Have you ever been fascinated by North Korea, wondering how people dress, what they eat, and what the countryside looks like? I’ve been intrigued by the country officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for years, wondering what it would be like to visit. Unfortunately, U.S. citizens can’t enter North Korea, so I had to come up with plan B.
The city of Dandong, in China’s Northeastern Province of Liaoning, borders North Korea to the west and the Yellow Sea to the south. This city of just under a million people is about 400 miles away from Beijing. Before Covid hit, North Korean workers routinely crossed over the bridge between the two countries to work in Korean restaurants and Chinese factories. It’s the largest Chinese city to border North Korea, and an important economic port.
Separated only by the Yalu River, the influence of Korean culture is prevalent in Dandong. Many signs are in both languages, restaurants serve Korean food, and you can easily look across the water to the border town of Sinuiju. It’s as close as you can get without actually stepping foot into North Korea.
In 2021, I was living in China, a neighbor to the cloistered country. Always looking for an adventure, I decided to take an overnight trip from Beijing to have a peek into North Korea. If you find yourself in China, you can take a short detour to Dandong to experience some Korean culture.
How to Get to Dandong and Where to Stay
It’s a quick flight from Beijing’s Daxing Airport to Dandong. I had talked a friend into joining me, and we chose window seats hoping to get a bird’s eye view over North Korea as we flew in. Roughly halfway through the two-hour flight, the flight attendants came through the cabin instructing everyone to close their window shades. When we questioned them why this was necessary, the answer was “very special area.” I assume we were flying over some military installation. So much for getting a glimpse of North Korea from the plane. You can also travel by train from Beijing to Dandong, which takes a little over six hours.
Staying one night in Dandong is enough to see everything. We chose the Holiday Inn Express Dandong City Center due to its convenient location and views. Ask for a room on a high floor and you’ll be able to look across the Yalu River to North Korea. The included breakfast buffet was a nice perk and a notch higher than the standard Chinese hotel breakfast.
Pro Tip: Look out the windows at night. The contrast between the city lights of Dandong and the darkness of Sinuiju is striking.
What to See and Do in Dandong
Spend time exploring the bridges that span the Yalu River. The Broken Bridge was the original railway line built in 1911 connecting China to North Korea. It was repeatedly bombed by the U.S. Military during the Korean War to disrupt the supply chain and passage of Chinese troops into North Korea. The remaining portion of the bridge spans halfway across the river, and you can walk out to the end for a closer look at North Korea.
The Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge lies parallel to the Broken Bridge, about 100 meters away. This newer, intact version was built in 1937 by the Japanese Imperial Army. Both bridges suffered damage during the war, but this bridge was fully restored and connects trains and cars to North Korea. The scenic area along the river contains numerous memorials to Chinese soldiers and other important figures during the Korean War.
Pro Tip: The arches on the bridges are beautiful when viewed in tandem, especially at night when they light up in changing colors. Stand on the riverbank to see the reflection on the water.
Taking a Cruise Along the Yalu River
My first sightseeing stop was to make the short walk down to the river. Look for the bridges on the water’s edge and you’ll see boats waiting to take visitors out sightseeing. I bought a ticket for the 30-minute tour, which cruises as close as it can to the North Korean shore. As I sat on the left side of the boat and looked at the houses, I wondered if I was technically in North Korea. Military police patrolled the shoreline behind barbed wire fences. The border between China and North Korea runs down the middle of the Yalu River. What if I fell overboard? Would I be taken into custody? My travel buddy flat out refused to take the risk.
I took some videos and a few selfies with Sinuiju in the background. The contrast was striking between the modern, high-rise buildings and bustling streets on the Chinese side and the monochrome, block-style buildings on the North Korean side. A defunct ferris wheel stood in what looked like a deserted amusement park.
Safely back on land, I explored the promenade overlooking the river. A handful of Chinese women were dressed in rented hanbok, taking photos in the colorful traditional Korean clothing. Vendors hawked toy tanks, North Korean cigarettes, and collectible currency—both of dubious origin. Flasks filled with strong Chinese baijiu (liquor) shaped like hand grenades and missiles were popular among souvenir shoppers as well.
Getting a Taste of Korean Food
Living in Beijing, I had access to plenty of Korean restaurants, but in Dandong, they felt more authentic. At that time, chefs crossed over to cook traditional dishes like Pyongyang cold noodles and bibimbap. Posters outside restaurants showed a melting pot of dishes, with Korean kimchi sharing space with Chinese scallion pancakes. Ads and menus in Korean added to the allure. Head to Korea Street (Er Jing Jie) and pick a place that looks crowded. Most menus have pictures, so it’s easy to point and order. I still remember the sizzling hot beef rice bowl (bibimbap) with a fried egg I had for lunch before flying home. The combination of tangy kimchi, sweet and spicy gochujang sauce, and tender beef hooked me and spoiled me for all future versions.
