I expected the first few days of this trip to be difficult. I was right. I’ve come a very long way, more than 1000 kilometres from Beijing, in order to do little more than wait for my trip to North Korea. It’s not the best way to start my middle-class backpacking cliché, but it’s necessary.
I went to Dalian first. It’s clean, modern and developed, but there’s very little to do. I walked around the coast from Xinghai Square (below) and got a little sunburnt. My skin, pale and fragile after a summer of hiding behind closed curtains in air-conditioned rooms, couldn’t handle a few hours of mild sunshine. I didn’t feel happy that day.
Leaving Beijing marked an abrupt change to my lifestyle, which has mostly revolved around work since the beginning of the summer.
When I had a routine and work to go to, being alone so much of the time seemed less troublesome, but take those things away and life gets lonely. I’m haunted by the ghosts of my previous travelling companions – Alex, with whom I visited this province last year, and H, a screaming, chain-rattling poltergeist. I haven’t travelled by myself for a long time.
Then there’s the problem of my body – perfectly adequate when I’m taking the subway, walking to the supermarket or sitting in front of a computer – but far less suited to the rigours of hill climbing, long walks and overnight travel in a narrow train berth. In other words, I can’t ignore how overweight I got over the last year. It’s no longer just an aesthetic problem.
I don’t want to dwell on these things so I’ll feign optimism and say I’m sure it’ll all be OK.
Anyway, I was less than enthusiastic during those first couple of days. After one night in Dalian, I was happy to leave and had a very civilized bus ride along almost empty highways to Dandong, a city twinned with Doncaster, where I checked into my bargain basement hotel in the grubbiest part of town. Emblazoned across the back of the uniforms of the local middle school students is the English word ‘Struggling’. Not ‘Striving’ or ‘Endeavouring’, but ‘Struggling’. It aptly describes this part of the city.
I went to the travel agency that will take me to North Korea tomorrow. If it wasn’t for the fact that I haven’t given them any money yet, I’d be convinced that it’s a scam. I’m not totally sure that it’s all going to happen – expect an angry rant this time tomorrow if it doesn’t work out.
I like Dandong a lot. As they develop, Chinese cities tend to reach a point where developers bulldoze towerblocks and replace them with an incongruous mix of Disney-fied, faux-European castles and glass-and-steel UFO buildings. That hasn’t happened too much to Dandong, and it’s all the better for it. It’s relatively quiet but the proximity to North Korea gives it an edge.
This afternoon I walked to a hillside park in the northwest of the city.
I was too late to go up the tower at the peak but, even from the foot of it, the views were sensational and well worth the heart attack, stroke and complete physical and mental breakdown induced by the hill climb. Just look at the difference between Dandong and the North Korean city Sinuiju on the other side of the Yalu river.
I had a good afternoon and it got me excited about tomorrow. If all goes as planned, expect my next update in about six days, after North Korea and after I move on to my next destination.