Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Shenyang, Dandong and Ji'an, China

It's a long way to go to visit North Korea for 4 days so I tacked on a few extra days to my time away and decided I'd check out a part of China that is often overlooked by western visitors.  What exactly does that mean?  It means that in the week that I was in the north east of China, I saw a grand total of 2 other western visitors (from a distance, and I can't even be sure they were tourists).  It means that while some parts of China are very much on the tourist radar and are seeing an ever increasing number of visitors (for good reason), I was struggling to communicate, struggling to buy tickets, find hotels and getting a lot of stares from locals.  In short, it was a return to the challenges of yesteryear, where not everything can be found online and you have to get a little bit strategic and a lot lucky to get by.
I'm not really recommending a visit to this part of China.  I'm not discouraging you either, but if you're going to China, visit the famous places.  There is so much to do and so many interesting places to see. My "to do" list in China is still long...  But I was stuck with limited time and intended to make the most of my location.
How to decide what to do?  Once upon a time, I asked a wise traveler that very same question.  His reply was "Usually if I need to find something to do in a place that I don't know much about I check to see what UNESCO World Heritage sites they have."  That is a direct quote from an email 10 years ago that I still have saved. (thanks Jake!) In the 10 years since, I've visited quite a few (over 200) learned a lot and rarely been disappointed.  They aren't exactly secret destinations but a good starting point for a situation like this and I found a couple to get me started.


I flew in and out of Shenyang for this trip.  Most people probably haven't heard of it before but it turns out it has quite the history.  It's also a city of over 7 million people.  Funny how something that big can be overlooked and ignored in a country like China.  Turns out that before it was the industrial city it is today it was the site of the decisive battle between the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang during it's civil war.  Before that it was a battleground between the Japanese and Russians in Manchuria (known as Mukden then) and a couple hundred years before that (the 1600's) it was the capital of the Manchurian Qing dynasty before they eventually moved to Beijing as China's final dynasty. This means that there are actually a few things to see in the area, depending on your interest and motivation, even though the city itself doesn't immediately feel like it has preserved any of its history and older character.  The scale of new Chinese construction is truly mind-boggling.  On the way from the Shenyang airport I counted 40 identical new 25+ story apartment blocks built in a giant square.  And that's just one little section.  Across the busy street from that might be another 30 buildings of a different style and even taller...

 View from my Couchsurfing host's apartment.

There are 2 world heritage sites in Shenyang though I only had time to make it to one in the end.  The one I didn't see is an imperial palace and the precursor to the Forbidden City in Beijing.  The one I saw is the Zhaoling Tomb and by "tomb" I mean mini walled city with many buildings used as a funerary complex and for other preparatory aspects to properly respect a deceased emperor.  They don't mess around.  The tomb is in the central portion of the huge Beiling Park which has many gardens, an artificial lake and many km of walking paths.  You can tell it would be packed in the summer.  The tomb section is a large walled-off section laid out on a north-south axis with a few gates to pass through with sub-buildings and statues along the sides before finally reaching the central portion where the tomb is and any ceremonies held.  Well worth the visit.

 The central tomb
 One of the gates into the central tomb complex

On my return to Shenyang I had a day to explore the more modern parts of the city, including it's other parks, monuments, underground shopping streets, temples, and a blocked off street acting as a food fair and celebration for the local holidays.

 Shifu Square
 There is always a Mao statue, Zhongshan Square
Golden week festivities and crowds


Dandong is essentially a border town and the hub of almost all trade with North Korea.  With increasing sanctions by China, the future of the local economy is in some doubt.  Almost all interest for a visitor to the city is in its proximity to N. Korea on the other side of the Yalu river.  It's biggest and busiest attraction is it's river walk area where people come to stare at the other side, take speedboat rides up and down the river (to get that little bit closer) or walk on the bombed out friendship bridge halfway to the other side.  The bridge is an important historical monument as it was "accidentally" bombed by the US during the Korean war in an attempt to limit Chinese support at that time.  The N. Koreans later dismantled their side of what was left and the Chinese turned theirs into an attraction.  A newer bridge is immediately beside it and is pretty much the only practical land entry into N. Korea, by train or vehicle.  The river walk was nice enough, with many Chinese and S. Korean tourists coming to see what it is all about.  There are supposedly a few N. Korean businesses and restaurants in town also, complete with N. Korean staff (like this is some kind of attraction) but in all honesty I couldn't tell the difference between anyone there. As I was actually going into N. Korea, Dandong didn't hold my attention for very long and I was only there long enough to sleep and leave the next morning heading in either direction.  Leaving Dandong for Ji'an (after my visit to N. Korea) the bus drove by another local attraction, the easternmost piece of the Great Wall.  It is a restored and detached piece but a piece nonetheless and far less busy than those around Beijing.

