Northeast China’s road less traveled: Visiting the North Korean border near Ji’an

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Last week my brother visited us in China. We decided to make a road trip to the North Korean border (it’s only about 400 km from where we currently live). We didn’t want to cross into North Korea itself, but visiting the border area near the town of Ji’an in Jilin province was really interesting.

The border area is located in a mountainous region and spring hadn’t really started yet. The natural surroundings were still stunning and we loved the fact that the place wasn’t yet overrun with tourist groups.

North Korean border

We followed the Yalu River, which marks the border between North Korea and the PR China, upstream and could see North Korea’s 6th largest city, Manpo, and other North Korean villages from the Chinese side.

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It seemed unbelievable that although the river wasn’t very big and you could see people walking around from either side, crossing isn’t an option for most of those on the Korean side. Watching the setting for a while, we saw one car, two small trucks, two trains, a handful of bicycles and one or the other motorbike. The majority of people walked by foot, some from the town to villages further down the road (which still seemed to be quite some distance apart).

Although the whole setting looked very peaceful, my husband noticed the presence of what looked like fighting holes on the North Korean side. Also, the mountains on the North Korean side all looked quite barren and lacked the plants and trees we could see on the mountains on the Chinese side. According to my husband, Manpo and the surrounding villages don’t have electricity.

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Right next to the border crossing on the Chinese side, organic strawberries are grown in greenhouses.

I’m not sure as to the current situation, but Chinese have been able to visit Manpo during the day via the border located at Ji’an in the past. My husband told me that people could bring as much stuff as they wanted to with them to the North Korean side, so some people would fill their suitcases with instant noodles and other food items and just leave them somewhere for locals to pick them up.

Have you ever traveled to this area? What was it like?

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

15 comments

  1. Ray

    That’s amazing people will bring food while crossing the border. Poor North Koreans.

    Great pictures, who knew there was a place like that!

    We all complain about China, but comparing to the “Hermit Kingdom” really puts things in perspective…

  2. Really amazing to think such countries do still exists. I really feel sorry for the North Koreans to suffer under such regime.

    I just hope one day it will all work out for them

  3. I enjoyed reading this and seeing the pictures. Thanks!

    So, just to clarify: the Chinese would just leave bags of food for the North Koreans? As an act of charity?

  4. Wow this is so interesting!

    I never heard of this border area between China and North Korea, but I bet it was really fascinating to be able to watch North Korea with your own eyes. Nowadays there is such a shield of mystery on that country..

    I visited South Korea few years ago and now I would really like to visit North Korea if I had a chance. I think it would be a life-changing experience. Unfortunately I know it is very complicated for foreigners to visit North Korea..

    • robert

      In fact it is very easy to visit if you hold a western passport. You don’t even need to visit an embassy or consulate. Tour operators like Beijing based Koryo Tours handle all formalities and flight or train booking. In North Korea everything is, obviously, pre-arranged. You cannot travel freely in North Korea. But everything was handled very professionally on the North Korean side by our guides though.

  5. robert

    I travelled to North Korea a few years ago. It’s quite an experience, especially when you manage to see past the things the government tries to show you. It was a very beautiful experience though. You meet genuinely friendly, and curious people, but you also see a harsh reality with nearly constant brain washing and control. I managed to make friends with the youngest tour guide – we chatted about video games, life in China, and also some about life in North Korea. Although there’s not much the guide can say directly, so you have to be good at reading between the lines. We also had fun evenings going out with our guides and enjoying food and beer with them, where they opened up a bit.

    Overall it’s very surreal, but it gives you a glimpse how Eastern Europe used to be. Where, in the 80’s you could make people immensely happy by bringing them simple things like cigarettes, ball-point pens or cosmetics. And where the government would make sure that you don’t have too close contact with anyone not authorized and watched. Unfortunately, in North Korea, this meant, with a few exceptions, that we only spoke with our guides.

    It’s very difficult to describe what you should feel for the North Koreans when you come back from such a trip. For me, they are all victims, even those who support the regime. Control is absolute, and the lack of information also seems absolute. Even watching Chinese TV is punishable, depite Chine being a “good friend” and “closest ally”. With all the propaganda it feels like the Korean war just ended last week, rather than decades ago, and you wonder if the people just support the regime because they are so utterly clueless and dependent on the state for everything. Even the money they get is pocket money, as the tour guide admitted. Apartment, job, food, everything depends on your loyalty to the regime and your family’s background.

