A little while back when it was still booger-freezing cold here in Dalian we decided that it would be a good idea to go on a road trip to Dandong, a town about four and a half hours away and equally as cold. When we spoke to our man Lv about driving us there in the middle of the winter to have a look around he appeared puzzled and was quick to say that Dandong was more of a summer destination. However, after a little chiding and remembering that he gets overtime on the weekends he agreed to drive us up there. For those of you who have never heard of Dandong, which I might add is a satisfying word to say aloud, it is a city that lies on the Yalu River which separates Liaoning Province in China from The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or, as we know it, North Korea.
The drive up on the G11 highway was much like driving on the interstate highways back home; it is four lanes wide and is fast and smooth and carries the occasional ass that drives too fast. Getting away from the urban sprawl of Dalian took nearly an hour but once we left the last crane-topped high-rise behind the land opened up and we got to see our first bit of Chinese farm country. The farms we saw along the road up the coast to Dandong were quite spartan. Most of the houses were square single-story block buildings, some sat alone but most connected to others in a row of four or five, with a walled personal garden in the front and surrounded by fields, orchards, and numerous south-facing greenhouses. From where we sat in the car the farms and the people working them looked to be poor, but each house had a wisp of smoke coming from the chimney and the people we saw looked strong and proud – just like farmers should.
Dandong’s location along the Yalu river gives it much the same feeling that you would get from any other river town. Most of the businesses and action are near the front road and promenade that runs the length of the city. Even though it was quite cold (-2 Celsius), there were crowds of people walking along the shore, playing chess, and shaking their booties in the line dances.
We decided to eat first at a place a friend of ours suggested down by the river but we couldn’t figure out exactly where it was even with the GPS. Lv, however, said he knew of a place and parked out front of a crowded restaurant decked out in red and gold for the Spring Festival. You, the reader, must realize that we had only been in China for a few weeks at this point and our grasp of the language was, well, we had no grasp of the language so we begged Lv to come in and eat with (and order for) us even though he would’ve rather had a nap in the car. Upon entering we were barked at by a hostess with a little electronic order taker and sent over to one side of the room to look over rows of ornate food dishes made of plastic. I like to have a good balance of meat and veg so I pointed out something that looked like beef/pork and green beans. Lv read the description with a chuckle and informed us that it was dog. I passed on that and chose a pork sparerib dish with dates and water chestnuts instead while Blondie chose a fried chicken dish that looked good. Lv got some shrimp and vegetables and ordered rice for the table as well as two big-ass bottles of beer, which always helps with China-related anxiety. Our food all came out together and was served family style so everyone gets a taste. I was happy with my choice and Lv was enjoying his but for some reason Blondie gave me that I-can’t-swallow-this look and spat her first bit of chicken into her napkin – curious. She took another piece and couldn’t get that one down either – oh dear lord. At this point we start to giggle and Lv is wondering what the hell is wrong with these people tittering across the table from him. Blondie did indeed order chicken but the entire dish consisted of breaded and fried bits of chicken cartilage – not soft cartilage but the chewy crunchy bits from the ends of wings and legs. We all have one or two people in our families who don’t mind this texture, and crunch on through it – Blondie is not one of those people so after three pieces she tapped out. Luckily my choice was palatable so she ate some of that while Lv and I got busy eating crunchy chicken chunks. We learned two lessons that day – always ask which part of the animal we are eating and that Chinese folks use every part of the animal.
After we pounded our beers and paid the tab, which was about $20 all together, we headed east out of town towards the Hushan Great Wall. The Hushan, or Tiger Mountain, Wall is the easternmost section of the Great Wall of China built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The ramparts that we walked upon were not the original wall built by the Ming though. The original battlements had fallen into extreme decay and were forgotten for many years until an excavation in 1989 uncovered remains of the original wall. In 1992 a 600 meter section was renovated and opened to the public. Now, a 1,200 meter wall runs up and over Hushan Mountain and a small town (complete with KFC) has formed at the base to better fleece the tourists who come and climb the 146 meters to the top. Even though it is technically a replica the wall is pretty damned cool – it looks like a great wall should and offered us beautiful views of both China and far North Korea.
The lack of wind and the endless stairs kept us warm so we were able to spend some time on the wall. About halfway up the mountain there was a little stairway down to a block building that held the restrooms. Bathrooms in China, especially those in rural China, are just weird to us westerners. The squatty-potty rules here and you just need to learn to do all of your business into a hole in the floor, which isn’t all that easy – you wouldn’t believe how many phones end up in those things. The restrooms at the wall were just holes in the floor and all the bad business just rolls on down the hill rather than into some sort of receptacle. That, my friends, is how they do it in China.
The other big site in town is a set of bridges leading, or formally leading, to the North Korean Side of the Yalu and the town of Sinuiju. The Sino–Korean Friendship Bridge is actually two bridges. One, a single-lane road plus a single rail line built by the Japanese and partially destroyed during the Korean War, is one of the few ways to enter or exit North Korea and is heavily guarded on both sides of the river. The other is an older span that was also destroyed by the Americans during the war but left in ruins as a reminder of that brutal conflict. The so-called Broken Bridge is made up of just four spans to the middle of the river and has walkways and signs describing the situations that left the bridge as it is. For those of you who are aviation buffs, the Yalu River and the border between China and North Korea were formerly known as MiG Alley and saw some of the most ridiculous air to air combat between NATO and Chinese, Russian, and Korean forces during the war. This barren expanse of land and cold river were the last places many brave men saw before they died.
The broken end of the Broken Bridge gives you a close look at the North Korean side of the river, but it isn’t much to look at. While Dandong has grown into a large city with all of the high rises and accoutrements of a first-world country the Korean side looked depressed and we saw very few people out.
Our first road trip in China was a success and since then we have been able to see more of our little section of Liaoning Province. I will post those stories in a more timely fashion because I have employed Blondie as a managing editor here at Afield and she has been cracking the whip lately – I need more of that in my life. Thank you all for reading and check back soon for more stories from Afield.
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