Given its location near the Yellow Sea, Dandong is well known for seafood. Chun Wu Lu night market (near Middle Binjiang and Chun 3rd Roads) is famous for seafood. Vendors sell grilled shrimp, sea snails, yellow clams, and scallops on the half shell. Chefs stretching and tossing crepes and stuffing croquettes with savory filling entertained us and filled the air with a festive atmosphere.
After a few snacks along the way, we grabbed a low table at a BBQ stall. Cooking meat and vegetable skewers over charcoal is a popular pastime, with dozens of venues around the city. There’s a small metal grill in the center of the table. First order a dozen or so skewers by pointing at the selection, and then an attendant will bring some red hot coals to fill the table top brazier. Shortly after, skewers of lamb, corn, peppers, and potatoes landed at our table for a DIY dinner. Accompanied by a few bottles of local Yalu River beer, it was a fun way to spend the evening. Many local families were gathered here, making it a great people-watching spot as well.
Visiting the Hushan Great Wall
Located about 12 miles from the center of Dandong, the Hushan Great Wall offers a unique hiking experience. Built in the 1400s, this is one of the eastern-most sections of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. Hushan means “Tiger Mountain” named for the two peaks along the wall that stand out like tiger’s ears. This stretch of the Great Wall was refurbished in the year 2000, with 12 reconstructed watch towers. The smooth pavement trails here mean you can make the trek in sneakers. Bring a bottle of water and plan to spend two to three hours.
Enter through the main gate and follow the wall through arches up the hillside. The watch towers offer views across the Yalu River into North Korea. I paused at each one, taking out my binoculars to watch people working in the fields below. Zooming in with my camera, I could see farmhouses and animals grazing.
As you descend from the watchtowers along the circular trail, there’s a narrow path with a suspension bridge. You’ll see it on the map posted on the trail. It’s a bit of a scramble, with a rock ledge you’ll need to duck to get under. The trail continues as a series of wooden planks attached to the cliff overlooking the river. If you like adventure hikes like I do, keep going. If not, you can retrace your steps back to the parking lot. There’s a scenic pagoda along the trail, where you can stop to take in the views of North Korea or just catch a bit of shade.
Near the end, you’ll come to a spot called One Step to Cross, just a few yards across the water to North Korea. Take photos, but heed the signs that warn not to throw objects across or take pictures of the guards. At the end of the hike, I bought an ice cream and sat outside, trying not to think about what the neighbors next door were eating. There’s a gift shop near the exit where you can buy some small snacks and souvenirs, and use the restroom before heading back to Dandong.
Pro Tip: Since the location is rather remote, you might want to ask your taxi driver to wait and give you a ride back to Dandong so you don’t get stranded.
If you have more time, visit Mt. Jinjiang, a 10-minute walk west of the Dandong railway station. Parks in China are great people-watching spots, and you might see elderly citizens doing their morning exercises, ladies dancing, or groups gathered to sing folk songs. There are several trails that lead from the park to the top, which takes about 30 minutes. Here, you’ll have a view over both border cities and the river.
History buffs might be interested in a trip to the Korean War Memorial, officially called The Memorial of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. Outside the museum, you’ll find an extensive weapons park, displaying tanks, aircraft, and other vehicles used during the war. It’s free to enter but closed on Mondays.
Near the Dandong train station, you’ll find an impressive Chairman Mao statue. With time and modernization, there are not as many large statues of this iconic leader left. Taking a quick detour to stand in the shadow of this monument with other Chinese tourists gave me a new appreciation of how revered Chairman Mao still is to many.
Want to Learn More?
If you are not a U.S. or South Korean passport holder, it’s possible to join a tour to North Korea organized by Young Pioneer Tours, a company that specializes in “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from.” Of course, you should check the travel advisories of your home country, but tours are available to celebrate the new year, run the Pyongyang marathon, or attend the Mass Games in May.
If you’d rather take more of an armchair-travel approach, I recommend “My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth” by Wendy Simmons. Her humorous travelog gives a glimpse into what tourists might encounter for those who visit North Korea. For a deeper dive into what life is like for those who live in the DPRK, read Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy. Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Posted as a journalist in South Korea, Demick interviewed North Korean defectors who started new lives in the south.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it to North Korea, but I savor the glimpse I got of this totalitarian state from my visit to Dandong. I hiked an ancient section of the Great Wall, learned a bit of history, tried some authentic Korean food, and reflected on my freedom.