It seemed like a fun idea at the time — to climb the sand dune over there…..the one on the other side of the short barbed wire fence, the fence that looked like it was merely surrounding a pasture to keep the cows in. Fortunately the two People’s Liberation Army soldiers who had attached themselves to our merry (but clueless) band intervened just as Max and Mr. S each had one leg on the other side of the fence.
“DON’T CLIMB OVER THE FENCE!” they both shouted excitedly. ‘THAT’S RUSSIA!”
Faster than they could say “where’s my vodka?” Max and Mr. S scurried back to the sand dune where the rest of us were — the one that was in China — where we all got a thorough, yet friendly and lighthearted scolding.
We were at one of the most interesting geographic spots on the globe — Fengshan, in Jilin Province — a place where the borders of Russia, China, and North Korea converge. Obviously we were in China. The Chinese road from the city of Hunchun to the border is along a narrow strip of land that is China. To the north (on the other side of the barbed wire fence) is Russia. Across the Tumen River that parallels the road to the south is North Korea.
We had heard that this area had been developed into a tourist spot, so on a holiday weekend in October of 1997 we decided to make a run for the border….to get a glimpse of all 3 countries. 7 of us from our language program set out by overnight train from Changchun to Yanji, where the train line ended . From there we weren’t sure how we’d get to Fengshan, but we were confident in our ability to improvise.
Our first order of business when we got off the train in Yanji was to ask around for information on how to get there. I don’t think it ever occurred to us how strange it might be for a group of Americans to wander around asking everyone we saw how to get to the North Korean border. Most people looked at us like we were nuts, but one young man seemed eager to help us. That’s because he was the owner of a van, something he quickly surmised we were in need of. He told us that Fengshan was beyond the town of Hunchun (about 100 miles away). He was from Hunchun, and he’d be happy to drive us there since there was no train service. We negotiated a price, piled in and off we went.
Halfway between Yanji and Hunchun we stopped in the Chinese city of Tumen, which sits across the Tumen River from a dilapidated North Korean town. We wandered around town, took a few photos, then continued on our way to Hunchun. We had no idea where to stay, but our friendly driver took us to the local “approved hotel for foreigners.”
When we rolled into Hunchun for the night , however, we were still only partway to our destination — Fengshan. Now what? I asked at the front desk and they told me they’d never heard of it. The van driver, who was lingering around for the entertainment value of watching 7 bungling foreigners chimed in and said he’d go ask some of his friends. He came back about an hour later saying that he’d gotten information and would be happy to drive us out there the next morning. We negotiated a time and price and settled into our rooms above the Karaoke Bar.
The next morning the driver dutifully showed up with his wife and child in tow. It was a public holiday in China, so they decided to make a family trip out of it. We all climbed in and set off across beautiful hills covered with fall colors.
About ten miles from our destination, we came upon an army checkpoint with a big sign announcing that we were entering the border region. Uh-oh. An armed PLA soldier appeared on the road and ordered the van to stop. He stuck his head in our van, saw 7 foreigners and the driver, his wife, and kid and barked “Where’s the tour guide?” I quickly raised my hand. “I am the tour guide!” This elicited a confused look from the soldier since the internal logic of that statement was impossible to process. Tour guides are Chinese. Foreigners are tourists (and potential spies). Therefore, this Foreigner CANNOT be the tour guide. The soldier looked at the driver as if to say “I’m holding YOU responsible for this situation” but he just smiled and said “She really is the tour guide. Her Chinese is good, though, so it’s OK.” He then told the soldier how we were just foreign students out for a holiday weekend.
We all held our breaths, fearing that, having come so close to our destination, we would now be turned back. The soldier turned to us all and asked for our passports. GULP! Passports? None of us had our passports with us. In those days we all had green Foreign Residence Permits that we carried with us at all times. This functioned as our passport when travelling. Fortunately we all had those along with us, and that seemed to be fine with the soldier. He took them all and headed into the guard house.
After a few minutes, the soldier returned with our passports and told us we could proceed. Whew! As he walked away, two young soldiers ran over and hopped into the van with us. They told us that they had the day off and wanted to go to Fengshan tos, so they were just hitching a ride with us. I had a sneaky suspicion that they were being sent along to make sure we stayed out of trouble, but they insisted it was just a fun outing for them on their day off. We happily adopted them into our group.
We drove the remaining ten miles to the Fengshan Scenic Spot, took some pictures of Russia and North Korea, read President Jiang’s inscription carved into a rock, then headed back.
It was while we were heading back towards the army checkpoint that we had the little incident at the sand dune. Coming up the highway we’d noticed some big sand dunes on the north side of the road. Max suggested it would be fun to stop and climb to the top of one. So we did. This seemed to make the soldiers a bit nervous, but they let us climb anyway.
Well, they let us climb until Max and Mr. S. spotted the bigger dune about 50 yards away and started climbing the small fence to get to it, at which point the they ordered us all back into the van.
As we bounced along the road back to their post, I asked them “you were really sent to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t cause an international incident, weren’t you?” This time they admitted to us that yes, that had in fact been their mission.
The North Korean town across the Tumen River from Tumen, Jilin, China.
The meadow and trees in the foreground are in China. The road and building to the left are in Russia. North Korea is on the other side of the river. The train bridge links Russia and North Korea. The river empties into the Yellow Sea, about 5 miles further up the river.