The key to our speedboat turned, the engine roared and
Chinese pop music blared. Beneath us, the Yalu River was a muddy brown; above,
the sun shone. We hurried on toward our destination: Sinuiji, North Korea.
The boat would not allow us to dock at North Korea.
Legally, we could not set foot on the soil. We would, however, get within three
or four metres of the banks of the border city Sinuiji. From that vantage
point, we could peer inside this secretive state – without the tricky
paperwork, background checks and formalities of an on-the-ground tour.
The journey to Sinuiji started in the Chinese border
city of Dandong, reachable by overnight train from Beijing. Dandong stands on
the banks of the Yalu River, with only a few hundred metres of water in some
places between it and Sinuiji, where around 250,000 people are thought to live.
Home to about 750,000 residents, Dandong is full of bustling cafes, bars and
stalls selling imports like North Korean cigarettes and coins. But in the
summer, the city crowds with tourists, all drawn by one thing: the chance to
get a glimpse of North Korea. When I booked my waterfront hotel, the Crown
Plaza Dandong, I even had the option of paying for an upgraded room with a
view of the North Korean landscape.
North Korea’s green mountains rise just across the
water. Unlike in Dandong, there are no high rise buildings and little activity
can be seen. In fact, the highest manmade object in view is a Ferris wheel. Locals
say they’ve never seen the ride in use; it just appeared one day, in what seems
to be an unusual display of prosperity.
The ruins of the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge
extend across the Yalu River, built in 1911 to celebrate the alliance between
China and North Korea but destroyed by the Americans in the Korean War. Today, the bridge is a
tourist attraction. For 30 yuan, you can walk the bridge to halfway across the
river, where damaged concrete foundations lie abandoned in the water. Directly across
on the North Korean banks stands a large white waterslide – never in use, but a
strangely recent addition that was built within the last year. With binoculars,
you can just make out a few people walking on the banks. Travellers pose for
photos by a North Korean flag at the bridge’s Chinese-side base, the North
Korean landscape in the background.
Nearby, a separate, working bridge connects China and North Korea, but is heavily guarded.
Few vehicles travel between the two countries every day; occasionally, a small
bus with Chinese tourists passes through. Most tourists, however, cannot take
the bus across the border – and even for those who can, getting permission is a
headache of paperwork and bureaucracy.
And so, instead, I took a boat: the only way to get as
close as possible to North Korea, without physically entering the country.
Avoiding the touts who heckle tourists in the street, I hired a boat from one of
the numbered jetties. In a motorboat of about 30 other curious travellers we crossed
the river, weaving past a mix of Chinese and North Korean boats anchored in the
As we approached the North Korean banks, the area
looked like a waterfront ghost town. Some locals sat by houses; others were
digging by the waterslide with small tools. A young girl in red shoes ran past
her mother – the only person I saw moving with any kind of speed.
As we continued along the shore, one man waved slowly
from a small, rusty boat yard. As the boat moved north, I could see white
Japanese-style houses. Outside, some people bathed in the muddy water, armed
guards watching. Soldiers were stationed in small huts; others marched,
patrolling the banks. Even the soldiers, like the residents, looked small and
As our tour continued, I could see other details: a
small school with a broken window, a dusty path along the riverbank. The
tallest building I could see reached no more than two stories. As I looked
back, the contrast to busy Dandong was stark.
At night, Dandong lit with glowing neon colours. People
filled the bars and cafés. The darkness on the other side of the Yalu made it
look as if there was nothing there. Yet silently, North Korea looked on.