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.
Water under the bridge
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.
Dandong was an important frontier settlement in ancient China.
Stonewalling the opposition
The easternmost section of the Great Wall of China here was constructed at Hu Shan to protect against Korean invaders during the late Ming and early Qing dynasty.
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 North Korea, as well spot an air force base where a mysterious North Korean warplane took off before crashing in China.
Cold War footing
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.
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.
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. Dandong attracts many South Koreans interested in a look at their North Korean brethren.
Curious tourists can take pleasure boats or even speed boats that get very close to the banks of the North Korean side.
Just a stone’s throw away
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.
North Korean fare
Dandong has a sizable population of ethnic Koreans who serve up the most authentic Korean food.
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. For cheaper rooms, the Chinese business hotel chain Home Inns has three hotels within a ten-minute walk of the Yalu River.
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.
Dandong can also be reached by bus from the seaside city of Dalian. The trip takes 4.5 hours. Buses depart from Victory Square in downtown Dalian.
Dandong is a pedestrian friendly city. A taxi is the most convenient way to the Hushan Great Wall.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2010. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.