“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it.” – Stephen King, “The Body”
On my third day in Beijing, I woke up on a train heading into Dandong. By that time, I had already been travelling for 10 or 11 hours.
When I first arrived at the station around 6:00 the previous evening, I came very close to turning around and walking back to my hotel. Having already had firsthand experiences with taxi sharks, fake art students, and tea room girls, I was beginning to feel a little nervous as I travelled through China alone. I was far away from the USA and Korea, the two places I feel most at home, and now I was about to go 13 hours outside of Beijing. Facebook was unavailable (it’s blocked in China), and the roaming charges on my phone could cost as much as 20 dollars a minute. This is crazy, I told myself in no uncertain terms. What are you going to do if you end up in a genuinely dangerous situation? I wrestled with this question and several others for quite a while, but in the end I bought a ticket and settled in for the long ride. There was something in Dandong I just had to see.
I spent most of my time on the train sleeping under the hood of my parka, reading Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America, and pretending not to see or hear the Chinese woman across from me who never seemed to realize that I couldn’t understand anything she was saying. When we finally pulled into Dandong at 7:00 in the morning, I quickly found my way to an information desk and asked for directions to the river. English wasn’t as prevalent in this part of China as it was in Beijing, but fortunately there wasn’t very much for the girl at the desk to explain. I just had to walk outside, turn right, and go straight for about 10 minutes. “Thank you,” I said, and started walking.
Just outside the station there was a massive statue of Mao Zedong. In the Beijing markets, the image of Mao seemed like a running gag, as if the street vendors were locked in an ongoing competition to see who could make the most ridiculous Mao merchandise. The Mao statue in Dandong didn’t give off quite the same vibe. My gut feeling was that I probably wouldn’t have to look very hard to find true believers here.
Ten minutes later, after risking my life in the single most illogical crosswalk I have ever seen, I was standing in an icy park area on the riverfront. On my left I could see senior citizens doing early morning aerobics. On my right, Socialist-style sculptures that seemed to promote strength, group effort, unity, and tradition.
But looking straight ahead across the river? Nothing. Just a thick cloud of fog. This is not a metaphor, dear readers. I honestly couldn’t see anything on the other side. Even the huge bridge spanning the river seemed to disappear about halfway across.
Immediately I was struck with a paranoid thought. What if I came all this way and can’t even see it? But then I checked the time and realized that it was still very early. Surely the sun would come out in a few hours and the fog would lift at least a little. I just had to be patient.
There’s really not very much to see in Dandong, especially in the early morning, so I just walked back to the train station, plopped down in the lobby area, and started reading again. From time to time I found myself thinking about my co-workers, whose vacation adventures were undoubtedly warmer and more exciting than my own. So, J, I could imagine them saying, what did you do in China? I sat in a train station for five hours waiting for the fog to clear.
Sometime around 1:00 I walked down to the riverfront for a second time. It was still impossible to see the other side through the fog, so I had to start formulating a Plan B. First, I walked over to the base of the bridge, foolishly thinking there might be an area for foot traffic where I could walk a short distance across the river. But when I got there, the only thing I found was a heavy iron gate with two very serious-looking guards on the other side. Okay, so I guess the bridge idea is a non-starter. Following the sidewalk, I walked a little farther until the road curved and I suddenly found myself looking at this.
I hadn’t been able to see it earlier, but there was actually a second bridge sitting right next to the one I had just tried to get onto. This bridge (the second one) had been partially destroyed by American bombers during the Korean War and was now open to the public as a memorial. It was probably a dumb question, but I walked up to the ticket window and asked if it was possible to walk on this bridge. “Yes of course,” the ticket seller told me. (Incidentally, she spoke the best English I heard in Dandong.)
Before long I was walking out across the river, thinking sad thoughts as I looked down at the water. To add to the effect, there was depressing music playing from little speakers that had been set up along the whole length of the bridge. When I got to the end, there was a little sightseeing area where I could see some of the twisted metal left over from the bombing.
And on the other side of the river, now less than 100 yards away, was North Korea.
This was what I had come to see. It’s not the kind of thing I can explain to someone who doesn’t share my interests, but I’ve been completely mesmerized by North Korea ever since I read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy in early 2013. Since that time, I’ve read at least half a dozen other books, watched tons of videos, tutored a North Korean refugee in Seoul, attended a temple stay with North Korean children, and written about North Korean sanctions for the Ludwig von Mises Institute. For me, as for so many others, it is not merely an interest but an obsession. To see it with my own eyes – this endlessly fascinating forbidden half of my adoptive country – gave me a feeling I can’t yet put into words.
The fog never completely went away, unfortunately, but from the end of the bridge it was much easier to see buildings and small posts on the other side. The most recognizable landmark, of course, was a Ferris wheel, which, according to the Internet, hasn’t moved in years. Some have gone so far as to say that it’s not even real. This is what it looks like in summer.
Realizing that I probably wouldn’t get a very good picture that day, I went over and had a look at the souvenir table (don’t laugh – even the Holocaust Museum sells souvenirs). When I asked the old lady working there if she had any Korean money, the first thing she offered me was South Korean won. “This Korean money,” she told me.
“No no, not this,” I said. “I live there. I have this.” To illustrate, I opened my wallet and showed her some South Korean bills. “I’m looking for money from there.” And this was one of those indescribable moments of my life, dear friends. As soon as I said it, I realized how truly incredible it was that I could actually point at North Korea from where I was standing. Holy shit. It’s right there.
As I struggled to process this, the souvenir lady reached behind some other items and picked up what appeared to be a red bill-fold. Then, smiling, she opened it up and a long stream of plastic dividers came flowing out, each containing a different denomination of North Korean currency.
Despite repeated assurances from the English-speaking girl at the ticket window, I doubt very seriously that they’re authentic. But, they’re neat to have nonetheless. My Korean co-workers, and especially my teaching partner, went into a state of semi-panic when I showed them around the office. You can imagine how funny it might be to hand one to a waiter or something just to see what they would do. “Oh, my bad! Sorry. I just got back.”
But, for the record, there’s not a lot to laugh about when it comes to North Korea. Sometimes I wonder if my young students will ever truly understand how much different their lives would have been if their great-grandparents had ended up on the other side of the 38th Parallel during the war.
Even the life rings along the bridge seem a bit tragic when you realize that most refugees escape into China by crossing the Yalu River. (These were the sad thoughts I was thinking earlier.) Though it’s highly unlikely that a refugee would try to cross in such a visible area, the fact remains that if you see someone in the river, they’re probably from North Korea.
Imagine how revolutionary this sentiment would seem just across the river. Never take your independence for granted, dear readers.
At 6:00 p.m. my odd little detour came to an end. I got on the train and started the 13-hour trip back to Beijing for Day 4.