 Dandong along the river walk
 Looking into North Korea
 The modern bridge into North Korea and part of Yalu River Park
Looking back at Dandong and the end of the Friendship Bridge


Ji'an was always going to be the biggest question mark of this trip.  It was on my radar because there was another Unesco site in the area but as I tried to research further all I could find were some comments in passing on a few travel forums about how beautiful the area was and that the few sites scattered about town would be of limited interest to casual tourists. Even this limited info was a few years old and further searches yielded nothing more.  I'm convinced there is no English-language info about it on any Chinese or other tourism site and you can't book any transport or accommodation in advance.  At the rate I was meeting or even seeing foreign tourists (0 at that point) I knew this was going to be an interesting challenge.
There is one bus a day from Dandong to Ji'an.  It winds its way northeast through a hilly countryside on a 2-lane back road roughly following the Yalu River that marks the N. Korean border.  We passed through a couple villages, and I mean actual villages, not population 500,000 Chinese-scale "villages" but for the most part the scenery was very rural and agricultural.  It was beautiful. Being the first week of October, the hills assaulted the senses with bursts of every shade of yellow, orange and red leaves, and the valleys delighted with dried corn stalks so high they buried the farms embedded within.  I would've gone to Ji'an for that drive alone and the 6 hour ride passed in no time at all.

 On the way to Ji'an

Ji'an is a small town of a few hundred thousand people making it much more manageable and less polluted than most places I've been in China.  It appears to be in a state of increasing development and will eventually make good on it's tourism potential though no doubt at the expense of its tranquility.  With some difficulty, and battling a sudden rainstorm, I finally found a surprisingly elusive quarry, a budget hotel.  Pickings are slim on the ground and it was the national holiday "Golden Week" so it was much busier than normal with domestic tourists as well.  Street signs were in English but nobody spoke any.  Despite the initial setback I quickly found I liked Ji'an.  It is also on the Yalu river like Dandong, but has a much nicer and more organized river walk, again with views of N. Korea and numerous speedboats plying its waters.  Perhaps unsurprisingly there wasn't much to see on the N. Korean side other than the scenery and a few guardhouses, no doubt to keep people in as much as keep us out.

 Looking out at North Korea again
 Ji'an has a nicer river walk

 Morning market action.  Remains of the old city walls can be seen behind

Ji'an was the site of a former capital of the Koguryo kingdom, a Korean kingdom dating back nearly 2000 years and spreading well into northeastern China.  The base of the walls of this capital can be seen within the central part of the city.  2.5 km away, up a valley and surrounded by mountains was another, more fortified, capital, now known as Wandu Mountain City. This was the site I had come to see.  In trying to figure out transportation to get there, I learned that there is a well established tourist set up whereby taxis will take you to a total of 4 sites scattered about the edges of town so you can make use of the combined ticket sold at any one of them.  The total trip took 3hrs or so and I was back in town for lunch by the river again.
The first, longest, and by far most interesting stop was at Wandu.  It is partially preserved with the outline of it's walls and the base of the former palace, but the best part is the scenery over the valley and the autumn colors of the surrounding mountains.  Below the ruins on a flat ledge just above a small river are the remains of dozens of tombs built at a later time.  There is no tourist access to them but they look cool from above.

 At Wandu mountain city.  The limited remains of the palace are ahead
 Wandu Mountain City walls
Wandu Mountain City walls with the newer tombs below
 So many tombs

The remaining 3 sites were all quite small and didn't take long to see. One was a group of noble tombs that were earth mounds with the tombs buried inside.  One of the tombs was open for viewing and is known for it's wall paintings inside but the tomb is so busy and has been so poorly preserved that there is no longer anything to make out.  The second of the remaining sites centered around a large stele with hundreds of characters carved into it while the final remaining site was another tomb, this time in the form of a step pyramid.

 The stele is protected from the elements
 Step pyramid

As expected I was the only western tourist in Ji'an at the time and attracted quite a bit of attention while walking around, especially along the river.  I was stopped for a few photos, and it's always funny to see toddlers do the complete stunned stop when they see you while their families just laugh and wave at you.  It was another 6 hr ride on the bus back to Shenyang along a much busier road.  The first half of the ride was beautiful again though this time bumper to bumper traffic with all the local visitors trying to enjoy it as well.
Overall it was a successful and enjoyable off-the-beaten-path addition to my trip to N. Korea.  If you ever thought to visit this area, I'd definitely recommend going in the fall, but not during the Golden Week holidays.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

North Korea

So I'm going to jump out of order here as I still a few previous trips to catch up on but there has been a demand for this one and a lot of questions asked so I'll hopefully address most of the most common ones here.


