Dandong is a thriving “seaside” town on the Yalu River in China, not far from the Gulf of Korea. It reminds me a little of Southend or Eastbourne in England with its long stretch of promenade against a backdrop of restaurants and tourist shops.
But what makes Dandong truly unique, is that no more than a few hundred metres or so across the river lies the most closed and secretive state in the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea.
I had travelled to the city with the express purpose of visiting North Korea, but the city and surrounding area is worthy of a visit in and of itself and has more than enough to keep one occupied for a few days.
The Yalu River
Dandong sits opposite the North Korean town of Sinuiju (read about my trip to Sinuiju here) and you can see buildings and small signs of life on the other side (factories, shipyards and fishermen).
At night you can see lights from an amusement park across the river, and the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge is lit up, casting a sparkling glow onto the still waters below. Families and couples wander the boardwalk while hawkers and market stall owners sell an assortment of tourist tat and North Korean trinkets alongside the usual Chinese street snacks.
One of the main excursions that the Chinese like to go on is a boat trip along the Yalu River where you can see North Korean soldiers marching up and down the perimeter with their rifle slung across their shoulders.
Tall green guard towers dot the horizon and barbed wire protrudes from the muddy banks of the Yalu River. Unfortunately I wasn’t in Dandong long enough to take this tour, but was able to see something of these sites at Hushan Great Wall (see below).
The Great Wall of China at Dandong
Aside from visiting North Korea, one of the things I wanted to see while in the area was an old section of the Great Wall of China that formed the most easterly part that you can hike. Situated 15km Northeast of Dandong, only a small section of about 1,200 metres has been renovated, but one thing that makes this part special is being able to gaze out over North Korea as you climb the steep steps of the wall.
You can hike to the end of this section and then do a round-trip along the river and through the fields and small villages back to the main entrance. It’s not going to set any records, but it’s a pleasant enough short hike that can be done in a morning or afternoon.
After having no luck finding the right bus going to Hushan and wasting a good hour walking round all the bus stops in the centre of Dandong I decided to take a taxi for 50RMB ($7.50). The drive took about 30 minutes and the scenery was quite interesting.
We followed the river closely the whole way and you could see North Korea a lot closer at certain points. I regret not asking the taxi driver to stop so I could take pictures, but I was a little paranoid about looking like a spy rather than an interested tourist!
Borderlands – Where China meets North Korea
Small mountains rose up in the distance and I could make out the section of the wall winding its way up into the distance. I was dropped at the main entrance to the wall and bought my ticket (100 RMB – $15). It was a small walk through pleasant fields to reach the start of the steep steps.
Galsang flowers danced on the breeze underneath the mountain, but the pollution or fog was quite heavy obscuring the view somewhat. The place really would look beautiful on a bright clear day and was a lot quieter than sections of the wall nearer to Beijing.
I spent the next few hours climbing the steps and admiring the views out over North Korea. At the end of the wall I stopped for a quick beer (I had one in my rucksack, but there was also a stall selling refreshments at the bottom of the wall). A friendly cat chewed on a gifted chicken foot and I spent a short while taking in the pleasant mountain scenery before setting off along a dirt road back to the main entrance a few kilometres away.
The first thing I noticed was a large sign warning of throwing things over the border or communicating with those on the other side. North Korea was only a few feet away over a small stream by this point.
I followed the country lane along fields and past small farmhouses. Mosquitoes and a host of other flying bugs followed me and hovered around my head if I stopped to take pictures. Huge golden orb weaver spiders littered the hedgerows and their shiny black and yellow bodies glinted in the evening sun. Up on electricity lines thousands of baby spiders littered large webs and made me shudder.
At one point I looked down and saw a huge paying mantis eating a rat. As I crouched down taking pictures the creature turned its head to look at me and fixed me with an inquisitive stare; a more bizarre sight I don’t think I have ever witnessed.
I found my way back to the start of the wall and exited onto the main road. Stalls selling snacks lined the roadside and most were now packing up for the evening. I found a bus stop heading back in the direction of Dandong but a sign indicated that the last bus had left an hour before. I walked along the road hoping for a taxi but was stopped by one of the vendors who indicate that they could arrange a lift back in a private taxi for 50RMB.
Dandong by Night
Traffic was heavy coming back into Dandong so I left the car near the main bridge to have a look across the river at North Korea by night. I could see a few lights dotted about in Sinuiju and what looked like searchlights strafing the sky. The promenade was busy on the Chinese side and tourists and locals alike walked back and forth. I tried to get a taxi the couple of kilometres back to Moon Island, but traffic was so bad that I gave up and walked the hour back to the hostel.
Back at the hostel I relaxed with a few beers and finalized the details for my trip to North Korea early the next morning. You can read about my time there in this article.
Top Dandong Attractions
- Broken Bridge – This bridge that juts out halfway into the Yalu was bombed by the Americans during the Korean War and has been left as a reminder. You can walk to the end for a close up view of Sinuiju across the water.
- Yalu Boat Trip – You can take a speedboat or slower craft up and down the Yalu with views of North Korea and the goings-on on the other side.
- Hushan Great Wall – Hike the most easterly section of the Great Wall of China and peer into secretive North Korea at the same time!
- North Korea Day Trip – Spend a day in the North Korean town of Sinuiju. Visit a soap factory, watch a kindergarten performance, enjoy traditional Korean food, and of course pay your respects to Kim Yong-Il and family at the giant bronze statues.
Where to stay in Dandong:
I stayed at the Bless House Youth Hostel on Moon Island a couple of km from the centre of town. The Hostel was clean, modern and had a great bar/restaurant downstairs with inside and outside seating. My room was pleasant enough, with two bunk-beds and bedding, but the only negative was that towels were not provided and I didn’t bring one with me and ended up having to use a t-shirt to dry with.
Bus: To get to Bless House take bus 126 (1RMB) to Moon Island (last stop). Cross the road to your right and the hostel is the first building on the left hand side.
Taxi: You can take a taxi from the station or centre of town for around 20RMB.
On Foot/by bike: It’s possible to walk to Moon Island along the promenade and this makes for a nice stroll as you gaze over at North Korea. It took me about an hour. It’s also possible to hire one of the many Mobikes if you have the Wechat app.
Bless House listing on Hostelworld.com.
If you don’t fancy dormitory sleeping then most people recommend the Railway Hotel. Rooms start at around 200RMB ($15).
How to get to Dandong
Train: From Beijing you can take the overnight train which is a little slow (15 hours) but direct. Another option is to go to the city of Shenyang and then take the fast train to Dandong. Visit the Trip.com website for prices, times and to book tickets online.
Plane: The city has a small airport (Dandong Lantou) with routes to major Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. You can search for flights with Trip.com.
Ferry: Ferries leave Dandong for Incheon in South Korea (15 hours).
Want to visit North Korea? Head over to the guys at Young Pioneer Tours who can arrange anything from a day trip to Sinuiju to interesting week-long tours of the capital Pyongyang and more.
Looking to discover more of China?