Tuesday, September 19, 2006


After my breakfast of peppered peanuts and noodles I decided to head out to the Chengdu Panda Research station, just outside of town. My map said that the 302 city bus would do the job. The man at the hotel front desk who spoke some English said that I'd need to take 2 buses just to get to the 302. He wrote it all out for me but I decided that I'd be lost forever and maybe even crushed and steamed, those buses look awfully hot and packed. Some of the Chengdu buses say "City Boat" on them, others "City Bus". I don't get it. I'm all for public transportation but in China I can't read, write or speak and that makes public transportation a big problem. Besides, taxis in China are cheap. So I took a taxi. Driving in China is like the Chinese language, it's based on a philosophy that I just don't understand. And like the Chinese language Chinese driving works, sort of. The last time I was here I was in province and I didn't see a stop sign. Chengdu has stop signs but I might be the only one who's noticed them. Moving obstacles, either other cars or people are avoided in a kind of mechanized ballet that looks deadly to me, because I don't understand it. We dodged pedestrians and trucks and buses, nothing unusual for China. My driver was yacking on his cell phone when he cut off a cop. No problemo, the cop had been yacking on his cell phone too and may not have noticed. On the way I saw 3 wheeled trucks and some guy hauling large slabs of meaty ribs piled onto the back of his bicycle. Chinese driver lay on the horn so much that it's just background noise now and some drivers have taken it to the next level by installing incredibly loud truck horns in their cars. How bad is the driving? This morning when I walked in on the local TV news in the hotel's dining area they were showing a scene of burning devastation. News from Iraq? No, some awful traffic accident that involved trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and burning store fronts. Vehicular safety here must be in its infancy with no Communist Party version of Ralph Nader to prod it along. I've only seen one motorcyclist wearing a helmet, he was a cop. Kids riding as passengers on bicycles sometimes stand up and hold on to the driver for balance. In the US their parents would kill them, in China their parents are pedaling the bicycle. The panda has some problems. Their habitat has been encroached upon by China's 1.3 billion citizens. Pandas are finicky eaters too, they eat only several species of bamboo. They have a reproductive problem too. How can I put this gently, if male pandas had email they'd be awash in spam claiming the ability to help them. Male pandas just don't get the job done. But the panda has an ace up it's sleeve, it's cute and we as a species love cute animals. The panda is a bear but he's given up the eating of meat for a peaceful life of chomping bamboo, lots of bamboo. But they still have big jaws (bamboo is incredibly strong stuff) and big claws and they don't call them Giant Pandas for nothing. The red panda is so small I thought it was a fox. But it's a shrunken bear that's very endangered. More about the Chengdu research facility and pandas here: http://www.panda.org.cn/english/eindex.htm

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Axis of Evil - Part 1

Dandong - Mao

That's Chairman Mao himself outside of the train station in Dandong. When I decided to focus much of my travel on China I knew that a must see destination would be the northeastern city of Dandong. I wanted to get as close as an American citizen can to Asia’s founding member of the “Axis of Evil”, North Korea. I’ve long been fascinated with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. The DPRK has been described as a Stalinist Theme Park. If the communism in today’s China can be described as Communism Lite, the DPRK is old school Commie Classic. Stalin’s USSR had no cell phones and neither does the DPRK, they’re banned. Electricity is a sometimes thing as is food. After a bad harvest a few years ago and resulting famine that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives one of the government’s slogans was, “Let’s all eat 2 meals a day”. Anyone with a fast Internet connection can watch canned broadcasts of the nightly news from Pyongyang (http://www.elufa.net/) and understanding Korean isn’t a requirement to notice that things are just a wee bit odd in the DPRK. Since the DPRK is a one party state ruled by the Korean Workers Party and the head of the party, Kim Jong Il, is known as the “Dear Leader” most of the news is about his comings and goings, such as his visits to army bases or to collective farms to dispense “on the spot guidance” and tell farmers in person what they ought to grow or not grow. Or the historic comings and goings of his father Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader” because the DPRK is the world’s first communist dynasty. In the dead of winter the news often shows office workers in winter coats and vapor streaming from their mouths because in the energy poor DPRK if it’s cold outside it’s cold inside. Does a rocky hillside have to be moved in preparation for new construction? No problem because although the DPRK lacks modern earth moving equipment I’ve seen workers on TV breaking big ones into little ones with sledge hammers and chisels while others dutifully carry off the debris in baskets. I’d love to go and see all this for myself but there are several obstacles:

  • American citizens are forbidden entry because although there's an armistice the US and DPRK are still technically at war.
  • Tourists that do make it into the DPRK are assigned minders and their itineraries are set by the government, wandering off alone and mingling with the locals is strictly prohibited.

  • Why give money to to aid and strengthen brutal dictators? We’re not talking Gitmo here. Read the Aquariums of Pyongyang; if you don’t catch snakes, lizards, rats and insects to eat while you’re in a North Korean labor camp you die of starvation. After a day of forced mining or logging committing the speeches of the ruling Kim clan to memory is mandatory.

OK, so I couldn't enter the country but I could get up close and peer in. To do so I had to go to Dandong. Dandong is on the Yalu River in Liaoning province and was once a staging ground for Chinese “volunteers” who fought in the Korean War against the US. Today there’s a museum there with the pretentious cold war name of Museum Commemorating the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea.

