of North Korea

Since the Japanese invasion of Korea and eastern Russia the railways starting from Chinese Manchuria have been the main channels for the connection and commerce between the region.

Yalu Friendshipe Bridge details at night

Yalu River- Sino–Korean Friendship Bridge

Get there

From Shenyang train station, as for in the past, I’m taking the first train of 7:30 directed to Dandong city to reach the boarders between RPC and NROK. Dandong is a now developing city, which before the Korean War used to be call Andong (安东市).

Each time I have been in Liaoning I made friendly encounters and long conversation with people along the streets, curious about me and at the same time very natural in approaching me.

In the waiting area for our train a Chinese old woman sees me approaching to her direction rapidly cleans the free seat next to her “Come, It’s dirty, wait, I clean it for you”.

She is dressing the typical cloth farmers wear in the North-East of China , a very simple scarf covers her head, a cotton jacket and trousers of floral textures, big round golden earrings are pending from her hears bring light her dark skin. She is surrounded by plastic bags containing papers, vegetables etc., this her luggage. The long life exposed to the cold and the work in the fields made look like something like 10 years older than her real age.

She coming back from Shenyang where she met some doctors. From her bags she picks up white plastic box that she handle to me asking :”is it from Italy?”.

All the medicines are written in Indian and English, “No, this is coming from India, Delhi”. “Oh, I see. This are medicine for elders. Medicines for Aids… do you think it is possible to be cured from this deaseas?” I reply to her that I’m not sure about it, but I see that the box has already expired in December 2014, so I ask her,: “is it expensive to buy it?” “around 1000 rmb”.

I feel sorry for her, I wanted to handle her some money for her medication, but in that exact moment our train is calling us apart and all the people start moving to the gates.

I like the train, is not one of those last generation super fast trains. It’s elegant outside as for the inside, and the hard seats are actually quite comfortable to those is was used to travel the first years of my staying in China back to 2005.

Groups of elders are travelling in groups heading to some hot-springs the North-East is famous for.

A group of girls spend the travel with me talking about Italy, impressions on North Korea and China. They are all students taking some days off to visit Shenyang and Dandong.

Wintering landscapes are around us, white hills and valleys are embracing the pale yellow of the fields where small red bricks houses are still used and someone is still farming with horses. Sometimes we enter in some big cities much more developed than I pictured in this years from the articles of the journalists who talked about Dandong. Here and there frozen rivers.

Despite the information I found around, the actual trip takes 4 hours by train.

Dandong city

Left behind the gates of Dandong train station a tall red statue of chairman Mao Zedong is welcoming the travelers in the city.Mao Statue Dandong

Dandong had lost the taste of the Japanese military buildings left after the invasion and just a few soviet style structures survives.

I head first on the top of the hill that sorest Dandong to have a quick visit at the Korean War history museum “Chinese People’s Anti-Us Invasion of Korea War Museum”. Under momentary restructuring works, is still possible to visit the outside warfare machinery such as anti-air machineguns with displays in Cyrillic, perhaps provided by Soviet Union in the 1950s, some tank, cars and even an American airplane.

In fact, especially for” the North Koreans were driving good thanks, Russian A-34s, and the sorry old World War II bazookas the Americans had couldn’t penetrate”.

Korean War - War of reistance again US Museum E

I always recommend to visit this museums in China because is possible to find some history books not available in other libraries.

A huge stone pillar stands over the top of the hill, on his top a with peace pigeon with the red star and four smaller pillars with a story on each to enhance the triumph of the Chinese armies over the Capitalists Americans. Despite the war was fought mostly in the Korea Peninsula, the statues shows triumphant and brave Chinese armies but not the North Koreans allies, reminding us that the Chinese armies enter in the war as volunteers to defend the North Koreans, but also their (at that time young) country.

Later during the day I found another statue showing the Chinese armies living North Korea after the end of the war in 1953 and near more statues of Korean peasants farewell the Chinese saviors.

The Korean War (1950-1953) had been a very harsh conflict.

Each of the contenders claim to be a winner even if as a matter of fact the Korean War ended with an armistice with burdens similar to those designed at the end of World War Two on the 38th parallel.

In the Chinese and the American societies the conflict had quite different impact. For China the People Liberation Armies have been seen as the first Chinese armies after the civil war, fighting outside the Chinese territory in order to protect the new established RPC.

At the end of the conflict the PLA have been recognized in RPC as the savior of the North Korean nation and that prevent the enter of American armies in the Chinese Territory.

