Border city Dandong offers rare glimpse into N Korea

Border city Dandong offers rare glimpse into N Korea
DPRK women attend a cross-border trade fair in Dandong.

China's largest border city offers close encounters with its mysterious northeastern neighbour. Erik Nilsson visits the DPRK and dances with its people-without technically setting foot on its shores.

The restaurant's photo ban was not surprising.

But the smoking prohibition during-only during-the tableside performance seemed unusual.

Until the show began.

Waitresses in traditional silk dresses and hats grabbed our hands and whisked us from our seats.

We'd expected to applaud, from our table across the room, a classic, choreographed song-and-dance routine from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Instead, we found ourselves across the room from our table, drunkenly belting out karaoke and grooving with our hosts in a way more typical of a nightclub than a restaurant.

Entertainers and guests formed a ring around the waitress and myself as we crooned Casablanca in a KTV duet. Hands clasped, our audience repeatedly surged in to break us apart.

That was before the conga line. Afterwards, we danced to techno.

The night smashed stereotypes of the DPRK.

That said, our dog meat was getting cold.

China's largest border city, Liaoning province's Dandong, enables visitors to (sort of) experience and even technically enter the DPRK without actually setting foot on the country's soil. You can visit the city's DPRK-operated restaurants, buy the country's products or enter its territory by cruising the shared Yalu River.

Most tourists yearning to glimpse the country visit DPRK's demilitarized zone.

Yet this offers fewer-and Dandong offers truer-vistas.

Dandong is a place where even Americans can disco with people from the DPRK after a meal.

Call it dinner-and-dance diplomacy.

We lunched in a Chinese-run riverside restaurant with panoramas of the DPRK.

Hours before, we hopped aboard a cruise from Hekou that coasts alongside DPRK's banks.

It sets sail from under the Broken Bridge the United States bombed during the war. Mao Zedong's son Mao Anying crossed the passageway to fight. He died in battle.

Today, a DPRK soldier waved from atop the crumpled corridor. Cruise passengers can watch DPRK guards patrol. Farmers seed terraces and tow oxen. Villagers ride bicycles and motorcycles.

Women scrub clothes in the watercourse. Children scamper over stones.

We also saw a hospital, terraced hills, village houses, a prison, a coal mine and a military basketball court.

A tour guide points to what she identifies as the DPRK's second-largest industrial city-a handful of multistory buildings across the Shaping Bridge.

Fish farms line both sides.

People from both countries may swim in the shared river but can't climb the banks. Waterfowl ignore the rules though.

A Dandong saying goes: "Ducks go to the DPRK to eat fish and return to China to lay eggs."

(Yalu, incidentally, translates as "duck green".)

Visitors to Dandong's riverside markets can buy DPRK items, such as chopsticks, ethnic attire and art.

That morning, we stood meters from the border at the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Great Wall's easternmost terminus, Hushan.

The ancient barricade previously separating ethnic Manchu and Han people is a stone's throw from the modern fence delineating two contemporary countries-and worlds.

Signs warn against crossing the fence, wading and speaking or exchanging items with people across the barrier.

A Chinese guard watched over the open gate of the flimsy fence beneath which bobbed a wooden rowboat.

From the wall, visitors can view the DPRK's 4.7-square-kilometer Fish Wing Island. Its nearly 3,000 villagers plant corn for the military.

Some of the Yalu's islets belong to China. Others are its neighbour's.

Dandong exists not only as a tourism destination but also as a city because of this proximity.

Dynastic rulers restricted residency since it was a frontier settlement. Most inhabitants were involved in border patrol or logistics.

Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) emperor Wudi declared the link from the settlement to the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region as the first of three Maritime Silk Road routes. Emperors also used it to ship local timber to Japan.

The Cold War brought influxes to the still-sparsely populated border. The forest forged a city.

The border juxtaposition continues to draw outsiders today.

Dandong hosts about 8,000 expatriates, mostly from the DPRK.

And 80,000 people from the Republic of Korea visit the greater Changbai Mountain area annually, Chinese tourism officials say.

Many come to Dandong to peek over the border. It's one of a few Chinese cities where they can get visas on arrival.

They typically then drive from the city to Jilin province's Ji'an, with the Yalu to their right and the Changbai Mountains to their left.

About 50,000 Chinese enter DPRK from Dandong annually, the municipal tourism department says.

Direct flights to Dandong from Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu and Heilongjiang's capital Harbin were recently added to flights to and from Shandong province's Qingdao, Shanghai and Beijing.

A high-speed train to Liaoning's capital Shenyang is expected to cut travel time from 4.5 hours to 1 hour and 10 minutes beginning in August. Another scheduled for next year will connect to Dalian while cutting travel time.

Visitors can also use the new Zhihui Lyuyou phone app to book tickets and hotels, and peruse attractions and restaurants.

And the admission-free Memorial Museum of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea built in 1958 has been recently renovated to better display its 12,000 exhibitions.

It testifies to an event that links the Maritime Silk Road of the past to Dondong's present status as a logistics hub and tourism port of call.

That historical connection has made it a contemporary harbour for outsiders hoping to glimpse the DPRK-and maybe even dance with its citizens.

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