We’re in Ji’an, another town on the North Korean border, and site of the ancient Koguryo Kingdom’s former capital. The historical sites were fascinating to see, and the small town is extremely pleasant to walk around. So pleasant, in fact, that one wonders if China is just trying to show off to its erstwhile neighbor. The town’s central park, located right on the bank of the Yalu River dividing the two countries, features dozens of fountains, a collection of kids’ rides, and well-manicured grassy spaces, all overlooked by fancy-looking apartment blocks. All of this sits in plain view to the North Koreans across the narrow river. There, on the opposite bank, three or four hamlets, each consisting of a dozen or so small wooden homes, lie quietly at the bottom of steep hillsides. The comparison is striking.
Beyond those hillsides is Manpo, a sizable North Korean city with an estimated population of around 100,000. The Ji’an Yalu River Border Bridge, a single-track railroad span, connects it to China a few kilometers outside town. We go to see it, and one of the locals tells us proudly that this is where Kim Jung Un’s train came across on his recent, not-so-secret visit to China. A PLA company is stationed at the bridge to protect it, and for the last ten years or so they’ve turned their mission into something profitable: for $9, local tourists can walk up on the bridge, out to the halfway point, and peer at Manpo’s northern city limit. If you come around 3PM, you can stand there and watch the daily train from China into North Korea go past. As we pay the money to the ticket seller, a group of soldiers playing basketball nearby notices us. One of them comes over. “Hey! Are you foreigners?”
“Why yes! Are you Chinese?”
“You can go up to the guard tower, but foreigners are not allowed on the bridge,” He says.
To me, this seems like a rule that this guy just made up. “So, is the ticket half-price then?”
“No. Full price.”
“Oh. Then can I have my money back?”
“No. There are no refunds.”
“Great, thank you.”
We go up the little trail to the guard tower, located next to the bridge. It’s obvious that the soldier posted there has not been notified about the new no-foreigners-on-the-bridge rule. Otherwise, he’d be following our every move. So we look straight ahead and walk past him, onto the not-so-forbidden bridge. The view isn’t exactly spectacular. A couple hundred meters ahead, there are green hillsides and drab two-story buildings. In the distance, a guy rides his motorcycle past some kids herding a flock of sheep. The PLA soldier looks bored.
We watch the silent scene on the opposite shore a little while longer, then turn back. On the side of the guard tower, I notice a memorial plaque. It describes an attack on this bridge by American Sky Bandits in 1951, during the War to Resist America and Aid Korea. According to the plaque, pockmarks from American bullets are still visible on the guard tower, but I look carefully and don’t see any. I ask the PLA soldier. “Truthfully, I also don’t know,” he says. “I’ve never been able to make them out either.”
We go back into town, back to our hotel. There’s been a power outage across town. So with nothing else to do, we had back to the park on the riverside. I look again at the hamlets across the river.
With no power, the elaborate fountains next to me have stopped working. I wonder if, on the other side of the river, anybody has noticed.