andong is often billed as the “gateway to North Korea,” but I recently discovered that it’s more than just a place on the way to somewhere else. It’s a fascinating and friendly little city that is easily worthy of a weekend visit in its own right. Plus as we discovered, some Korean things are actually a little better on this side of the border.
Eating lunch at work one day in Beijing, I quizzed a Chinese colleague on her upcoming holiday plans. She said she and her family were going to Dandong for a week. Was she going to North Korea, I asked? No, she was just going to relax at this riverside city, away from the intolerable pollution and humidity of Beijing in July. So when, just a couple of months later, I booked on to a tour of North Korea, curiosity made me choose to spend a day in Dandong to see what it was all about.
I arrived into Dandong after an unusually bumpy overnight sleeper train ride from Beijing. The train station is located right in the center of the city with all the sights, hotels and shops just a short walk away. Noticeably cooler than Beijing and with light rain falling, I immediately took off to my hotel to drop my bags and take a nap. A couple of hours later and feeling refreshed, I set off for the riverfront.
The wide Yalu River acts as a natural border between China and North Korea. It is very much the focal point of the city and where most tourists and local retirees are to be found passing the time. The promenade is wide and long – perfect for strolling along to take in the views of the built up, high-rise city of Dandong on the northern shore, and the low-rise, small-town spread of Sinuiju in North Korea on the southern shore.
The difference in development is most stark at night when Dandong is lit up whilst Sinuiju is eerily dark.
Backing on to the promenade is the tree and flower-filled Yalujiang Park, which is a pleasant place to walk. It contains a host of statues, both modernist and traditional, with themes of local history and culture. Crossing the river are two bridges, one in current use – the China and North Korea Friendship Bridge on which I’d be traveling into North Korea the next day, and one that ends abruptly in the middle of the river. Known as the “Broken Bridge” this was the bridge into North Korea that was “accidentally” bombed by the US during the Korean War. Entry onto this bridge is 30 yuan and for many people gets you as close to North Korea as you will go. Views out over Dandong, Sinuiju and the river are great and the structure of wood and steel itself is impressive and photogenic.
Plaques dotted around give you the history of the Broken Bridge, albeit with a slight whiff of anti-US propaganda. For those with a little more time, various boat trip options will take you even closer to the banks of the DPRK. Just don’t get out of the boat on the wrong shore.
Keeping with the North Korea theme we then headed into town to find a Korean restaurant. Unsurprisingly it turns out that Korean food in Dandong is far superior to the Korean food across the border, as I would discover the next day. With so many restaurants to choose from, we take a recommendation from the Dazhong Dianping app and get stuck into some delicious bibimbap and kimchi and slurp on some Korean beer. Feeling refueled we decide to take a walk through the town up to Jinjiangshan Park.
The stroll serves as a reminder of how much more liveable smaller Chinese cities are: you can just walk everywhere in Dandong and the tree-lined avenues running on a grid system make navigating easy. The pace of life here is unhurried and I get the impression that the locals enjoy a good quality of life due to high levels of development paired with the cleanliness of the city – the streets are spotless and there’s little sign of any air pollution during my stay.
The park is lovely and we end up spending a few hours wandering its paths through scented pine trees. The leaves are beginning to turn into autumnal golds and reds and the air is fresh. We pass locals who come here to jog, read newspapers and take walks. We seem to be the only tourists around. The park encompasses a hill on which are sat two pagodas at opposite ends of the ridge. We aim for the tallest one hoping to get a great spot for sunset only to find that it’s closed. From a rocky outcrop nearby we get some great views of the mountains to the east and north on which lie sections of the Great Wall. As the sky turns pink we head to the other pagoda. Climbing the stairs to the upper levels we get some wonderfully expansive views out over Dandong, to the river and south to the fields and dim lights of North Korea.
We descend back to the park entrance, passing a troupe of ladies practising fan dancing. With a chill in the air we decide to skip going back to the riverfront for open-air chuanr (kebabs), and instead opt for some hearty Dongbei food, seeing as we are indeed in Dongbei, China’s northeast. Portions are huge and the atmosphere is welcoming and lively. As we head back to our hotel we review the day. We are excited with anticipation for our trip across the border tomorrow but also happy to have spent the day in such a relaxing, interesting and friendly city, before things get a little more tense.