Easily the most common (though fortunately not only) reaction from people when they found out where I was headed.  If you are asking this question then we don't have the same philosophy driving us.  It's not the first time I've headed to a controversial place and most likely not the last.  I'm curious.  NK is essentially the last isolated and truly restrictive socialist state.  The last specimen of a nearly extinct species.  Think of it as a living history museum.  The Chinese tourists told me it reminded them of China 40 years ago.  I never saw China then.  I never got into the USSR.  So I really wanted to see what I could as it is right now.  Not in spite of it being crazy but because it is crazy. I had an opportunity to act on it.  For me it is enough of a reason.


"Safety?"  - I don't really know how to explain this.  I have seen the news.  I have seen the drama and rhetoric.  It has been going on for 70 years.  It is all propaganda.  There is very little new going on that hasn't been done before.  I 100% believe that there will not be a nuclear war or any other kind of war in NK anytime soon.  Apparently I was willing to bet my life on it but I think that is a completely nonsense statement.  I do research where I'm going and get as much practical information before I go somewhere.  This is important.  Very important.  I know others that have been, I knew what to expect.  The greatest danger was not nuclear war breaking out but getting imprisoned.  NK has the stated aim of trying to increase tourism to 1 million visitors by 2020.  They'll never get there but it's the attitude that counts.  They can't do that if they are imprisoning every person that shows up.  In fact they've been gradually opening up the country and making it easier to visit in the last 10 years. I'm not American, they have no reason to go after me unless I do something stupid.  I control my own actions and I can behave.  Just as I would never utter bomb threats in a US airport, I wouldn't steal a sign or insult their leader, thus, no problem.  Never once in all the time leading up to the trip or inside the country did my heart rate rise in fear.

"What about supporting evil?" - I've never believed in the "boycott tourism" argument. I won't get into it here.  If it's safe enough, I will go.

"Isn't it all fake anyway?" - Yes and no.  I'll get into it more later.  It is fake in the sense that everything is controlled and restricted for you as a visitor and to some extent the whole country is so different it can't feel real but that is the point.  I knew that it is going to be some weird restrictive, heavily propaganda'd journey.  You accept that at the beginning and try to "enjoy" looking at that aspect of the culture.  If you really want to there are enough cracks in the fa├žade to still feel a little of what is also going on behind the scenes without having to see the beatings and the bodies....


A lot of people are surprised you can even visit.  Your home country will recommend against going but as I said above, NK is willing to let people in under very specific conditions.  You must go on a tour.  It can be your own private tour, but you must be accompanied by 2 NK tour guides at all times and all the arrangements are made in advance, generally by a middleman tour company, usually based in China.  Some of the more well known and established are Koryo Tours, YoungPioneerTours and the one I dealt with, ExploreNorthKorea.  You pick a tour on offer, send a scan of your passport and Chinese visa, send your money (it's not cheap unfortunately) and they make all the arrangements and all you do is show up.  I was on a 4 day 3 night tour.


The majority of tours fly in and out of Pyongyang from Beijing. I wanted to see more of the landscape and get a glimpse of something more than just what they show you so one of my priorities was taking the train in from the border at Dandong in China. I flew into Shenyang in northeastern China and made my way to Dandong where I was to meet up with my group.  ExploreNorthKorea focuses on Chinese tourists so the tour group ended up consisting of myself and 18 Chinese tourists.  We had all been collected from a couple different companies and all funneled into the same tour which was actually run by a NK company.  We didn't know who would be with us though and a handful of us were put on the train alone and told our guides would find us on the platform at the end of the ride.  And that is exactly what happened.  All the different tour groups got claimed by all the different guides as soon as we stepped off the train.

Getting on the train in Dandong
Typical N. Korean rural scene.

As I said before, all tours have 2 NK guides.  In our case, 1 guide was for the Chinese tourists and spoke Chinese.  The other guide spoke English and was assigned to me.  Basically I had a private guide within the larger group. She was a 27 year old single female that I am convinced completely believed and loved the NK propaganda she was taught.  Right off the bat she asked me what kind of tourist I was. She claimed there were 2 types, those that did nothing but take a ton of pictures and those that claimed to know everything about Korea already and didn't need more info (the polite way to tell your guide to leave you alone).  Are you kidding me?  I did my internal evil chuckle and rubbed my hands in glee and promptly replied "I know nothing of your country, I want you to teach me everything you can." Muahahaha!  She then sat beside me on the bus or walked beside me at our stops (mostly to babysit me I'm sure) and I made her talk non-stop for days.