Instead for the US the sacrifice American soldiers had never received the same approval from the civilians back to the US. Differently for WWII, had missed the attachment of the public to this conflict. At that time there were no media to follow the conflict as instead happened during the Vietnam war and strategically the US armies entered in the conflict without adequate support.

Moreover, US and RPC wanted to avoid to enter directly in war during in this early phase of Cold War. US under Truman enter in the Korean War as UN intervention to fight back the invasion of South Korea, China by the other hand under Mao Zedong labeled its armies as “volunteers”. In other words, RPC and US never entered in direct conflict between them despite the fact the loss in terms of human lives have been significant.

Till October 1950 the American armies under arrived till cities around Anjia, Unsan and Kuauri in the North West of the Korean Peninsula, something like 150 kilometers from the PRC burdens.   The US army were still not sure about the Chinese intervention in the war, till then believed to be thought just between South Korean & American troops versus the North Koreans’.

But China intervention was almost forced because American warships were located around Taiwan and South-East of China. Between Chang Kai-shek strategies there was also a plan to send back his armies to the mainland, therefore the tension inside the RPC was palpable.

It’s estimated that around 33,000 American soldiers lost their lives, another 415,000 South Koreans, and between North Koreans and Chinese around 1,5 millions (?).

To the Yalu River

Sinuiju from DandongWalked down the long stairs, I run into a a driver. This thirty-years-old Manchurian suggests me to visit the China-Korea Friendship bridge at night and to go to have first a ride on the boat between the borders of RPC and DPRK.

On the way there are some walls surrounding the buildings (on the left) and a long line of iron nets (on the right).

Some articles claims that after the famine crises of the 1990’s, China build long walls to stop the North Korean immigrants who try to enter the country illegally despite the big sanction imposed on mutual agreement by the two countries for who break this rules.

In reality there are just two long line of nets 2-3 meters high along the Yalu river on the Chinese and the North Korean shores, not very different from those we can find in most of the countries burdens anywhere in the world.


In Dandong city there is an area with big concrete walls recently restored. They are the heredity of the Japanese invaders of the 1930’s (as for Dandong old bridge) which are still used today to protect the town from the high floating that every 3-4 years, as an old local man explained me. The floating are so unpredictable to the point that sometimes It even reached the second floor of the apartments behind it.

Dandong City, here on Yalu river, looks modern and solid with its tall building, facing the silent and discrete North Korean burdens are the echo of the power China is trying to showing of to her neighbors . Few modern structures are timidly visible on the other side of the river in answer to the Chinese show off. Still a kilometer walk to the north fields and small villages are prompting up here and there in this dark soil.

Surpassed a short lane of Great Wall above the village of Hushancun (虎山村) we reached a little private shore.

From here small boats that can just host around 6-8 passengers are driving along Yalu river during the warm seasons for the curious that would explore their mysterious neighbor.

Today it’s blowing a cold pungent wind and white table of ice are floating over the river, here and there wild ducks are flying in little flocks.

A Short-cut To North Korea

Inside DPRK burdains- Pillar

We agree that for a 30 minutes boat-trip I will pay around 200 rmb, which I’m willing to pay if it allows me to get so close to the North Korean burdens on a ride alone with my guide.North Korea Boat

Initially we sail toward north-east along Yalu river, but suddenly the guide operates a 90 degrees shift South, “look now on your left is North Korea and on your right it’s North Korea too”.

I’m a bit perplexed, but he explains me that by agreement is possible to ride the boat along these waters, but that it’s not possible to land on the shores. Still I’m quite worried about what could happen to me if we get too close to the river basins, because on the sides of the river are not just few farmer houses and little factories, but also many armed soldiers and patrol turrets.

What I see in these lands it’s different from the Chinese side. Farmer houses are absolutely simple and modest and everyone is dressing large and dark clothes while working the soil or wandering near the river basins.

My guide is young, and he did this job for almost four years. He explains me what we are seeing in a very simple way,: “Look, that one is a North Korean person driving a North Korean Boat”, ” that one is a North Korean farmer fixing the roof of a North Korean house”.

Two things are not allowed during this little trip, taking picture of the guards and land in the soil.

The simplicity of the area reminds me a little of the farmer houses in Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia or those of high plateau of Gansu/Sichuan during the early 2000’s, which in my recent trips had already changed to more modern structures.

