When I planned a weekend trip to Dandong, China, it was because I wanted to hike on the easternmost part of the Great Wall. Sure, I knew the city was located on the Yalu River, which forms the border between China and North Korea, but I wanted to explore the Great Wall and its surroundings. I expected to spend an hour or two, tops, ogling China's nuclear neighbor. I didn't think it would be that interesting.
Then unexpectedly I took the North Korea bait when I purchased an admission ticket to the Broken Bridge, which was started in 1909, completed two years later, and destroyed almost 40 years later by the US to curb Chinese involvement in the Korean War.
I walked down the remaining part of the bridge trying to piece together its history from the kind of broken English only the Chinese can manage to write.
When I arrived at the end, I rented a telescope from a clever merchant who recognized the value of a captive audience.
As I scanned the empty-looking houses, the falling-down one-story buildings, the rusty boats, and the small aging ships on the North Korean side, my mind raced with all kinds of questions. But it was when I saw the colorful – but unmoving – Ferris wheel that my curiosity was piqued irrevocably. There it stood, on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, empty, devoid of the Korean kids I assume it was built to entertain.
In front of me stretched the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), whose population is estimated at about 23 million people. Its citizens cannot vote, speak against their government, access information from outside sources, or leave their country. Yet they can look across this river and see that even in China, North Korea's closest ideological ally, how different life can be with a dash of market economy.
Upon my return from the bridge, I decided I wanted a ride down the Yalu River on one of the many cruise boats that promise to get their customers even closer to the DPRK.
At the Dandong riverfront, I could buy North Korean paper money and coins for many times what they are worth. If I fancied, I could own a photo album full of Kim Jong Il pictures. I could get a pocketful of tiny little North Korean porcelain dolls and perhaps eat in one of the numerous Korean-style restaurants. And if I wanted to be really gung-ho about the whole thing, I could even go as far as putting on a North Korean traditional costume and having a photo shoot right on the Yalu River with the DPRK in the background.
When my travel mates and I boarded our cruise boat around 5 p.m., we were promptly offered binoculars by another well-situated business fellow.
At first, I was skeptical about how much more I would be able to see from the boat. But I was quickly taken aback by how close the captain was getting us. We couldn't have been more than a hundred feet away from the shore. Once I raised my binoculars to my eyes, I barely put them down until the tour was over. I was riveted.
There were not many people on the shore. Of those that were there, quite a few were working on the ragged, small boats and ships flying the republic's flags. Others squatted around listlessly. An old man fished. Almost all of them smoked.
I saw only one child and a couple of women; the rest were men. There were plenty of young soldiers in brown uniforms, walking in pairs, with bayoneted machine guns slung over their shoulders. One of them turned around as I raised my camera to take a picture. I quickly put it down and looked away. What must they think when, all day long, boats cruise to their side of the river full of people with binoculars raised toward them?
What do they see when a stranger from one of these boats works up the courage to wave at them in an awkwardly fearful but friendly way? Are they tempted when they look across and see the booming economy, the high-rise buildings, the lights, and the multitude of activities?
Do the North Koreans wonder how much their Chinese comrades on the other side of the river charged us for the privilege of staring at them from a hundred feet away?
That night, before I went to sleep, I looked out my hotel window for a final glimpse of the mysterious nation across the river. It had plunged into darkness. The Chinese side, on the other hand, was lighted up like a Christmas tree and showed no signs of slowing down.
Two communist countries, on the same river, across from each other, but two different worlds.