With my guide

I asked everything I could think of asking without getting in trouble.  I danced around topics and did my best to piece together what I could from what she let slip, how she evaded questions and the personal stories of her life.  She was not quite joking at the end when she said she was looking forward to getting rid of me and getting some rest :) I'm not going to get into all of what she said here, but my advice is to do the same thing if you ever go.  She was pretty good about it, though the main evasive topic revolved around the economy or money (because i'm not dumb and didn't ask about politics or military things directly). It was amazing how a fairly simple "yes or no" question like "Do you get much pollution from China?" could result in a tangential propaganda story about how great their leader is. It kept things interesting because you never knew what kind of response you'd get.  Surprisingly she seemed fairly uninterested in the rest of the world and looked down upon our "backwards, capitalistic ways". Not that they have many friends or good things to say about other socialist countries either; the Juche political philosophy they live by is an isolationist and self-reliant one.  This was also exhausting for me though, trying to be polite and curious and always continuing the conversation without rolling my eyes or making a comment that would get me into trouble. 
Overall though they do a pretty good job or setting up an environment where you can pretend things are normal. There are very clear and obvious rules to traveling in N. Korea, restrictions on where you can go, who you can talk to, etc but the tours are set up in such a way that if you were the type of person that just follows a group tour anyway and doesn't venture off on your own or get overly curious, you could be anywhere else as well.  There were no obvious uniformed guards or weapons or intimidation necessary.  The guides take your passport as soon as you arrive and hold onto it until you leave.  It's not unheard of elsewhere and I'm sure there are worse ways to make you feel like a prisoner.  We stayed all 3 nights in Pyongyang at the fancy Koryo Hotel.  They call it a 5-star but it's a 3 or 4-star by normal standards and about the best they've got.  When we first arrived there on day 1 the guide told me that I shouldn't try to leave the hotel because I wouldn't want to get lost and it's not a good idea to go anywhere without any ID.  A polite way of saying "Thou shalt not leave".  I talked to one of the Chinese guys in our group the next morning and he says he went out the front door (which would be allowed) but as soon as he tried to move away from it was called back by the "doormen" who were keeping a close eye on him. After a brief conversation with them about the hotel he was convinced they weren't actually staff because they knew nothing about the hotel or its amenities.  It is quite possible that a large number of the "staff" were there just to keep an eye on us as there were a few guys I noticed that never actually did anything but stare at us.  But as I was saying, dressed up as staff and not police you could play ignorant and convince yourself nothing was going on and never really know. It also took 4 or 5 tries of my guide telling me that I needed a morning wake-up call before I finally clued in that there was really only ever 1 possible answer to her initial question of me needing one. There is also only 1 possible safe answer to "So what do you think of Korea (they never refer to it as N. Korea, it's just "Korea" and needs to be reunified) now that you have seen this?" which I was asked after nearly every stop.  But as long as you play nice, they play nice. The food was good and we took our meals in restaurants or hotels that were obviously intended only for foreigners or upty-ups.
My hotel.

On the tour itself I was told I could take whatever photos I wanted except anything military, which you don't really see anyway.  I kept asking her at the stops if I could take photos and she would look at me like I was some kind of idiot and say "of course".  So again you don't feel like you are restricted within the confines of the tour which is already cleverly confining enough in where it stops and what it drives past.  But every tour in any place is limiting to some extent whether intentional or not, which is why I prefer independent travel in general.  There were locals walking past us in front of the hotel in the morning, or in the squares that we stopped at and at the circus or on the metro.  They aren't all fake "actors" as some urban myths would have you believe, but sometimes you think they might be robots.  There are a lot of blank faces walking by.  It was unnerving to see how little curiosity they displayed. Very few would even go so far as to glance our way.  I felt like a ghost which was far from the reaction I had been getting in China or even the Chinese tourists in my group.  While we might be restricted from interacting with the locals, I feel like there are probably some pretty strong incentives on their end to not interact with us as well. There are, of course, propaganda posters, signs, etc all over the place as well.
Don't need to be able to read Korean to figure it out...

Many many variations on this theme and style.
Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere still.

Pyongyang looks like a typical communist capital.  All the money is poured in there for the show-off mega projects.  Wide streets with no traffic (there are very, very few private cars), grand public buildings, large squares and huge monuments commemorating some great victory or idea or other and of course the many apartment complexes to house everyone.  We stopped at a handful of places to see a few monuments and the main square, but for the most part our view of Pyongyang was out the window as we drove through. Our visit to the metro (the deepest in the world) was a brief one and reminded my of the fancy stations in Moscow. 
Kim Il-sung square. Lots of groups rehearsing celebratory demonstrations.

