It’s pretty much a primary rite of passage for American expats to make the trip up the peninsula to Dandong, China’s primary port of entry with North Korea. What could possibly be more interesting than standing on the north side of the Yalu and staring into that land of utter desolation? In order to meet this most basic of needs, three of us joined James for the 2 hour spin up the Dandong Expressway on Saturday morning. Did any of you know that the names of expressways in China are a concatenation of the first couple of letters of the names of the terminating cities? We were riding on the Danda Highway – Dan(dong) and Da(lian), get it?

We rolled out around 8 and after an Americano stop at Starbucks we drove across Kai Fa Qu to get on the toll road. The air was pretty clear, probably due to the rather stiff wind. A good breeze has the effect of blowing the wood smoke out of the valleys, and today the early light was crisp and clear. We passed hundreds of greenhouses, most with the grass mats rolled up on the ridge pole. Like out trip out towards Lushun last week, so much of the land along the road was dedicate to little villages supporting these long half-circle buildings. One field held dozens, line up in straight rows with a little green-roofed white house at the end of each row waiting for a family to move in. The homes in these little villages are usually a row of 5-10 brick units making up a long brick building, each with its own courtyard and a small gate with an arch.

The highway is covered from end to end with traffic cameras that capture the license plates of speeding drivers. The cameras broadcast your plate number to the toll stations up the road and they fine you if you’re caught. Our solution – pull over to the side of the road and jam a handful of blank CDs into the license plate frame to fool the camera. Apparently the flash of the sun on the CD blinds the camera. An hour or so down the road James discovered that the cameras on this highway shoot the front of the car, so we had to stop and take the plate off. Yes, here in China, when people want to speed, they pull the plates off their cars. We went on for a while until we noticed a policeman cruising up ahead. Well, we can’t pass the police with CDs jammed in the rear frame and the plate off the front, so we stopped again to pull the CDs and put the plate back on.

It didn’t matter, as it was about time to get off the highway and head into the city. The toll was 90RMB – about $13. The girl in the booth told James that we had been caught speeding but that they were unable to get a clear shot of the plate so they would not be fining us. You can color me amazed at home grown ingenuity.

Dandong didn’t look a whole lot different from every other Chinese city I’ve been in, except just a bit more bleak. Life was going on, people were everywhere but it just looked like the arctic. When we made a turn and saw a giant Mao statue that just begged to be photographed, I discovered why. We had driven to the North Pole. It instantly brought to mind all those stories about the Korean War and the frozen battles. The wind was raw, the temperature was sub-zero and it boy, oh boy, I just wanted to get back in the car.

We drove on and made the turn onto the road that runs parallel to the Yalu and pulled into the parking area at the base of the lone bridge that spans the river. There are actually two there – one combination car and train affair that is open to traffic, and one older stone and steel model that goes about 2/3 of the way over. The latter is a museum to American aggression, commemorating an attack by our planes in 1950. Three bucks gets you in and you get to walk across to the end. At the top of the stairs there is a grand statue of the People’s Army marching forward to victory flanked by a conical concrete block house. Up on the platform, it was even colder than back at Mao, but as I walking along the wind stopped and it felt pretty nice in the sun. The girders and beams were pockmarked with bullet holes. Martial music was playing and photographs from the period told the story of the destruction of the bridge. Chinese walked by in small groups talking on their cell phones. I was noticing s lot of stares here – I think westerners are a tad less common in these parts than those I left. Reaching the end, the destruction was truly amazing. Big steel girders and gears twisted from the shock of the explosion that took down the remainder of the span. From here you could see North Korea clearly, a Ferris wheel was clearly visible on the horizon, over the top of the trees.

A group of Chinese men was taking pictures of each other and so I motioned one to get into the picture that was being taken of me. I put my arm around him and he did the same – a moment of international solidarity at the site of a darker past.

Our next planned stop was the Tiger Mountain section of the Great Wall. I found out last week when I planned this little adventure that the Wall was nearby – a very nice little bonus that would make a trip to the monument far easier than a special trip to Beijing. And so I was very excited, this trip was not just going to be an opportunity to spy on one of the nations on our blacklist, I was going to meet one of my life’s objectives.

The drive along the riverfront brought to mind the drive along waterfronts everywhere. Tall, fancy white buildings and a long winding park. It just seemed a bit weird in this particular place.

The buildings fell away and the road led out of town. The river changed to a braided stream with dozens of sandy islands, not unlike the Rio down the street from our house. On the Korean side, the open spaces gave way to shabby apartment blocks lining a seawall. We stopped to watch a person on the shore washing clothes in the cold water next to a beached junk. Another used a yoke to carry two big buckets up the beach and over the sea wall to the apartments beyond.

The road wound its way over several bridges crossing streams and islands being mined for gravel. James pulled over to allow us to watch three men pull themselves across a stream in a boat that was attached to a rope between two docks.

Coming around to the north, you could see it – The Great Wall tumbling down the side of Tiger Mountain. James pulled over and let us out to take some photographs while a group of Japanese college students walked down the shoulder of the road. There was a large structure on the top of the mountain and another block house on a rise down below. The sheer steepness of the section was quite amazing. It made me wonder what it would be like to climb it.
The entry fee here was pretty steep – 20RMB for each person and 40 for the car, about $20. We parked and climbed the stairs above a large arched gateway.

