October 3, 2010
On the first day of the Chinese National Holdiay, we arrived at the riverfront in Dandong. It was alive with the calls of street vendors, the steady hum of traffic, and the bright lights of a border town. Merchants hawk Chinese and North Korean flags, stamps and currency celebrating the connection between the two countries. For ten yaun (about $1.40) you can write a wish on a small hot air balloon and launch it into the atmosphere. The Chinese government has preserved the remnants of a bridge destroyed by American troops during the Korean War. At the end of the bridge, half way across the water, a large video screen playing a film about the Chinese victory against the Yankees.
It as close as we’re allowed to get to the Hermit Kingdom, at least for now. We take an emotional trip out on to the Yalu River in a ferry. We can see other tourists who have paid for a closer look, zooming close to the timeworn factories that are scattered on the Korean side. Linda tears up, thinking of her grandfather’s family who remained in North Korea after the war. The tourists in the speedboats take photos of the Korean dock workers and race on down the river.
At nightfall the new bridge, between the two nations, The Friendship Bridge, lights up with garish green and yellow neon lights. At least it does for about two thirds of the span. From there, darkness descends upon the bridge leading into an unseen abyss on the North Korean side. Despite the presence of houses, industry and people there is absolutely no electrified light on the Korean side of the border.
The next day we travelled up to the Eastern terminus of the Great Wall. Climbing the wall necessitates navigating steep stairs on a large mountain while dodging rambunctious only-children and their camera-toting parents. But once at the top we were once again the distance of a Ryan Howard tape measure home run away from North Korea. It is rural on both sides of the river here, but the contrast is still stark. While the Chinese farm irrigated corn and raise fat chickens and geese, the North Korean in sight use small sickles to harvest rice. The single-story houses, according to Linda, look similar to those that existed in South Korea in the 1950s when the US and China split the country in two.
Our hosts memorialize the war in a heavy white building in Dandong called the Museum for the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea. Red signs with yellow text in Chinese and English, but not Korean, accompany your walk past tanks, maps, photos and deteriorating fiberglass models. The elegantly translated sententious signs justify the war, portraying it as a mutual Chinese/Korean effort against imperialism with fascinating statements like “The Chinese People’s Volunteers fought side by side with the Korean people and army, shared weal and woe, cooperated closely and supported each other. After cease-fire they helped the Korean people rebuild their homes. The Korean people and army showed loving care for and supported the Volunteers with great enthusiasms.”