    When I left I took the train from Pyongyang to Dandong. Dandong and China both feel like the most free and most splendid place on earth if you happen to come from North Korea. Where you’re stuck in the grim and dirty border town, waiting for North Korean customs to search your baggage and rifle through your camera for illegal pictures. Even more surreal is the contrast of the glitzy light polluted Chinese city next to the black hole that is the North Korean border town.

    • Wow, Robert. That’s fascinating. I’ve heard some other people’s tales of visiting North Korea, but I never tire of it. It is hard to imagine such a place still exists. I really do think many of the people are clueless and those who aren’t are too afraid to speak out. Would any of us be so different under the circumstances?

      I read a pretty good book about North Korea, “Nothing to Envy,” that interviewed and followed the lives of several North Korean defectors. I think it’s worth reading for anyone interested in North Korea. There really isn’t a lot of information out there since it’s so hard for anyone to get in or out of the country (with any real information about what life is like, anyways).

      • robert

        “Nothing to Envy” is indeed a very good read!
        Also, when you speak to Chinese and show them the photos of North Korea, many will tell you that it looks like China in 60’s and 70’s. Makes you really happy for the Chinese that they’re not stuck in these times any more!

        Life on the countryside must be terrible though. We took a 2 day trip to the mountains, where all the presents for the dictators are stored in a huge marble floored bunker the size of a small shopping mall – one of the cleanest places I’ve ever seen (they also make you wear plastic slippers, so your street shoes don’t dirty the place). Very surreal, especially with the guards presenting chrome plated Kalashnikovs. “Tour groups” of mangled North Koreans were herded through this bunker well, to show them the presents (like whole train waggons gifted from Stalin and Mao; a Samsung laser printer from south Korea; a Mike Jordan signed basketball from the US and a lot of random worthless knick knacks – some quite bizarre though) how revered and powerful their great leader is – and probably because they need to keep the people busy before they get any thoughts about their own predicament. We saw quite a few activities which seemed to be geared just to keep everyone busy and distracted – mass gymnastics, visits to revolutionary sites, trimming lawns, collecting rubbish, etc. Sitting at home, doing nothing doesn’t seem like something you can get away with as North Korean.

        We stayed in a hotel in the mountains where the water only ran at certain times and the outside was completely in the dark at night. There were pretty much no cars outside Pyongyang. The few cars we saw belonged to the miliary. There were many fields but no farm animals (landscape is very beautiful by the way!). A few people had old bycicles. Many roads were just trampled dirt = we saw villagers fixing roads like that with primitive tools. Some people walked on the highway because it was made of asphalt and the best way to get around and there’s no traffic on it anyway. Although the highway is more like a roller coaster when you drive, due to all the bumps! We also saw some coal powered cars, that use a process to liquify coal to something gas like – pickup trucks that looked like they had a small oven installed on the back. I think the funny road sign you sometimes still see in China, with the crossed out car with the flames on top, refers to them.

        Yet you wouldn’t see poverty like in Africa. Villages were still trying to look neat and organized (with big steles in the town centers, reminding people that the great leader is always with them). The people took great care to look proper and presentable, given the circumstances. Although most of them looked like the dark skinned and mangled out migrant workers you often see on Chinese construction sites. Many of them would smile and wave back if you waved or smiled at them from the tour bus.

        And there are people in military uniforms everywhere, although not all of them may actually be combat ready soldiers. More like paramilitary workers. Everyone else was dressed in 60’s fashion and Kim Jong Il / Kim Il Sung buttons pinned to their chests where their heart is – you can also buy those buttons faked and made in China in Dandong 🙂 The North Koreans take them very, very seriously though. They’re definitely nothing any of them would think of as a souvenir, or for giving away or selling! A few people wore western clothing and featured these buttons – we learned later that they’re North Koreans living in Japan, who returned to visit relatives at home. Other than that, people don’t get to travel. A few of them have seen China’s border regions though, from trips to Dandong or from trading. Our tour guide – definitely a better off fellow – has only been out of the country for a whole week his entire life. He visited Dandong.

        this post got much longer than intended… I could go on for hour how strange of a place North Korea is. It certainly left an impression.

  6. Thank you, Ruth, for the photos. It’s amazing to see those North Korean buildings so nearby–only a small, peaceful river between North Korea and China. I remember that when we took the train through Jilin Province, we saw many houses with blue roofs, a color favored by Koreans. There must be many people of Korean heritage in that part of China.

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