Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Crossing the Yalu River: The Red Army, the North Koreans and me

  • (Photos are of the Korean war museum, my concierge and driver, the kite, some North Koreans, the Great Wall and the blown-up bridge over the Yalu.)

    Yesterday was one strange day. This morning after breakfast -- which is included in the price of Chinese hotel rooms BTW -- I went into a huddle with my concierge. "I want to see three things while I'm here -- the western end of the Great Wall, the Korean war museum and the hydro-electric dam across the Yalu River," I said.

    I had heard that you could just walk across this dam and be in North Korea when you got to its far side and even though I'd theoretically already been in North Korea when I took the boat ride the day before, I still hadn't met any North Koreans while on North Korean, er, soil. So I still didn't really know if they were "evil" or not.

    Back at my hotel in Shenyang, I'd met several North Koreans and they had all been really nice. But who knows. Maybe GWB was right -- there's always a first time -- and on their own native soil perhaps they do change into evil monsters. Or maybe George had just been staying up past his bedtime and watching too much TV.

    When some nice North Koreans at my nice hotel in Shenyang were standing around the lobby with their luggage and getting ready to leave back to Pyongyang a few days ago, I said, "Wait just a minute," ran back to my room, snatched up that box of Girl Scout cookies I that had hoped to present to Kim Yong Il, ran back to the lobby and said, "Here. If I can't get a visa to North Korea myself, would you do me the honor of at least making sure that my Girl Scout cookies get there? Eat them in Pyongyang and think of me?" Then we all laughed and hugged.

    Anyway, back to Dandong. Now I know why the Zhong Lian Hotel got four stars! Their fabulous concierge set me right up with the hotel's driver and car and we were off for a day of sight-seeing. First, we drove out to the hydro-electric dam and I got a photo of me standing in front of this massive one-half-mile-wide dam, wearing my "Kriss Worthington for [Assembly]" T-shirt!

    Then my driver negotiated with some of the people in charge of admissions to let me walk across the dam and I bought my ticket. OMG! I'm actually going to do this, set an actual foot in North Korea. Then I walked across the freaking dam -- right up to the border checkpoint on the DPRK side of the Yalu River, 100 feet beyond its shore. I had actually set foot on North Korean soil, er, North Korean concrete.

    At the border-crossing kiosk, I looked right at the North Korean guard. And he looked right at me. No evil there. Check that one off my list. Then the guard motioned for me to turn around and I walked back across the dam.

    And then I got arrested. Again.

    It turns out that one is not supposed to take photos of the dam. It's written everywhere apparently -- in Chinese. And now the Red Army was on my case! What's with this? I'm a freaking 65-year-old grandmother. Why does everyone from China to America to Iraq want to pull rank on me? It must be my hair. I never COULD do anything with my hair.

    But the Red Army officers called in my passport number, checked with the concierge at the four-star hotel in Dandong and talked with my hotel's staff back in Shenyang. Apparently the gist of what was said was that I wasn't a terrorist or nothing -- just a klutz.

    "Delete! Delete!" said one officer, pointing at my camera. Sorry, Kriss. There went the photo of your T-shirt. But I hope you still win the election.

    After the business of deciding whether or not I was a terrorist spy in sensible shoes had been taken care of, I got to chatting with the Red Army officers and they were really nice too. And cute. I wonder if one of them would consider coming back to the States with me and marrying one of my daughters? Probably not.

    Next, the driver and I went off to the western end of the Great Wall but they wanted 100 yuan to get in so I just took a photo and bought a bag of hot chestnuts instead.

    Which reminds me. I still haven't bought any souvenirs for my family -- but that's not my fault. I haven't seen any trucker caps or T-shirts anywhere that say "Shenyang" or "Dandong" or even "Beijing Olympics". But, Aleena, I did manage to score you an actual North Korean rock for your collection. (Aleena works at the Ciao Bella gelato store in north Berkeley with my daughter Ashley so I gotta keep on her good side since I hear that the new flavor of the day is pineapple tangerine rum sorbet.)

    Then we went off to the Korean war museum, "The Museum Commemorating Stopping the American Aggression in Korea," that is. When I was a kid in the 1950s, we heard a lot about Harry Truman, General Douglas MacArthur and the Yalu River. And here I was. That Yalu is no petty stream!

    The museum was gigantic. It had war planes and field artillery in front of it. It was world-famous. It was located high on a mountain overlooking the Yalu. And it was closed. "Sorry, Ma'am. It's a Monday." But there was an older man outside flying a kite so we got to do that. And I actually took some photos without getting busted. And we toured a bunker that had been the head Chinese and North Korean generals' and strategists' main command post during the war. And I bought a DVD showing film footage of the war that had been taken by the Red Chinese side.

    Then I popped onto a bus and went back to my hotel in Shenyang, which by now I totally viewed as my new home in China. So if you come to Shenyang for the soccer part of the 2008 Olympic games in August, please stay here at the Chilbosan. It's a wonderful hotel. And they will leave the light on for you.