Please take a moment to look over the above Google Maps snapshot. To the northwest of this river lies a small Chinese city. The roads and points of interest are labeled in standard fashion. To the southeast of the river, there appears to be absolutely nothing. There are, however, things there. It is a country ruled by the largest Hennessey customer in the world, who once ate an attempt to overcome national famine at his birthday feast. Because of this man, who some refer to as “Dear Leader,” most people in the world will never be able to see the country he governs and the things in it. When my friend Rich visited Changchun a few weeks ago, we made an impromptu trip to the border of that most mysterious of nations. We stood and looked upon it and its things.
Rich and I decided we wanted to see North Korea months before he’d even arrived but we hadn’t actually taken any steps to make looking at the most secretive, oppressive and foreboding country in the world a reality. I knew it was possible because of a chapter in Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. The book is one of the best I’ve read about China. Hessler focuses more on everyday life and the experiences of individuals rather than jumping on the popular “1001 more reasons China is going to take over the world and sell us poisonous milk powder” bandwagon. Hessler went to a border town to write a news story. While he was there he looked at North Korea. Then he paid for a boat ride and looked at it some more from the middle of a river. I didn’t expect to have the good fortune to stumble upon a North Korean border boat tour, but knowing that I could possibly see the tiniest bit of NK was a thrilling prospect.
For Rich’s first week in Changchun, we tried to take advantage of all the city has to offer in the ways of entertainment. We at Sichuan and Korean food for just about every meal. We tried barbecued chicken fetus on a stick. It looked like a fully developed baby chick and is as one might expect, curled in the fetal position. It actually tasted okay but it was a little disconcerting to take a bite and feel its spine come loose from the rest of the body. It also looked like the fetuses were frowning. We wandered around Changchun’s many t-shirt shops looking for the best Engrish. Off the top of my head, “I’m hatin’ it,” “I am a significant emotional event” and “Kill all the golfers” were pretty good. We played Starcraft and Red Alert 2 at an internet cafe and went to a gigantic electronics superstore where Rich got to talk with an authentic overeager Chinese young adult studying English at a local university.
Rich came to my Monday and Wednesday classes to talk with my juniors who, although not overeager, did study English at a local university. On Monday we did an anonymous question box, which went well in both classes. The Wednesday morning class did not care much for the idea. After being relocated to a big lecture hall so Andrew’s students could join in on the foreigner fun, their enthusiasm petered out. I asked them to write down questions and they responded by saying they didn’t bring any pens or paper. I told them to ask questions verbally and one girl suggested Rich ask them questions instead. After the third one-word response we settled into a conversation with a girl named Angel while the rest did homework or talked amongst themselves, which is about par for the course.
I don’t blame them for their disinterest. They specify on their college entrance exams what university they want to go to and what they want to study. My students, hoping to major in subjects like engineering and architecture, applied to a school that caters to that sort of thing. The school reviewed their tests and accepted them under the condition that they major in English, because their English scores were a cut above the other applicants’ and they’ve got a perfectly good English department sitting around collecting dust that they’d like to make use of. Despite this, there are always one or two students in every class, like Angel, who have learned to make the most of their situation and give it their all. In Angel’s case, giving it her all meant tolerating a half hour’s worth of Kim Jong Il rumors and providing us with directions to the NK border.
Angel’s hometown is Tonghua, a prefecture-level city an hour away from a smaller county-level city called Ji’an. Yalu River, the border between China and NK, runs along the edge of Ji’an. She suggested we go there. Our other option was to visit the Broken Bridge that once connected the two countries in Dandong, but apparently the view isn’t quite as good as in Ji’an. She gave us the name of Changchun’s bus station and the departure times of two buses leaving for Ji’an on Friday. One was at 5 pm and the other was too early to be relevant. We planned to get to the station two hours early to buy tickets.
When we got to the bus station we approached the ticket vendors with plans to ask one of them for two tickets to Ji’an. The vendor would then tell us how much the tickets cost and we would give the vendor that amount of money in exchange for the tickets. There was also the possibility that I would not have the exact amount of money that the tickets cost in my wallet, so I would give the vendor a little bit more money instead, in which case the vendor would then not only give us our tickets but an appropriate amount of change as well. Before we got to the ticket window to perform this simple but important feat, a woman intercepted us.
This woman, who may or may not have been a bus station employee, asked us where we were going, when we wanted to leave and what not. I initially thought she was standing in line but then realized she was just kind of hanging out in the area with several other middle-aged women who discussed our travle plans. The consensus was that there weren’t any more tickets to Ji’an. We could, however, catch a bus to Tonghua and stay the night, then continue to Ji’an in the morning. We decided to go for it but only so the women didn’t feel like they wasted their time helping us.
