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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Spitting at North Korea

Today I have looked into the face of the monster that is North Korea, and I have survived to tell the tale.

Actually, I took a boat to within about 20 feet of the border and waved and stared at a few fisherman plying their trade from rusting military patrol boats and men working on passenger boats that seemed to be in almost working condition. Behind them I saw some construction vehicles that appeared not to have been used in years, a ferris wheel, a few buildings, and not much else. The ferris wheel may have been the most poignant aspect of the visible portion of the country. It was at the base of a bridge leading into Dandong, China, a bridge that is closed off and is probably only used for China to transport aid goods into North Korea (or it is not used at all). Next to that bridge is another, unfinished bridge, that leads halfway across the Yalu River before coming to its abrupt end.

As we closed in on the North Korean coast, I remembered the men I had seen swimming along the river on the China side, and one man who was about halfway across. I asked a guy what would happen if a Chinese guy went all the way across. He said the Koreans would send him back and nothing much would happen. If a Korean came across, though, he would be sent back and arrested, and then who knows what kind of tortured, re-educated existence would await. There was not too much of a visible patrol on the Chinese side, but there were a few boats. I asked a guard at one how often Koreans tried to get across, and he said pretty often, although it was kind of an unpredictable flow of traffic. In looking at the Koreans I could see from the boat, I could only wonder what it must be like to be able to look across the river at the nice high rise apartments lining the Chinese side of the river, and at the skyscrapers going up at different points in the city, no doubt lit up in neon at night. On a relative scale, I wonder if the Koreans know the heaven that they are missing out on here.

The title of this particular post comes from a little incident with a smoking man on the boat. He was complaining that China spends a lot of money in helping the Koreans and then with a deep and guttural reach, he pulled up the thickest of his smoke-thickened mucus and spat with force at the boats lining the shore. He did not reach them, but with a rock I think that any of us could.

The original thought for a title was "Sunbathing in North Korea (Almost)," as that is what I did before taking the boat. It is a Sunday and a holiday, and the weather is what I have to guess unseasonably warm. Men wearing speedos were swimming in the river, while others fished with strings tied to sticks, or just with strings tied to a metal railing. Another man cast a net while others cleaned their clothes. I was particularly drawn to the sight of a couple washing their clothes together, a sight at once unexpected and at once reminding me again that I should not have been so selfish and had my girlfriend come with me. The atmosphere around the river was so laid back that I had no choice but to pull off my shirt and sunbathe for the first time since coming to China. Who would have guessed that the first time would have been so far north, this late in September, and staring across at a few silent smoke towers, some tall, bare, sporadic trees, and a few distant boats dotting the North Korean shore line. I should note that from the Chinese shore, the only visible sign of life in N.K. was one operating smoke stack at a factory a bit inland, sending up a steady plume of pollution.

In the morning, after my 6 AM arrival here, I ate breakfast and then headed out to see the end of the Great Wall. The wall climbs and falls in steep slopes and holds views of vast corn fields, rivers and streams, and, of course, North Korea. Also visible are low and lush green hills. Because of the way the early morning light was falling, the corn appeared to be red and stretch of land and water leading to North Korea was half-hidden by a misty haze. When I began walking up the wall, the morning was barraged by sound, of dogs and chickens and cars, but by the time I was at the top, and then on the far side of the wall near the museum, the sounds were much less. The barks quieter and less frequent, the occasional sound of a cow bellowing at...whatever it is cows bellow at. With the surrounding landscape and noise scape I felt in a visceral way, for the first time in awhile, that I am in Asia, the Asia of imagination and of movie images.

From the wall, I walked towards the water, past a corn field, and out to a wide sand and rock beach where a few wooden boats sat unused, water lapping against their sides a just audible sound. (And here a brief digression brought by memory...I remember that there was one other time recently when I really felt I was in Asia. The second day in Qingdao, as we drove back from Laoshan, the sun was setting and from a certain angle, an angle which was only there for about 30 seconds, a wide swath of glittering gold light fell across the ocean and in that path of light were about twenty or so old beat up wooden fishing boats and I thought then that this was a classical Asian image [perhaps more apropos of Vietnam somehow], and I cursed that I was in a bus and unable to go to shore and take some pictures).

From there I walked back out to the road, where there was a market set up in front of the fields and houses. To get to the main road I had to walk along a wide dirt road leading to a bridge and along the way was the subject of much curiosity and many smiles from passing cyclists (almost all traffic there was of two- or three-wheel, or four-legged variety). Of note here were the three-wheeled bicycles, which unlike those I have seen in the past have the wagon in the front, which means if you imagine these three-wheeled bikes as a triangle, the base of the triangle was in the front of the bike rather than the back. As I said, this was the first time I have seen this.

After walking through the market, which had a wonderful communal atmosphere and really made today feel like a weekend day, rather than just any old day the way it normally feels, I was able to hitch a ride back to Dandong city and thus save a bit of money on a bus ride.

So, again I find myself enjoying a place more than I expected I would and leaving all too soon. Tonight I will be off to Harbin, a city which has a heavy Russian influence, and right in the middle of the northeastern part of China. This means I am getting closer to another border area and that I have another 20-plus-hour ride ahead. Yay.

2 Comments:

Anonymous shawn said...

keep on going!!! I love your stories. Cant wait for the next one.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Quit Smoking said...

Hello fellow fisherman,

Did you know that 16% of the U.S. population goes fishing at least 16 days a year?

Did you also know that over 75% of the nations fishermen do not fish during "prime time"; fish feeding hours?

Those precious few moments before twilight can be absolutely magical. Even up until 11pm at night, the largest predators of any species feed ravenously.

Don't believe me? Check out Daniel Eggertsen's story, and a picture of a couple of his catches here : "Evening Secrets plus more"

I want you to do me a favor and try it out so I can see what you think of it, and if it works for you as well as it did for me.

You will be one of the first to try it out.

Gone Fishin',

Neil

6:17 AM  

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