It was instantly inspiring. The first thing you notice is how pin-neat the construction is, it’s hard to believe that this section, started in the Ming Dynasty is 550 years old. You would swear it was built no more than 50 years ago. The first section was clearly re-surfaced, but the pavers quickly gave way to time worn stones. The walk ran perhaps 50 yards between blockhouses, with tiny doorways that required us to bend over quite a bit. Inside some of these towers, steep ladders led up to platforms. Our path followed the top of a ridge that was the beginning of Tiger Mountain. The climb was changing slowly from “lightly challenging” to “why am I doing this?” as the terrain turned upward. Eventually the walkway changed to stairs – the mountain was getting too steep.

The stairs presented an interesting challenge as the rise on them varied between 6, 16 and 26 inches. You simply could not get a rhythm going, each one required a separate thought process to avoid falling backwards. After 5 minutes of this I stopped to measure my pulse – 156 – and to silently fantasize about going into the Inn Fine Fitness Center and kicking the stair stepper over on its side. It quickly got to the point where the only bright spot in my life was the occasional section of flat wall. Eventually though, we came to the top tower, winded, sweating and proud of our accomplishment.

The view was pretty spectacular, North Korea on the left, the valley of the Yalu on the right. The wall wound its way off behind us. Down below, border guards patrolled a security fence on the Korean side of the line. I took a few pictures, one fellow looking up and watching. We were perhaps 100 meters away from him. They continued on their way and climbed down into a blockhouse to get out of the wind.

There was a second platform above us, accessible through a tiny steep staircase. Climbing it would not have been great for anyone with a combination of claustrophobia and a fear of heights.

From this place, we had to make a choice. That really steep section of wall we had seen from the highway was now heading down the hill before us. Climbing down meant climbing up and having just gone up the other side of the mountain, no one was sure we had the steel to do it. But, there we were and so down we went.

There stairs on this side were far, far worse than the other, made so by the fact that gravity was just dying to pull us to our deaths. No thinking, just stepping, down and down. At least my heart was not exploding. A few hundred steps down, I stopped to photograph two characters scratched into the stone. They had been there a long, long time, perhaps from the beginning. In a couple of places the actual raw rock of the mountain was framed in stairs, it being too steep to be paved.

At the bottom was a big building, the terminal end of the Wall, now converted to a museum telling the tale of the construction and all the subsequent wars that crashed on this shore. A tiny decrepit wooden bridge crossed over to no-man’s land, guarded by a “forbidden” sign begging for a photo op.

The museum was an interesting combination of relics, panoramas filled with skulls and weapons and posters extolling the Chinese armed forces. We wandered around for a bit and then it was time to head back. Up the stairs. Up the 1000, 6, 16 and 26 inch stairs.
But James came to the rescue – there was an alternate path around the mountain that did not require us to giant step up all those gray stone blocks.

That path began nicely enough, winding along the river side. On our side, a net of barbed-wire hung between wooden posts, up in some places and lying in a heap in others. The Korean side was far more serious, steel posts and mesh, not a gap in sight. A couple of guys were doing something suspicious in pond. On closer examination they were watching a group of cormorants fishing in the corners of the pond. One of the guys waded out with a net on a long pole. I wasn’t sure if he was planning to grab one of the birds, but it turned out that he was using the birds to net fish. I’m not sure if these birds were tame, or his, or if they just didn’t care. They went on diving around where he was standing and he was using them to bring the fish his way.

About half way around the mountain, things changed. A set of green stairs appeared at the end of the path and led straight up the side of a face of exposed rock. The first section was amazing – green handrails drilled into the rock that assisted you in making your way up a set of “stairs” that were nothing more than flat spots in the rock. At the top of that, the path wound around behind the rock and down to a bridge made of 4 lengths of chain supporting a long line of planks. For grins, we jumped up and down on it. A sign in Chinese said no more than 4 adults at a time.

Some more ups and some more downs and we were finally at the end of the hard part, wondering if we would have been better to just climb the stairs. Our route led up and away from the river, through a small village at the base of the wall and back down to the parking lot. Two little dogs were engaged in a running play/battle, the bigger one kept eyeing us prompting me to think again about those rabies vaccinations I had chosen not to have. An old man sat on the curbside, soaking up the sun.

The Wall behind us, we headed back into Dandong. There was a pavilion on a hill at the center of town that we thought might be worth a visit. James got us there, we paid and walked in. The lower part of the park was one of those amusement parks you see here that have all these strange rides whose designs border on scary. Up the hill we came to a very sad zoo with two Bengal Tigers making the saddest growly tiger noises. Like every other animal story in this place, these two were pathetic. One was on its side staring at the wall, the other pacing. Next to them was a lion that I stared at for a bit trying to decide if it was even real.

The road led up and up, making the question of why we were doing this after the afternoon we had just spent climbing, altogether poignant. But it was worth it, the pavilion at the top was great. And inside of it were a couple of dozen more flights of stairs leading up to the top where the wind was blowing at 100 miles an hour delivering a wind-chill of about 75 below. Not long for there, we headed back down noticing that there were in fact parallel sets of stairs that did not intersect. A genuine MC Escher construct. It was getting dark so we made our way down the hill past the bear, the monkeys, camels, ponies, arctic foxes and a giant reproduction of the Space Shuttle.

The ride back was punctuated by numerous stops to remove and replace license plates.