DANDONG, China—Chinese tourists who come to this border city with North Korea often hop on boats for excursions to a virtual human zoo: They cross the Yalu River and motor along the other side to gawk at poor North Koreans.
The Chinese peer through binoculars, occasionally waving or drifting close. They return to shore grateful that China has chosen a capitalist path, long ago veering from the socialist totalitarianism that's still in force across the river.
"I feel sorry for them," Gao Feng, a visitor, said after a boat trip, launching into praise for his own country. "I feel proud to be a Chinese. Our country is developed, and people have become rich."
For many Chinese visitors, the river journey is a feel-good occasion that reaffirms the vast changes that have transformed their nation in the past quarter-century. They marvel at the stark contrasts along the Yalu River's two sides.
On the Chinese side, high-rise hotels and modern condos tower overhead. Huge outdoor plasma-screen monitors brighten the fronts of karaoke bars, massage parlors and bathhouses. Late-model cars ply the manicured streets along the riverfront, where boats with dragon motifs fill with tourists for cruises. On a recent day, a motorized ski sent a plume of water skyward as its rider whizzed up and down the river.
At nighttime, the Chinese side is ablaze in neon lighting.
Barely a light flickers on the North Korean side, a sign of dire energy shortages in the most closed society in the world. Some 350,000 residents dwell in the border city of Sinuiju, but smokestacks over dilapidated factories issue nary a wisp. Along the river, rusted fishing boats list, and residents squat, staring aimlessly. A Ferris wheel sits idle.
"When you compare the two sides, you see how prosperous China is," said Wu Zhanjun, 36, who's from Liaoning province, in China's surrounding industrial heartland.
"I saw their children catching fish," added Han Quanyi, a truck owner who was taking a vacation here. "They don't look like Chinese children. They are very thin. Their clothes are old and dirty. And the women have mud all over their bodies."
Dandong has long drawn tourists as the site where Chinese troops swept across the Yalu during the Korean War, 1950-1953, to aid ally North Korea. A partial span known as the Broken Bridge, because of wartime bombing, still juts into the river, and tourists can walk along its length reading posters describing wartime history.
For decades, North Korea has been the easiest foreign destination for the Chinese. Until last year, they didn't even need passports. Even today, it's easier for them to enter North Korea than Hong Kong, the prosperous British colony that reverted to China in 1997.
But many Chinese only look at North Korea from the riverboats, although dozens of travel agencies arrange three- and four-day tours in the country, and 100 to 200 tourists cross the border each day.
Those who opt for travel often bristle at the strict rules they must follow. Among the items that Chinese tourists are prohibited from taking to North Korea are mobile phones, binoculars, laptop computers, professional cameras and zoom lenses.
"They keep asking us, `Why shouldn't I be allowed to bring my cell phone? Even if I don't use it, I can't bring it?'" one travel agency owner said, requesting anonymity for fear that identifying her might hurt her business.
North Korea recently demanded that Chinese tourists stop posting impressions of their visits to the country online, warning that it may cut off the travel agencies' business.
"People have written that the North Koreans are good at intelligence but they aren't good at anything else," the agency owner said. "The North Koreans found out about it, and they've warned us."
With 800,000 residents, Dandong is the largest of China's frontier cities, and its economy has risen because of steady growth in trade with North Korea. Last year, China exported $1.08 billion worth of goods to North Korea—a 35 percent increase over the previous year—and received $499 million in imports, mainly minerals.
North Korea's launch of seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last month hasn't affected that trade. Residents here offered bemused shrugs when asked about it, voicing equal concern about recent floods that wracked the nation.
But traders and businessmen in Dandong, awaiting eventual change in North Korea, do complain about the difficulties of doing business over the border.
"They have no electricity. We have to bring our own generators. There are no roads. We have to build roads. The workers have no food. So we have to bring food, too. And there's no equipment," said a local consultant who works with Chinese mining companies eager to exploit North Korea's copper and zinc deposits and who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Merchants visiting North Korea also must grow accustomed to demands that they lay flowers before portraits of Kim Il Sung, the deceased founder of North Korea.
"The North Koreans lead us to the pictures and we have to offer flowers," said the consultant, who said he'd been across the border "countless times."
North Korean agents entrusted to cross the border into China to shop for the Stalinist state sometimes can be seen in Dandong's streets, usually in groups of three, always wearing lapel pins with images of current strongman Kim Jong Il, the deceased Kim's son. Local merchants said the agents sometimes passed bogus U.S. dollars.
Washington has accused Pyongyang of printing counterfeit American $100 bills of such high quality that they're called "supernotes." Last year, it imposed sanctions on a Macau bank that it accused of helping to move the North Korean notes.
"I just say that my shop doesn't accept dollars," said An Jize, an ethnic Korean who owns a shop that sells brightly colored traditional Korean costumes.
Along the waterfront, Han, the truck driver, scanned the North Korean side and reflected how North Korea and China once had similar systems and levels of development.
"They are still going along the old road," he said, signaling across the river. "Before the reforms, China was like that. But with the reforms, it's changed a lot. The gap is so huge."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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