Climbing the Great Wall and “Becoming a Man” in China
My Chinese students love this quote from Mao: “You are not a man until you have climbed the Great Wall.” After a year of living in China, I decided it was time, I too, “became a man.” I convinced my boyfriend to skip seeing the Great Wall outside Beijing because of the noisy crowds and hawkers in favor of the quieter, less-traveled section outside Dandong in northeast China. I had another motive: to glimpse the enigmatic Hermit Kingdom right across the border from that small city. Even in summer, we encountered only a few handfuls of people (a blessing in China) as we panted and sweat up the murderously steep incline of the Great Wall of Tiger Mountain which had been cleverly built on top of the eponymous Tiger Mountain. We paused every now and then to gaze out at the farms and shack-like homes that dotted the peaceful, North Korean and Chinese countryside.
After climbing the Great Wall’s short and restored section, we opted to follow the footpath around the wall to get back to the entrance (and transportation back into town) rather than hoofing it up, down, and around the mountain’s turns again. The path followed a river which marked the actual China-North Korea border – the opposite river bank was fenced and barbed-wire off. We strained to glimpse a North Korean guard or the tip of a weapon, but it appeared to be only verdant fields.
We could have actually put our toes onto North Korean soil – had not news of recent arrests by North Koreans of Americans and a group of Chinese tourists fishing and monopolizing the area hadn’t gotten the better of us.
A couple boatmen offered to take us back for a small fee, but, still feeling adventurous, we summoned our energy reserves and continued on foot, crossing a narrow chain bridge that dangled above the river, scaling rocks while clinging to the installed rails, and climbing the metal walkway that nervously clung to the side of the mountain before finally reaching solid land again. There, the river narrowed, and so the gap between the two countries shrunk to yibukua, “one step across.” We could have actually put our toes onto North Korean soil – had not news of recent arrests by North Koreans of Americans and a group of Chinese tourists fishing and monopolizing the area hadn’t gotten the better of us.
Inside the actual city proper of Dandong, you can also do a fair amount of Hermit Kingdom-ogling at the city’s bustling riverfront. And compare the lively restaurant, cafe, park atmosphere in China to the bleak smoke stacks just across the Friendship Bridge. If you feel like making a weekend trip of the city, there’s also nice parks in Dandong and the Korean War Museum (known in China as the Museum to Commemorate US Aggression), which has good translations for its displays.
To get to Dandong: we took a night train from Beijing (approximately 10 hours). From Dandong’s bus station, you can buy cheap bus tickets to the Great Wall of Tiger Mountain ( Hushan Changcheng in Chinese) or take a more expensive taxi. One way to the Wall will take 30-40 minutes.
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