Traveler's Tales

Almost in North Korea

by Rob Long

JI'AN, China – Make a note of this: If someone serves you a bowl of deep-fried sparrows, the best thing to do is quickly pick one up and eat its head first. There are two reasons for this: One, the head is the most psychologically squirrelly part of any animal, so it's best to get that part into your mouth as fast as possible; and two, it's also the crunchiest part of the sparrow, and as everybody knows, if something is deep fried and crunchy, how bad could it be?

Not bad, really. Especially with a dipping sauce.

I tucked into a bowl of fried sparrows recently in the small river town of Ji'an in the northern part of China. Ji'an is a border town, and the river that flows through it, the Yalu, has bustling, cheerful China on one side, and creepy, silent North Korea on the other. I had come to Ji'an on the unlikely chance that I could get into North Korea by walking across the railroad bridge from Ji'an to Manpo — there's no other way across the river, though it's only 25 or 30 meters wide — and presenting myself and my cash and my disarming smile to the emaciated character who (I imagined) was guarding the border and who would (I imagined) let me stroll the streets of Manpo for the price of a jumbo Kit Kat bar. I'll cut to the chase: It didn't happen.

I had planned a more elaborate visit, of course. I joined a group that was going to Pyongyang and a few other parts of North Korea. The North Koreans, apparently, are willing to accept small groups of escorted tourists, which is a lucky coincidence, because small groups of tourists are pretty much all they can hope for, especially in August, when Pyongyang has to compete with Edgartown and Castine for the summer tourist dollar. We were prepared for the propaganda, the ceaseless surveillance, told we would eat "but not well," and in general braced to be barraged by the kind of nonsense that used to irritate travelers to the old Soviet Union — trips to cement factories and spotless hospitals and cheerfully robotic elementary school classrooms. 

Personally, I love that stuff. I have a collection of Chinese propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution, and I've collected some of the writings of the fiendishly nuts , the leader of Turkmenistan, who upon taking power after the collapse of the Soviet Union changed his name to Turkmenbashi ("The Leader of All Turkmen") and named a month after his mother.

But North Korea eluded and tantalized. I have a wonderful propaganda poster of recent vintage that came to me, via a few handoffs and back-channels, directly from Pyongyang. On the right side, shouting, defiant faces of women of all races and creeds — North Korean, African, vaguely third-worldy looking headbands, that sort of thing. On the left, crouching in the lower corner, the mousey, terrified figures of United States and Japanese soldiers. And across the center, the word "No!" in giant English letters and in forceful Korean script: "21st Century Without Sexual Harassment!" How perfect is that?

The North Koreans, apparently, don't much care if my jones for totalitarian tourism is satisfied. Word came before I left for Beijing that the flight to Pyongyang was cancelled, and our visit was officially off. There was trouble, we were told, with the recent rains. Flooding, water damage, homelessness — the kinds of things it's hard to explain away.

But I flew to Beijing anyway, and headed north. You know, just in case.

In Ji'an, I walked across the railroad bridge until I came to a painted white line on the tracks: The official border between roaring China and its decrepit neighbor. A smiling, barely teen-aged Chinese guard slouched against the rail, using a bright pink "China Mobile" umbrella to shield away the sun. He laughed as I crouched low to take a dramatic picture of the white line, the railroad tracks, and the grim buildings of Manpo beyond. He laughed, pointed to the North Korean side, and shrugged.  

I took a bunch of pictures of the bridge and of the North Korean children swimming in the river. Two men appeared on bicycles on the opposite bank as I was snapping photos and waving, and my Chinese guide loudly patted his stomach and suggested we go for lunch.

"So who were those two guys?" I asked, crunching into a sparrow's head.

"Army," my guide said. "They don't like so much photos."

Crunch, crunch, crunch. 

"But what could they do if they wanted me to stop taking them?" I asked.

"Fire into the air," he said, dipping a sparrow in the sauce.

Makes sense, I thought. That's sort of the North Korean solution to things: Fire something into the air — a bullet, a Taepodong missile, whatever's handy.

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