The ride to Tonghua was about five hours. Our seats were all the way in the back corner. They fill seats numerically and we got the last two available tickets. We arrived in Tonghua at about 8 pm and stepped off the bus to be greeted by a herd of excited cabbies. I told one of them we wanted to go to the nearest, cheapest hotel. Instead of taking us the guy called the others over for a cabbie huddle, after which a different guy told us to follow him. A little wary, I prepared to deal with some weaselly cabbie shenanigans. My suspicions that we were being – incoming pun – taken for a ride grew when he didn’t flip the meter. I asked why and he replied that it was broken. Nice try cabbies.
“How much will this cost?” I asked, making sure we weren’t going to get charged an outrageous amount. In Changchun, the base charge for a ride is five yuan.
“Four yuan,” he replied. Couldn’t do much better. He held his fist up while he said it, which I interpreted to mean “I promise.” The ride lasted about forty seconds. We took two turns and drove half a block. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten cheated though, I didn’t really have any way of knowing that a hotel would be so close. I took four yuan out of my wallet and handed it to the guy.
“Four yuan!” he said emphatically, holding his fist up again. I struggled to understand where there had been a miscommunication. Then I realized the problem was that this guy’s Chinese sucked.
In standard Mandarin, four is pronounced “si,” and ten is pronounced “shi.” Some people switch these sounds. Then I remembered that in China raising a fist is the gesture for “ten.” I let my rage silently fizzle out and gave the guy his ten. Looking back, I do remember hearing people say that Changchun has the lowest base cab fare in all of China and the cabbies there are actually pretty pissed about that, so ten might actually be a legitimate base price in Tonghua. Still though, half a block away. What a dick.
The hotel was exactly what we wanted. It really was the cheapeast option, a little over a hundred for a room with two beds, more comfortable than my actual apartment. Checking in seemed to be going fine until the woman behind the desk mentioned something that I didn’t understand. She seemed to think it was pretty important. It sounded like “hu zhao.” I couldn’t place the word. A picture of some kind maybe? I tried to use context to figure it out. She had just told me that the room had hot water, so perhaps she was now telling me that the room did or didn’t have hu zhao.
“Is there hu zhao in the room?” I asked, trying to clarify.
“No hu zhao?” she replied, with a question to my question.
“I don’t think we need hu zhao.”
“You need hu zhao or else you can’t stay here.”
“No it’s really okay, we’ll be fine, we’re only staying for one night.”
At this point an older guy who had been sitting on a nearby couch came over and seemed to have a big problem with the lack of hu zhao. The lady talked with him for a bit but he was adamant about us not staying. She argued that we were only staying for one night and he reluctantly backed off. She told us to go upstairs and someone would show us to our room.
Right as we got to the top of the stairs a door across the hall opened and another woman came out with a walkie-talkie. She brought us to the room. As I set my bag down, she asked me about hu zhao, pointing to a picture ID card pinned on her jacket in one final desperate attempt to convey that they wanted to see our passports and I finally got it, but soon wished I hadn’t.
We went back downstairs and I apologized profusely for the misunderstanding. The older guy got happy real fast and asked for my passport. I gave it to him and he started to leave the hotel. I asked where he was going, probably in a more aggressive tone than the guy expected, and he said something I couldn’t quite understand, taken aback. I started to babble a little about how important my passport was and how I didn’t want him taking it anywhere. He didn’t really seem to understand why we cared so much about our passports but he smirked and beckoned us to follow him, like our anxiety was amusing.
He led us across the street and towards a nondescript door wedged between an internet bar and a convenience store. We followed him inside to a poorly lit staircase. He still found our reluctance amusing. We walked up a flight and I was getting ready to tackle this old man. To my surprise we were being led to a police station. We approached the desk and woke up two cops who had been napping. They called into the back room and woke up two others. One of the guys in the back was in charge and asked what all this was about, making sure we knew that we had disturbed his precious slumber. The old dude, who was still holding my passport, explained that they didn’t know how to process foreigners at the hotel. The cop sighed and accompanied us back across the street.
The cop told us we could wait in our room while they processed our passports and like the old guy, was amused by our unwillingness to do so. We sat on the couch while it took him fifteen minutes to decipher our names, nationalities and dates of birth. After he left, the confused receptionist asked me to repeat the information. The old guy, now keen to the fact that we didn’t like people snatching our livelihood, informed us we had to go back to the police office to photocopy the passports, so we made one more trip. All in all, a shining example of Chinese bureaucracy at work.
With the paperwork out of the way, we were finally free to enjoy Tonghua. We bought some beer and walked around the block, then bought more beer and some pop rocks and walked back to the hotel. We spent the rest of the night watching TV. At its worst, Chinese TV is a black hole swirling with vacuous reality shows that fuse all the most despicable aspects of American pop culture with all the most embarrassing aspects of Chinese pop culture. At its best, which isn’t much better, it’s a propaganda engine churning out hours of historical dramas in which the historical events are depicted in a, let’s say, factually liberal manner. After a few hours of the former, we called it a night.