On the streets there are no cars, here and there just a couple of bicycles and mule-driven charts. Small light grey houses have their roofs covered of dark grass took from the fields to dry, instead there’re no signs of TV antennas and solar water boilers.

We cross the first little group of houses, and stop near an old small arbor of grey concrete , which used to hosts patrol boats during from the war years till not long time ago.

Not far two black iron pillars are topping on the side of the river, which are used to cross the river. I remember this pillars because we saw them from the Chinese burdens from the car. I’m surprise that we are actually behind it now.

-“Look, over that hill there is are the barracks of North Korean women soldiers” , says the driver pointing to a small dune. The tones he just used to saying it makes me think… Most of the comments of Chinese males about North Korea are always about the beauty of North Korean women.

-“How do you know there are women soldiers down there?”, I ask him.

-“We drive here often, we saw them marching here”, he replies looking somewhere else.

After few hundred meters, we turn the boat around and we encounter a military which another three men are helping him to cross the river.

The guard and I exchange for a few second a look. He is very young despite what his dark skin might tell, he’s dressing clothes a slightly way too big for him and on his back is hanging a black AK47.

Inside DPRK burdains-- The guard crossing the river

A mixture of different though arose when we stared at each others.

I wasn’t sure about the guard reaction to see a western foreigner a few meters from him. What if the guard would have been hostile to me?

My thought goes to them, which every day are responsible to sentinel this areas that for the last sixty years have been almost unchanged and peaceful.

Our boat pass quickly and we live them behind.

Further, in the fields over a little hill, some peasants are burning some dry grass collected to make space for the crops, other wild ducks are flying close to the rivers.

Back to Dandong

Back to the Chinese soil, I decide to walk back to Dandong. For long time I dreamed to see North Korea, and this is a great opportunity to spend a little more time to have a look at how is Yalu river flowing down between these valleys.

The life here is very simple. More little houses with light-grey walls, all of tame with the same designed appear here and there around the valley. Again in my mind the toughs that not much must have changed here in the last six decades, I see in them the Revolutionary China of the 1960’s.

Five kilometers north of Dandong is still visible the skeleton of the old 鸭绿江浮桥旧址, which used to connect China with the small North Korean island of (楸 _岛).

Build in July 1951, 500 meters long and 15 meters wide the water flow elegantly between this small wooden pillars. It used to be entirely made of wood, allowing the trains and reinforcements to reach the North Korean territories. It was also destroyed by war action. Behind the bridge have been positioned two statues, remembering the end of the Korean War. On the left a group of North Korean civils are thanking and farewell ing to the PLA volunteer soldiers coming back to China.

Most of the bridges that used to connect North Korea and China had been destroyed by Americans armies to slow down the military supplies during the war between 1950-1953.

The more I get close to Dandong more are the building in both sides. I’m thinking that for North Koreans Dandong city might look quite impressive , in answer to they are now also trying to build some modest tall buildings.

Dandong at night become colorful, while Korean side almost absolutely dark in the night.

Perhaps this show of is functional introduce the potentials for if those decide to cooperate economically with China, it’s a clear and strong message of power.

“They look at us as we used to look at Hong Kong” another man is telling me. The same way of saying I heard it again during the my staying in Dandong, basically a way of saying in the town.

The Yalu river and The China-North Korea Friendship Bridge

Over the Yalu river stand two bridges, the recently restored short Yalu bridge (or Short Bridge) and China-North Korea Friendship Bridge. Each of them used to have and is having relevant roles in connecting the two countries, especially between the   two cities of Dandong ( 丹东, PRC) and Sinŭiju (신의주시,新义州, PRNK)

Built by the Japanese engineers between 1909-1911 during their dominion over the north East areas, the bridge used to connect the Korean peninsula to Manchuria a long and modern railways for those times. The same lane of railway is still used in Dalian to connect with Luxun city (Port Arthur) as already discussed during a previous journey.

The bridge is 944 meters long, 11 meters wide and used to stands over 12 pillars. One of the main innovative characteristics of the bridge was that the structure could rotate of 90-degrees in the middle allowing ships to pass trough it.

In 1943 the bridge was reengineered in order to allow train to cross it. A part of the old railways are still visible on the way to Dandong. The old iron-bars have been took away, but in many valleys are still visible the old concrete pillars that used to sustain it.

On the 8th of November 1950 the American B-29 warplanes bombed the Yalu river and the bridges to slow down the Chinese reinforcements to RPK.


Defenitely this is one of the most misterious area in this world and it would worth a visit in this country.

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