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With nothing better to do over the Chinese New Year, we decided to load up our car with laowai and a dog, then head down to the North Korean border towns of Linjiang and Changbaizhen. We had no expectations, so we were very surprised to find this one of the best road trips possible in Dongbei.

Chinese New Year is not the best time for sight seeing. Most people travel home, so restaurants, hotels and most shops either close or offer minimal (no) service. The advantage of travelling at this time is the roads are almost deserted, and the toll gates are lifted.

Experience dictates it’s best to keep travel plans as open as possible. Ours was simple - head to the border and drive as long along it as possible. There’s very little information online, but we narrowed the options down to starting at Ji’an, Linjiang, Changbaizhen and Yanji. We decided on Linjiang, because there was a lake nearby, and once there, we could find out if travelling north or south would be better.

We left Changchun in the morning, about 9am. There was some snow on the roads, but nothing serious. It’s freeway all the way to Fusong, but we turned off at Jingyu - about three hours from Changchun. For anyone driving, it’s important to remember there are speed cameras all along the highway, and they show less mercy than their western counterparts. It’s important to pay attention to speed limits (they change all the time, especially in tunnels), and recognise the speed camera signage. 

It’s unfair to give opinions on the towns we visited, because everything everywhere is dead over Chinese New Year. We found one restaurant open on the far edge of town. Friendly people with an unusual hot-pot/bbq combination. Our Chinese travel guide (my wife) advised us to order something expensive, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the effort cooking. Considering how few restaurants were open (one), “Fair enough”. It was a hot pot flavoured with ‘suan cai’ - dongbei sauerkraut. on top, in the middle, was a hot plate for bbq. I’d never seen anything like it. It was different, eating bbq prawns in the middle of a dongbei winter isn’t something Paul Hogan would recommend, but we were satisfied and ready to go on our merry way.

We followed the S204 down to the outskirts of Baishan. Maybe it was the lack of traffic, but the roads were good, and the scenery pleasant. When we reached Jiangyuan, we got some conflicting messages from our Baidu, Apple and Volkswagen navigation systems. The Baidu route looked a better road, but the VW (not for the first time) suggested a dirtier, smaller road through a few villages (The X089). We took this route. It was longer, but interesting and safe. We hit the S303 and drove to Linjiang along some very new roads down a lovely mountain range.

Linjiang was prettier than expected, though not pretty enough to be a tourist destination. It was no problem finding a dog friendly hotel, though it took a few hours to find the only restaurant open in town. There is a nice park along the river where the locals enjoyed their promenading. Along the opposite side of the park was a little North Korean town. 

I’d seen North Korea when I went to Ji’an. But it’s always a surprise to see it. No amount of propaganda can hide the poverty consistent all along the border. The Chinese towns along the way are hardly rich, but they all looked like Shanghai alongside their  North Korean counterparts. Maybe the lights, river activities and development were for the Chinese, and not North Korean propaganda. Look at them, compared to us…doesn’t Socialism with Chinese characteristics look darn sexy?

The contrast is immense. Linjiang is a small town in Jilin Province, but it was lit up like Las Vegas. There was a small amusement park on the frozen river. You could ice skate, or slide down slopes onto the Yalu river, or even be sit in a tyre tube and be pulled along by a tractor along the river. All of this merriment was within view of the North Korean village, which had a few signs of life, electricity or wood fired heating. Every 100 - 200 meters there was a small North Korean guard post. Nothing on the Chinese side. 

We stayed the night, then travelled along the S303 to Changbaizhen. The roads were deserted, but still pretty new. There was one rock slide along the way, where we moved some of the larger fallen rocks of the road. The scenery is very mountainous, but the road is usually pretty level along the river. There are plenty of places to stop and take nice photos of the mountains, rivers and miserable looking North Korean villages. It took about seven hours to get to Changbaizhen, again, there were plenty of photo - stops along the way. We didn’t stop for lunch because all the restaurants were closed.

