My holiday began in Dandong, a wood-print of any other Chinese boomtown, its streets spilling over with traffic, gaudy billboards, and all sorts of touts living out the capitalist dream. One morning late last month, the once-daily train eased across the yawning Yalu River into North Korea.
While there was the expected indignation from the Chinese tourists – “Look at how many people they’ve shoved onto that train,” one woman exclaimed – most passengers were understanding. “They live better than the farmers in Shaanxi and Gansu,” said the man next to me, as he looked out at endless green fields of rice and corn and government-built apartments.
Our traveling entourage included a diverse array of characters: an older woman who would find her brother-in-law’s name at a Pyongyang monument to the Chinese comrades who died during the Korean War; a young serial traveler who was already planning her next trip, a ride on the Tran-Siberian railway to Moscow; a stout ethnic Korean who lived in China and took this journey simply as a weekend diversion.
Even though it has a burgeoning middle class that can now afford to vacation in Thailand or Hawaii, China still has many people who journey to North Korea each year – hundreds per day in August and September during the Arirang mass games, a staged gymnastics spectacle. It could be the red-carpet treatment they receive (five-star hotels, buffet feasts, VIP tickets), but I sense that for my fellow travelers, most in their 50s, this trip was a chance to revisit their still painful adolescence in China, and to say, “Look how far I’ve come.”