Dandong is a Seattle sized city of roughly 500,000 people and is the eastern terminus of the Great Wall of China. The Yalu River forms the border between China and the DPRK, right across the Yalu is the North Korean city of Sinuiju. I booked a "Riverview" room at Dandong’s only 4 star hotel, the Zhonglian, a room with a view, a view of North Korea. Dandong on the Yalu: Hotel view

See those 2 bridges that my riverview room looked out on? Actually it’s just a bridge and a half. The austere bridge on the left connects Dandong and Sinuiju with one reversible lane for motor vehicles and one railroad track. The half bridge on the right was built during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and was bombed during the Korean war by the US Air Force in 1950 and was never rebuilt. On the DPRK side only the footings remain. Today the “Broken Bridge” is a tourist attraction, admission 20 Yuan. My admission ticket is below.

 Bridge mangled 3

Sinuiju has a slightly smaller population than Dandong but at night it might as well not exist, it's absolutely invisible. At night Dandong is alive with lights, cars and people on the streets or in their electrically lit homes living their lives. At night Sinuiju appears to be dead, maybe the Dear Leader sucked the life out of it. I saw no lights at all except what appeared to be somebody welding. I did see some diffused light off in the distance, I’ve since read that it’s the statue of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung which has the only artificial light in town.

Directly above and below is Dandong as seen from a boat on the North Korean side of the Yalu. It's so prosperous it even has air pollution.


There's not much to see on the Sinuiju side of the Yalu. Plenty of rusting hulks, a few propaganda slogans (this one supposedly proclaims that Kim Jong Il is the light of the sun) and not much else. If rigid communism has any benefits they weren't evident from just offshore.

Truck traffic between Dandong and the DPRK. No clue on what's in the trucks. I saw carpeting heading into North Korea and a refrigerated truck from a Japanese meat company come out.
The Great Helmsman bids you farewell.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Axis of Evil - Part 2

When I was quite sure that I had seen all of North Korea that Dandong had to offer I remembered that Dandong is also the eastern terminus of the Great Wall. I certainly couldn't leave town without seeing the Great Wall so I asked the concierge at my 4 star hotel, the Zhonglian. Her English was passable, certainly better than my Mandarin but she had no idea what I was talking about. She called over a bellboy and they chatted in Mandarin about this strange laowai request. The bellboy also had no idea what I wanted. Temporarily defeated I retreated to my riverview room.
Traveling with a laptop is puts the world at your fingers, even in China where the central government has the nasty habit of censoring the web. Some things on the web were conspicuous by their absence; some blogging sites were unreachable as was the cache option at google.com. A little research revealed that in these parts the Wall was referred to as Great Wall at Tiger Mountain. I returned to the concierge with my rephrased request. She still had no idea what I was talking about. But the English speaking bellboy did. "Oh, Great Wall!", he exclaimed. He explained it all to the concierge. I had them arrange for a taxi to take me there. They told me that it would cost 130 Yuan. They didn’t seem to recognize the term “round trip” so I didn’t know whether the driver would just abandon me out there or not. She wrote my destination for me in Chinese, the bellboy summoned a cab and I was off to the Great Wall. If I worked for a government entity with a world famous attraction in my jurisdiction one of the first things I’d do is make sure that the road from the biggest city around to the attraction was paved. Once my driver and I left the Dandong city limits the road became a dusty, rutted, potholed path, only the bridges were paved.

Admission to the tourist zone cost me another 30 Yuan; I passed on paying for admission to the Museum Commemorating the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid (North) Korea. When we arrived I paid my driver, he indicted that he’d wait for me. Would he? With the language barrier I was nervous. I had a train to Beijing to catch that evening and with the place deserted if he took off I'd be marooned. The Great Wall in this region is in great disrepair so if I worked for that government entity, the 2nd thing I’d do once I got that road paved is to spruce the place up a bit, put the missing tiles back into the footpaths and put in new ladders to replace the dangerously rotten wooden ones.

Above: my driver walks back to his red cab. The parking lot was almost empty OK, so the place needed some work. But this is the Great Wall of China! I looked around, it seemed that I had the whole place to myself. But I didn't want to let that cab out of my sight. But there was still plenty to see.


When I got back to the entrance my driver was still there, smoking a cigarette and listening to the radio. He looked at me and asked , “Choson?”, pronounced in a fast bark, Chow-sien. I already knew that the word Choson meant North Korea and thanks to the Internet I knew that the border in this area was just a small creek; perhaps he was offering to show it to me.

He took me to the creek that forms the border between China and the DPRK and pointed out 2 armed soldiers from the Korean People’s Army in the distance. He started to shout and wave at them. At first they ignored him but they soon started walking our way with their rifles slung over their shoulders. When they got closer a woman selling tourist nick-nacks from a cart indicated that I should buy a carton of cigarettes from her (around $6 US) and throw them across the creek. The soldiers asked who I was, the driver replied that I was an American. The woman indicated that now was the time for me to hurl the carton of smokes into North Korea. I hit the shore with the carton, the soldiers pretended not to notice. But when I lifted my camera up to my eye to get the shot they noticed that and protested loudly. When they walked away without the carton the woman who sold me the cigarettes gestured that it was alright to take a picture. I had read that the soldiers would come back for the cigarettes when there was no one around. So that’s 1/3 of the Axis of Evil. I didn’t see any actual evil on either my boat buzz of Sinuiju or my encounter with the KPA but perhaps the Kim family is keeping their reservoir of evil someplace else where I couldn’t see it.