Sunday, April 13, 2008

North Korea from the flight deck: "Mission Accomplished!"

(Photos are of my internet cafe, the Strollers pub and the train station in Shenyang, and North Korea from a boat and North Korea as seen in the distance over a plate of BBQ shrimp.)

The other day, while walking along the street in Shenyang, I passed some guy speaking English and so immediately made a U-turn. This guy might be able to help me with my food problems. "You speak English!" I cried. Well, duh. "Can you please recommend any good-but-inexpensive restaurants around here?"

He and his wife then took me in hand and escorted me off to "Strollers," a British pub run by Chinese students who want to practice their English. You can practice on me! The entire menu, 15 pages long, was in both English and Chinese. No more stick-figure chicken for me. Food problem solved.

And my waitress even wrote out some Chinese phrases on a napkin for me to use on my upcoming trip to Dandong -- stuff like "Taxi driver, take me to the train station" and "How much does a ticket cost?" and "Which track does my train arrive on?" Yes, I'm still trying to get to North Korea but I've lowered my expectations. A lot. Now all I want to do is follow General Douglas MacArthur's example and get to the Yalu River.

Boarding the train to Dandong was everything I dreamed it would be -- like a 1930s Hollywood movie, only in Chinese. At least 20,000 people bustled around inside the vast hollow station. "Which track? Which train?" I handed people my notes.

"That way."

Then hundreds and hundreds of us all jammed onto the train. OMG, there are at least 300 people jamming into my car alone. I'll never find a seat! But I did. Every seat was numbered, even mine.

I had thought I might meet other American travelers on the train who I could ask about what to do in Dandong. But so far, since the moment I left my hotel room after checking my image in the mirror until now, I'm the only non-Chinese person I've seen. But everyone I've met so far has been extremely helpful. They would read the Strollers waitress's note, nod, smile and then push me along in the right direction. In all the time I have been in China, I have never felt threatened in any way (except, of course, for outside the American consulate, but that's another story.)

Good grief. I've only been on this train for 15 minutes and I'm already hungry. "But Jane, you already had breakfast at the hotel." I did? Sadly and with great reluctance and fond reminiscence, I ate the last energy bar in my messenger bag, the one that I had saved all this time from a Marine dining facility in Iraq.

What happened next? Lots of mountains, lots of farmland, lots of sheep. Four hours' worth of farmland, mountains and sheep. And train tunnels and factories and rivers.

Our first stop was in a large city that seemed to consist of about ten square miles of 10-story housing blocks. It looked like one of those Israeli settlements on the Palestine West Bank.

You gotta love trains. You sit by the window and get sudden intimate glimpses into the lives of all the people who live and work near the tracks. Did that farmer with the hoe use gloves or not? How old was that woman hanging out the wash? What's it like to plow a field with a mule? What's it like to live two hours by bicycle from the nearest general store? And was that farmer really listening to an iPod?

Then there are the train songs running through my head. "Daddy, what's a train...." and "Railroading on the Great Divide, nothing around me but Rockies and sky...." and "The 2:19 took my baby away...." And what's that song about the prisoner listening to the train go by? Hey, that's ME on that train!

"Taxi?" asked a very old man with an honest face in front of the train station in Dandong.

"Sure." And he lead me to a three-wheeled bicycle and off we went to the only four-star hotel in Dandong. But they must have seen me drive up on the bicycle -- either that or they saw the holes in my jeans or my favorite pair of worn-out shoes or else maybe they just didn't like ME -- and started treating me like dirt, like I couldn't afford to be there so why was I wasting their time. And they tried to over-charge me too.

"Wait a minute!" I said, smiling through gritted teeth. "If you guys expect to charge me $100 a night, then you gotta be NICE to me." I know my rights!

But just then the concierge came up and didn't treat me like Rodney Dangerfield -- no respect -- so things went well after that. "I'd like to go to North Korea," I said. "How do I do that?"

"A tourist visa takes seven days to go through but you can take a boat ride and actually be in North Korea in the next 15 minutes." Works for me. So after months and months of struggle and angst, I was finally gonna complete my tour of the "Axis of Evil"! Sort of.

So the concierge took me across the street to the Yalu, put me on a boat and I got so close to the DPRK shore that I could almost reach out and touch it! Now if only I was wearing a flight suit on the deck of this boat, I coulda said, 'Mission Accomplished" in style!

I got to North Korea! I did it! Shut up!