Saturday, 18 March 2017

Climbing the Great Wall of Dandong and sleeper train to Beijing

ALLIE: DAY 30: Friday, 16th of March

Visiting historic points around Dandong, the great Wall, bridge and museum

Downtown war memorial in Dandong
How wonderful! I run along the river promenade feeling like a bird that was caged in
and is now free to fly again. Lots of elderly Chinese doing their morning exercises,

Tai Chi or what seems to be the national sport of Dandong, badminton. No young people though I notice.

At 9.30 Chris and her driver come to pick us up and take us around Dandong. Today she is dressed in a casual jogging suit.

Compared to our North Korean hosts who both spoke very good English even though they had never been out of their country, 

view from the 'Great Wall' across to North Korea
Chris’s English is rather poor despite the fact that she had lived in the middle of London for three years! Her mum is running this tour agency and had probably paid lots of money for her to study in the UK.

Alas it didn’t seem to have done much good neither for her English nor for her capabilities being a tour guide. 

When I for example ask her about the distance from Dandong to the open sea and the beaches she has to consult her driver.

Even I guessed it right with 30km without ever having been there. Anyway she manages to drop us at the various sightseeing spots and we still enjoy this day.

So we take the brand new motorway and drive 20km out of town towards the ‘Great Wall of Dandong’ dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1469 A.D.). 

Only around 1500m of wall are left here winding its way up and down the hills most of it being reconstructed in the last 10 years. We walk on the wall to the top of a hill passing icicles and snow.

Climbing up the icy wall
Fantastic views across the Yalu river and over to North Korea remind us of our last weeks experiences in one of the most closed countries in the world. But here the border seems to be just a bit of a river bed, broad and flat without any fences or border guards.

We see farmers just across the other side and wonder why not more people try to escape to China from here? There is even a stretch of the river called the ‘one jump crossing’ and it all seems to be so easy. 

Later I talk to some Chinese about the issue and they tell me that North Koreans don’t dare to escape anymore. They will be severely punished and their whole families put to prison if they ever get caught. 

And of course they arrive here without a Chinese passport and even though China seems to be a very liberal country compared to the DPRK, it still has strict rules as well. Anyway, fact is, not many do try these days. How frustrating life must be so close to the border and seeing this incredible development on the other side.

At the steel bridge over the Yalu river
We drive to the broken bridge back to town. This steel bridge was built in 1909 by the Japanese but destroyed by the Americans in the Korean War in 1951. So only half of the bridge is left sticking out into the river.

We walk on it nearly being blown away by the cold Siberian wind. Chris now offers us a boat tour, but when we get there, the boatman says he needs at least 10 more people to run his boat! Well, since we are clearly the only tourists here, we could wait forever.

So we give the boat a miss (which is a pity and we are a bit annoyed about the arrangement in offering a boat tour but then actually not wanting to pay for it).

On to the Korean War Museum. A brand new huge building from 1993 is full with charts, animated displays, exhibits of aeroplanes and tanks and photographs about the war. It’s interesting now to see how the Chinese describe this war. 

It’s quite clear, that if the Chinese army hadn’t deployed hundred thousands of soldiers and tons of war material to help the North Koreans they would have never won this battle. Asking Chris about this war is wasted effort. She has no idea.

For lunch we go to a Korean Restaurant. The food is very good, but we wonder, why we are not eating Chinese now that we are in China.
Chris’s job is done and we are on our own strolling back through the town to the hotel. Internet! Catching up with a week of no communication.

in our 'soft sleeper' cabin preparing for the night
Later on I take a stroll along the river. There are some old folks singing and playing the erhu, I see stores selling local specialties like strawberries, various kinds of fish, and roasted chestnuts.

Dandong is actually a very multi cultural city with 20 different nationalities the majority being Mandschu followed by Mongolians, Koreans, Hui and Han.

At 6pm we finally check out and Chris takes us to the train station where we board the overnight train K 28 to Beijing. We are in a soft sleeper which means 4 berths to a cabin.

Thinking how lucky we might be because there was only a young girl in it, we laughed to early: just at last minute a big, fat man walked in, howled himself to the upper berth and started immediately to snore! It’s going to be a fun night. The guy never ever woke up even though his mobile phone kept ringing and ringing. We decided that heavy drinking is the only way to survive this but unfortunately quickly ran out of booze.

PHIL: Day 29/March 16

China seems so cosmopolitan and free by comparison with Korea, yet we remain conditioned to ask if photography is permissible amidst so much evident Westernisation. According to Allie Dandong is typical of 21st century Chinese cities with seemingly endless new construction, streets teeming with modern black private limousines and coloured taxis, and consumer advertising. Pile drivers thump day and night, shops are full of goods unheard-of in the China of the previous century.

View across the Yalu river to the DPRK
But this apparent Westernisation is only skin-deep. As soon as we are taken to the half-demolished rail bridge (originally built by the Japanese in 1906), a victim of USAF B-29 bombing in the Korean War, and the nearby War Museum the old-style political clich├ęs emerge. 

Our twenty-something-year-old guide already has ‘imperialist agressors’ branded into her vocabulary, and a wartime photograph clearly taken of a broken bridge in Budapest after the Soviet bombardment was described as “Dandong following an American raid”. 

Likewise an aerial view of a bomb-devastated railway marshalling yard with adjacent but undamaged residential housing is entitled ‘indiscriminate destruction by imperialist aggressors’. However, just as the North Koreans never mention the substantial support they received from the Chinese during their wartime struggle, the Chinese fail to refer to their own move to fill the vacuum left by the USSR in the area after WWII.

The Great Wall in Dandong
Dandong’s tourist non-political attractions are limited to a section of the Great Wall, almost entirely a reconstruction, but surrounded by quite rustic fields and villages. 

From appearances the wall’s new incarnation won’t last more than another decade with its frost-shattered concrete and crumbling stones. Roast chestnuts are being sold by the roadside to combat the cold as we climb to a peak overlooking DPRK. 

one of the original steam trains in the war museum
Remarkably there is only a ditch a metre wide separating the two nations and no sign of wire or wall between, but our guide tells us there is virtually no ‘leakage’ of  refugees because of the awful penalties exacted from the families of anyone who attempts to escape.

Boarding the overnight sleeper train to Beijing we look forward to being re-united with our laptop. It is amazing, and rather embarrassing, how naked one feels without either that or mobile phones. 

Allie mixes with the seatless passengers in the corridor and returns with a newly-minted ‘gold’ Mao pin bought from one of the train guards who appears to be the Chinese answer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses earning ‘pin’ money to supplement his official income.
buying tomatoes with Chris

Bye Bye Mao!
Again our compartment is initially empty and even as the train pulls out we are joined at first only by a meek-looking Chinese girl. All too soon the final bunk is taken by an overweight, sullen-looking young man with a shaven head who looks like a Triad member. 

Within minutes he has fallen asleep but snores insufferably and, worse, his mobile phone rings constantly in rising tones but fails to wake him so we are doubly disturbed whilst he dreams on. The Chinese girls talks in her sleep in Chinese, Allie in German in this crowded oriental Tower of Babel. No doubt later I join ‘Mr Threatening’ in the snoring cacophony.

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