April 12, 2018 / 12:40 PM / 7 days ago

The Cold Frontier, Part Four: A journey along North Korea's edge

(Reuters) - “Take a trip down memory lane, see what China was like in the 1970s,” said a boat ticket vendor. In the Chinese city of Dandong, North Korea is pervasive.

Trip organizers loaded tourists into vans and took us to a jetty where we waited for enough customers to make the boat journey worthwhile. The group I was with was impatient. One young couple left before the ride began. Some children got excited when they spotted a “North Korean dog” across the river.

The rest of us filled the time browsing through souvenirs which the tour operators displayed in a flimsy tent, the smell of plastic wafting on the air.

Knick-knacks that vendors said were from across the river included North Korean banknotes and ‘tiger bone tonic,’ plus toy guns labeled Made in China. “Don’t take photos,” snapped a souvenir seller as a young Chinese tourist zoomed in with his iPhone on bottles of ginseng-infused alcohol.

A man looks through binoculars towards North Korea on the Broken Bridge over the Yalu River that connects the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in Liaoning Province, China, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

SKINNY ONES UPRIVER

This man was one of many who use the riverbank binoculars to look into North Korea.

Another visitor we met was called Li Shuang, from nearby Shenyang city. She wore a dental mask and an army camouflage jacket, was traveling with her husband and son, and told me how pretty it was upriver, especially in the summer months.

“The North Koreans here are fatter,” she said. “The ones upriver were so skinny.”

North Korean fishermen are seen as a Chinese flag flutters from the Broken Bridge as the sun sets over the Yalu River between the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in Liaoning Province, China, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

ORGANIC FARMING

As the tour boat started up, the guide told people to get their cameras ready for our first sight of a North Korean person farming. Tourists rushed from the left side of the boat to the right side of the boat and back to the left.

“North Korea doesn’t have fertilisers or pesticides so their food is very natural and organic,” the guide said.

North Korea has long been short of fertilizer. In 2014, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un urged farmers to use human faeces, along with animal waste and organic compost, to fertilize their fields.

A ferris wheel, photographed from the Chinese side of the border across the Yalu River from Dandong in Liaoning Province, China is seen near the town of Sinuiju in North Korea, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

THE FUN OF THE FAIR

The ferris wheel on the North Korean side has been around for about 20 years and operates during national holidays, said Huang Liming, who hires out binoculars to see the other side for 5 yuan (less than $1) a go.

“Sometimes the North Koreans look at us too, but they only use small pairs of binoculars. They’re not allowed to use big telescopes like the ones we have.”

There’s a water park and water slide too, he said. They are newer.

DATE IMPORTED:April 12, 2018People have their picture taken with North Korea in the background, in Tumen, China, November 25, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

MONEY AND WAR

This is a popular shot, taken in Tumen at the other end of the border near where China, North Korea and Russia meet.

The North Koreans may find the Chinese irritating, staring at them all day, said Dandong souvenir seller Yang Shilong: “But they are easy to cheer up, all you have to do is give them something to eat.”

Like most Chinese people we met, he used a derogatory nickname for North Korea’s leader.

A man looks through binoculars towards North Korea on the Broken Bridge over the Yalu River that connects the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in Liaoning Province, China, November 19, 2017. In the Chinese city of Dandong, signs of neighbouring North Korea are pervasive. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

“Kim Fatty the Third is just trying to protect his country. Actually China has the same mentality. If we didn’t have nuclear weapons, it would be easy for the U.S. and Russia to bully us.”

Tourists travel on a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu River for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, Liaoning province, China, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

NOTHING TO SEE

“To be horribly blunt, riding these boats is like a trip to the zoo,” said Chinese boat passenger Mr Lu, who uses a stick to help him walk. “They’re probably thinking, ‘oh look, those Chinese idiots are back again to stare at us – do they really just see us as savages?’”

And Lai Fuqing, a university student from nearby Dalian, was underwhelmed.

“There’s not much to do in Dandong, just some history,” he said. “They don’t have enough to eat, everything of theirs has been sanctioned – coal, seafood, everything. But they’re not going to show us starving people, soldiers wanting to defect, things like that.”

Chinese men fish as a watchtower stands on the North Korean side of the Yalu River, just north of Dandong in Liaoning province, China, November 20, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

MONEY WORRIES

One Chinese tour guide who takes tourists into North Korea grumbled that North Koreans “want us to pay for everything.”

He was not the only one who complained about the risk of being ripped off by the neighbors, but he told a story to prove his point. On a recent trip to Kaesong in North Korea, he said a Chinese tourist got sick at dinner. The next day, the tour company rushed him to hospital in Pyongyang. The doctors there said the tourist needed an operation costing 10,000 yuan ($1,600) and a week in hospital.

Instead, the tour guide rushed him back to Dandong. “The hospital took one look at him and ... told him to go across the street to the pharmacy and buy some over the counter medicine.”

A couple prepare for a wedding photography session on a boat which takes tourists on sightseeing tours from the Chinese side of the Yalu River, close to the shores of North Korea, near Dandong, Liaoning province, China, November 20, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

For this happy Chinese couple, North Korea was not the main attraction.

“We don’t want North Korea in our pictures, we want the boat,” Zhou Lidong told us as he shot the wedding photos.

In China there is a saying that ‘it takes 10 years of effort to meet a special person in the same boat on the river, and it takes 100 years of effort to share a pillow with that person.’

“Marriage is like being on a boat,” Zhou said.

In the Chinese saying, ‘sharing a pillow’ is a euphemism for sex.

North Korean souvenirs are displayed for sale on the banks of the Yalu River in Dandong in Liaoning province, China, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

THE REAL THING

For those in the know, locals say souvenirs are not the only things for sale.

One of the border stories we heard goes like this: Open an account with a bank in Dandong which works outside the official system to handle transactions between China and North Korea; deposit 400,000 yuan in North Korea; and you get a free North Korean wife.

Slideshow (7 Images)

You can visit, but she has to stay in North Korea.

Edited by Sara Ledwith

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