We arrived in Changbaizhen to easily find a dog friendly hotel. Changbaizhen isn’t as pretty as Linjiang. It looks greyer, and more industrial. It lacks the riverside amusements of Linjiang, but it’s next to one of the largest North Korean cities along the border (Hyesan). This is a truly ugly city. Depressing and oppressive. Unlike every other North Korean village, this one has signs of industry, electricity, education and wealth - a few cars were spotted on the other side. There is a bridge crossing the river, but it doesn’t look used or inviting. On top of one hill was one of the few examples of art we saw - a garish, and crumbling giant red flag made of cement. It even had a few strands of colourful (red) propaganda, and a few North Korean flags. 

 They were very quiet, no art or propaganda anywhere. Occasionally there was one or two people doing their laundry in the river (It was about -20). All along the border were little guardhouses. There was always a soldier or two around a village, but I didn’t see any Chinese military on our side (maybe their camouflage gear is better). There was one spot where we drove through a little rock fall, but it was an easy drive along the S303. It took us a very slow seven hours (lots of stopping for photographs), but you can do the journey in five. Be careful of speed cameras, they are all along this road. There’s also a barbed wire fence on the Chinese side, though a few holes could be seen along it. 

Changbaizhen wasn’t much fun, so we stayed a night and left early. We were hoping to drive along the 098 Country Road along the border, then up to Changbaishan. It looked pretty interesting on Google Maps, but I couldn’t find any information about it. Our tour guide could only find a few bits of information on Baidu, and it wasn’t promising. Mostly dirt road and few villages. The North Koreans are very unfriendly and good at slinging rocks, so don’t stop and take photos or you’ll get a few broken windows. It didn’t deter us, so we drove along.

This was quite beautiful scenery. The river was so narrow in parts we could look down on a soldier fetching water. Sadly, we saw our first Chinese soldiers, who told us the road was closed…hopefully just for the winter. We had to turn back and drive up the S302 to Changbaishan.  It was a little disappointing, but hopefully we can return in summer, because it looked like quite a beautiful road.

The S302 is a new road, with construction underway for a freeway through the mountains. South Changbaishan was closed for winter, so we went to Changbaishan North. It’s only about four hours from Changbaizhen. The South Peak is closer, but not as interesting (and closed in winter).

Changbaishan is very beautiful in summer. Winter…it’s cold. We walked up in a blizzard, and some of the sites (like the premier attraction crater lake) were closed. Park entrance was free, but it still cost ¥85 to get in. It wasn’t as busy as summer, but still very busy. For Europeans accustomed to winter scenery, it would be nothing special, but the Australian in me found it worthwhile. The only food for sale is instant noodles, so be prepared. Also, if you’re walking around in a blizzard, it can get pretty cold and icy.

We stayed on more night, and in the middle of a snowstorm the next day. It took about three hours through the storm to get to Fushon, then about another four hours back to Changchun.

The trip took us four nights (two in Changbaishan), but it could be done in three. An overnighter to Linjiang can be done. It’s about nine hour drive to Changbaizhen from Changchun, so two nights at least for there.

Public transport looks pretty good down there. If you’re into that sort of thing, it could be nice to bus from Linjiang to Changbaizhen, getting off at the little towns along the way for some snapshots. People are pretty friendly (on the Chinese side at least). 

Travelling with a dog was a small concern, but we had no problems. For anyone wanting to travel around China, here are some tips;

 

Be nice. 

Ask first, before bringing your dog in. Once cash has been exchanged, there’s less reluctance for a change of heart. 

Check in and out early in the morning, or late at night. There’s less people around, and owners will have a better idea of how busy there hotel is.

Be discreet. Keep your dog out of site as much as possible. Leave the dog in the car when checking in and out. Don’t have the dog hanging around the place.

Come the summer, we’re going to try the 098 Country Road along the border. Hopefully it will be open. If anyone has been along this road, can you please share your experiences?

 

 

Article by Matthew Wood. Photogrpahy by  Ferney Manrique

 

For other articles on North Korea read:

 

A STONE'S THROW FROM NORTH KOREA

CHANGCHUN'S DARING RIDERS THROUGH NORTH KOREA

 

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