Want to see North Korea? Head to Dandong, China

Want to see North Korea? Head to Dandong, China

Speed boats and the Great Wall get visitors within stone's throwing distance of North Korea

To catch a glimpse of the hermit state of North Korea most tourists journey to the heavily fortified demilitarized zone along the South Korean border. Another alternative is to view North Korea from its friendly neighbor, China.

Dandong, a riverside city in Northeast China’s Liaoning province, offers great views of North Korea from across the Yalu River.

Sneaking a look at North Korea isn’t the only attraction Dandong has to offer.

To catch a glimpse of Korean War history in Dandong, visit a bridge the Americans bombed or have a look at anti-American propaganda at the Museum of American Aggression, a Sino-Korean interpretation on the Korean War.

Hushan Great Wall

Dandong was an important frontier settlement in ancient China.

The easternmost section of the Great Wall of China here was constructed at Hu Shan to protect against Korea invaders during the late Ming and early Qing dynasty.

Hushan Great Wall

Today the Hu Shan Great Wall section overlooks Sinuiju, North Korea.

Using binoculars from the top of the wall, you can see for miles into the North Korea, as well spot an air force base where a mysterious North Korean warplane recently took off before crashing in China.

Hushan Great Wall

While it's risky to venture into North Korea even with the fenceless border here, you can take a leisurely boat ride on the small river straddling the Hushan Great Wall and North Korean border.

Visitors will often see North Korean soldiers and farmers going about their daily business.

Yalu River

The banks of the Yalu River could not be a better example of the contrast between Chinese-style capitalism and North Korean communism.

Dandong’s gleaming condominiums tower over the river, while fields and empty hills dominate the North Korean landscape.

Yalu River

On the Chinese side, tourists stroll along a boardwalk brimming with commercial activity. Rusty boats lay idle and small factories belch smoke on the North Korean side.

Yalu River

Dandong attracts many South Koreans interested in a look at their North Korean brethren.

Yalu River

Curious tourists can take pleasure boats or even speed boats that get very close to the banks of the North Korean side.

North Koreans often don’t like being looked at like zoo animals and have been known to throw rocks at tourists in boats that get too close.

At dusk, Dandong lights up the skyline while the North Korean side remains eerily dark and quiet.

The bridge the Americans bombed during the Korean War is lit up while a newer Friendship bridge allows cross-border trade between North Korea and China.

Yalu River

Dandong has a sizable population of ethnic Koreans who serve up the most authentic Korean food.

This salad dish of wild mountain vegetables is typical North Korean fare and packs a sweet and sour, fiery punch.

salad dish of wild mountain vegetables

At dusk, restaurants break out small tables and plastic chairs for barbecues.

Dandong is famous for its street-side seafood BBQ. The favorites are fresh caught giant yellow clams and prawns.

Where to stay

The best view of North Korea is from the Crowne Plaza hotel located on the banks of the Yalu River on Binjiang Road. Rooms start at US$60.

For cheaper rooms, the Chinese business hotel chain Home Inns has three hotels within a ten-minute walk of the Yalu River. Rooms starting at $US20.

How to get there

Flights are available from Dandong airport to most parts of the country .

From Beijing there's an overnight train (K27) to Dandong that takes about 13 hours. Hard sleeper class tickets start at US$37.

Dandong can also be reached by bus from the seaside city of Dalian. The trip takes 4.5 hours. Tickets cost US$15. Busses depart from Victory Square in downtown Dalian.

Dandong is a pedestrian friendly. Taxi rides start at RMB 5.

Taxi is the most convenient way to the Hushan Great Wall. Metered rides cost about RMB 20 and take 20 minutes.

Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, CNNGo, Huffington Post, and other Asian media outlets. He enjoys hiking from one mountain village to another, waiting for the golden light and dining on street food.

Read more about Derrick Chang