We woke up the next morning a little after six, checked out and headed over to the bus station. A little wiser in the ways of navigation, we made the journey on foot. We got there just in time to catch a bus at seven and once again got the last two available tickets. From Changchun to Tonghua there wasn’t much to look at; identical farms and villages separated by the occasional billboard dominated the landscape. From Tonghua to Ji’an, however, thickly forested mountains and hills surrounded us for the better part of a two hour ride. It was only during the last leg that off in the distance we spotted what Rich dubbed Mount Doom: a group of mountains almost completely bereft of plant life and slightly obscured by a gigantic smokestack.
“That’s NK,” he proclaimed with total confidence.
For some reason I doubted Rich’s intuition, as if it couldn’t possibly be so obvious, but there weren’t any other eerie geographical anomalies around so he was probably right. The bus entered the city, which was really more like a town and made a few stops before arriving at the bus station. As soon as we got off a dude in a jacket pulled out a map and started waving it frantically and trying unsuccessfully to catch our attention. He followed us across the street and into the station and waited patiently while we bought our tickets back to Changchun in advance, this time avoiding repetition of the pattern in which we luck out at the last minute with the last two available seats.
We walked with determination in the direction of Mount Doom. The map guy kept with us for several blocks, insisting that we buy a map. I tried to explain that we only wanted to see one thing and it was really obvious where we had to go to see that one thing. He finally got the message and left after I said “we don’t want that” a dozen or so times.
Ji’an was exceptionally beautiful, a stark contrast to what we were about to see. It even seemed like the city planners made an attempt to make Ji’an as appealing as possible along the border, as if to gloat to the poor souls across the river or goad them into making an escape attempt. They put the government building only a block or so away from Yalu River, complete with surrounding park and ongoing wedding.
Still concerned that Mount Doom might not actually be North Korea, I stopped to asked someone. He had difficulty understanding my pronunciation of Yalu River so I showed him the characters on my cell phone. He laughed and pointed in the direction we were heading. So Rich, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I doubted your internal NK compass, which is clearly far superior to my own.
After all the hype and anticipation we had finally made it to the border. We gazed upon this bleak and ominous land in nearly silent contemplation save for the occasional “fucking NK, dude.” I assumed we wouldn’t actually see much on the other side besides the odd patrolling guard but to my surprise, there was a small farming community. We experienced an immense sensation of excitement and there was much rejoicing.
Those large, abnormal patches of brown on the mountains are farms. There was something very unsettling about those patches. Watching the North Koreans hunched over, hard at work, and knowing that their country is suffering one of the worst famines in history was pretty depressing. To add insult to injury, there was a Chinese guy under the boardwalk tending to a thriving personal farm with a trusty dog by his side and his wife washing clothes in the river. It seemed like his patch was more productive than all of the mountains across the river combined.
We walked along the boardwalk and passed Chinese tourists doing the same thing we were. There were some unattended carnival game stands and outdoor restaurants. A little further in the distance – a small fleet of motorboats adorned with small Chinese flags. My heart skipped a beat. North Korean border motorboat rides. For 100 yuan, the driver would take us down the river towards the smoke stack and back. Naturally, we took the ride.
We waved to everyone we saw. Chinese tourists on boats waved back happily. North Koreans farming and trudging along a dirt path did not. In any case, I felt like I got the full NK border experience, having ridden on a boat. I suppose a more full experience would have involved the driver selling us as slaves to guards across the way but I don’t regret that not happening.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Ji’an and made one additional trip to the river before leaving. Two thoughts kept crossing my mind on the bus ride back to Changchun. One was how badly I wanted to get a visa to actually get inside NK, which is possible, even as an American. The other was how good NK makes China look.
Rich told me a refugee’s story that he’d seen in a documentary. The guy was born in a prison camp and he’d only eaten meat on the occasions when he’d had the good fortune to catch a rat and consume it raw. There were rumors in the camp of a place called China, where you could eat any time you wanted to. And you could eat meat. He only had a vague concept of what the world was, or what a country was for that matter, but he knew he wanted to get the hell out of where he was and find China.
One night, he and a friend made an escape attempt. His friend tried to scale an electric fence and got fried. He succeeded by climbing over his friend’s corpse. He made it to the place he had heard so much about. Sure enough, he was able to eat meat and he was able to eat it whenever he wanted. He met some other North Korean refugees who also eat meat and eat it whenever they want. They often talk about food and how great it is. When asked what they think of China, they respond that it’s heaven.