Pyongyang street scene. Note the bland clothing and lack of traffic.

A newly build area of Pyongyang. They actually let us walk down the street a bit.

View from my hotel room. 

Pyongyang looks nice from the right angle.

Always strange to see the Americans portrayed as the bad guys at a war monument.

Note the long line for the bus and no other traffic.

Housewives demonstrating their love for the nation apparently.

One of many monuments in the city.

It's bigger than the one in Paris.
In the Pyongyang metro.

Another metro station.

On day 2 we drove nearly 3hrs south to Kaesong and the DMZ.  In Kaesong we stopped at a  museum before picking up our military guide into the DMZ where we were shown the spot where the ceasefire agreement was signed "and the Americans surrendered and admitted defeat in the war".  At Panmunjom, the village in the middle of the DMZ where the 2 sides stare at each other all day, I was able to look into my own past at the viewing platform on the other side of the DMZ line where I once stood in 2003 on a tour from South Korea.  Not much has changed since then.  I don't remember seeing NK soldiers back then and we didn't see any SK soldiers this time so maybe it was true when they told me they basically take turns guarding the place from each other.  I then made my biggest faux pas when the military guide asked how I felt "standing in the most dangerous place on earth with 2 great armies staring each other down, guns pointed directly at each other".  My response?  A flippant "Meh, I feel safe".  Which I did.  Which was the wrong answer.  The instant disbelief on his face had me quickly back-pedaling along the lines of "Um... because you can totally protect me from those guys over there.....".  Until the first shot gets fired it's just a chess match. After that I wouldn't want to be anywhere nearby but I can think of dozens of places that are much worse today.

Panmunjom. The line runs through the middle of the blue buildings. In 2003 I was on the other side.

Our military guide

Where the ceasefire was apparently signed. 

On day 3 we drove 3 hrs to the northeast to see the Friendship Exhibition Hall, a very large building displaying international gifts to the former leaders, thus proving their international clout and respect they get.  Security was tight and so were the restrictions, like visiting the crown jewels.  We were shown a few of the rooms and some of the gifts were impressive but most seemed to be from Chinese companies (greasing the wheels of business?) or unheard of fringe communist groups in random countries whose membership probably doesn't reach triple digits... But who am I to say? I just contented myself with following along and nodding at all the right times.
A mountain resort we stopped at for lunch on day 3. Overkill for the number of visitors they get.

The friendship hall.  It's bigger than it looks.

Speaking of the leaders, NK has a unique set up.  While Kim Jong-un is the current leader of the country, he's not top dog in the minds of the people.  He hasn't earned his statue yet so to speak.  His father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung have.  The 2 of them have statues and monuments and photos all over the place, especially over every public building.  Most N. Koreans that I saw also wore a pin over their hearts with either a picture of both of them or just Kim Il-sung.  We were also fed a constant near-mythological backstory of their lives and accomplishments as well.  They could do no wrong in guiding the Korean people to their current greatness, despite the best efforts of the evil Americans to undermine and alienate them at every opportunity.  Kim Jong-un has a lot to live up to which might be why he's a little extra feisty...

They've got their statues of course.
Photos of the former leaders are on every major building.

The landscape in the areas we passed through on the west side of the country is largely agricultural and the rice fields were ready for harvest.  Outside the cities it looked poor.  The roads were dirt, most people were on bicycles or walking (though that was true everywhere), the little machinery I saw looked ancient and run down and most labour was being done by hand.  Cargo trains were rusted through and some villagers were washing clothes in ditches.  Each small community was almost identical too.  It really looks like everyone outside the city lives in the exact same small, single-story white home.
A typical village. Note the monument and propaganda sign on the hill above.

Bicycles and dirt roads.
It is a pretty country.

We visited a working Buddhist temple, one of the oldest remaining in the country. My guide swore up and down that they have freedom of religion in NK but I have a very hard time believing that one.  We also visited a middle school in Pyongyang to see a musical performance.  I've never seen a more unamused looking group of performers in my life.  The circus was fun despite the lack of a modern set up.  The crowd was mostly local and they were having a good time and the acrobats were certainly skilled though again we had no interaction with anyone.
The temple.

Very very quiet.

The middle school we visited. Photos over the doorway on the left.

Musical performance.
Inside the school.

By day 4 I was ready to leave and not too disappointed to spend an uneventful day on the train back to Dandong staring out the window.  Would I go back?  Sure, but it's not high on my priority list and I doubt I ever will.