A Pedacito of the North Korean Border
Updated: May 21, 2021
Getting to the border between China and North Korea on a budget was no easy task. We began our adventure by taking an overnight train from Harbin to the more southern city of Shenyang.
Though it is possible to take a high-speed train that only takes about three hours, we opted for the less expensive option. The eight-hour overnight train only costs 77 RMB (around $11). If you’ve never experienced a second class train in China, it will be an experience unto itself.
The trains are crowded, and there is little room to sit comfortably, much less try to sleep. We decided to spend an extra day in Shenyang just to rest our weary bones from the train ride.
After getting a good night’s sleep in a hotel in Shenyang, we then took a bus to the small town of Baishan, China, and met with a travel agent to plan our adventure for the following day. Our first point of interest was the mountain range known as Changbai Shan.
Getting to this location is virtually impossible without a tour guide. Even Chinese citizens rarely attempt such a thing. On the following morning, we woke up at 4:30 am and went outside of the Baishan hotel to meet our bus driver.
The bus to Changbai takes around five hours. If you were going by car, it would only take two, but the buses heading that way have a system set up with various tourist spots along the way. Every hour or so, the bus driver would pull into a small rest stop or town and order all of the passengers off the bus.
We would then be escorted to a gift shop or some ridiculous walking tour to see how local vegetables are grown or some such nonsense. The whole point was to get the tourists to spend money, and the bus driver was visibly upset with any passenger who refused to pay the extra money to go on such tours.
Finally, we arrived at the bottom of the mountain. But our travel time didn’t stop there. We then waited in a huge line to get on another bus. This bus took us to a large wooden cabin a little further up the hill. From there, we waited in another line to get onto yet another bus, which finally drove us up the steep, winding road towards the top of the mountain.
Once we arrived at the top, we were told that we only had fifteen minutes before we were to meet the buses again and make our way back down. After all of that traveling, to be told that we only had fifteen minutes to take pictures and explore was a little infuriating.
Still, we were fortunate in that the clouds had parted enough that day to allow us a decent view of the lake at the top of the mountain. We were told that 85% of people who make the trip never see anything but clouds.
In fact, we met a Korean couple who had made the journey two other times and had never actually seen the mountain until this trip. I have to admit, the views on top of Changbai Shan are pretty spectacular. Though I am happy that we were lucky enough to see the mountain on the first go and won’t have to go back.
Once we returned to our original bus at the bottom of the mountain, we spent another five hours getting back to our hotel. Again, the bus driver stopped at various tourist traps and grew angry at us for declining a $25 dinner prepared for us, choosing to eat a $2 meal at a restaurant across the street instead.
Our next destination was the small town of Tumen. Though Changbai Shan is technically on the North Korean border, we never got to see the actual border. Tumen was different. When our bus pulled up to the center of town, an eerie silence crept upon us.
Not many foreigners make their way to Tumen. As we explored the shops and restaurants around town, we could feel the local’s eyes following us wherever we went. At one point, we had a Chinese military officer ride his bike up to us and start asking us questions about ourselves.
He pretended that he had just happened to be passing and was curious about us. However, realizing that his translation app was preprogrammed to ask us specific questions, we understood that he had been ordered to come and talk to us.
Looking across the Tumen river, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the countryside of North Korea looked. The housing on the North Korean side looked well painted and new. Though, obviously, this was done as a bit of propaganda for those on the Chinese side to see.
The next thing I noticed was the guard towers on the other side of the river. Every one hundred yards or so was a guard tower. I became hesitant to take too many pictures, as I knew that the military on both sides of the border was most likely observing me.
Overall, the trip to the North Korean border was arduous but worth it. As an American, I’m not sure that I will ever have the opportunity to visit North Korea. This might have been the closest that I will ever come, and I got to see some interesting and beautiful areas of China that not many tourists get to see. For that, I am grateful.
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