North Korea has always fascinated me – the idea that such a country can exist in these modern times.
And despite the belligerent and sometimes bizarre stories coming out of Pyongyang, the country has quietly stepped up investment in tourism infrastructure in recent years.
This includes the construction of a new ski resort near the country’s east coast and water parks in the capital.
And while it’s not exactly a tourism hotspot, travel agencies estimate as many as 6,000 westerners visit every year, compared with just 700 a decade ago.
In fact, there’s a travel agency in Singapore which offers tours to North Korea.
However, despite my fascination with the hermit kingdom, I’ve never made it to Pyongyang.
Still, there are places where you can peep into North Korea, especially if you are curious about the country and yet don’t want to fork out money for a tour which some say helps prop up the regime.
Here are a few that you can consider:
Ji’an, in northeastern Jilin Province, can be reached in about seven hours by train from Shenyang.
While the town itself is unspectacular, it has a number of UNESCO-listed tombs from the ancient Koguryo Kingdom.
But its main drawcard, to me at least, is its proximity to the North Korea town of Manpo, which lies just across the Yalu River.
There are boat tours along the river which goes almost right up to the North Korea shore – so close that you can see the expressions on the faces of North Koreans who are hanging out along the riverfront.
There were also North Korean children who gestured to us to throw some money across (we didn’t).
Our boatman told me how his father, as a child, had ran across the river to Manpo in winter when the water had frozen over.
But he added that if anyone tried to do that now, they’ll be shot by the North Korean soldiers who can be seen patrolling the riverfront.
Changbai Mountains, China
From Ji’an, a three hour train ride would bring you to Tonghua, which is at the foot of the Changbai Mountains which straddle the Chinese-North Korean border.
The mountain is renowned for its breathtaking beauty, and according to former North Korean leader Kim Jong IL’s state biography, he was supposedly born on this mountain, though records outside of North Korea suggest otherwise.
Be cautious when hiking on the mountain.
The border is apparently not clearly demarcated so if you don’t see anyone else around you, beat a hasty retreat unless you want to defect to North Korea.
Unlike Ji’an, however, there are no towns on the North Korean side, and because it’s a mountain, the North Korean side looks exactly like the Chinese side.
But we did see (using zoom lenses) people on the North Korean side making their way down to the crater lake, something we’re not allowed to do on the Chinese side.
This is perhaps the most famous town in China which straddles the North Korean border.
A popular destination is the Broken Bridge which crosses the Yalu River.
Built in 1911 by the Japanese, the bridge connecting China to North Korea was bombed by US forces in 1950 during the Korean War.
However, only the half reaching into North Korea was blown up, leaving the Chinese half intact.
And today, you can walk to the edge of the standing half-bridge to peer into the North Korean town of Sinuiju.
With the help of powerful telescopes, we could make out civilians and soldiers milling around the ferris wheel near the riverfront.
But unlike Ji’an, we were unable to see the town itself.
Further north is Tiger Mountain, which has a restored section of the Great Wall, which overlooks North Korea.
But to get up close and personal, you’ll have to go on a boat tour.
We booked one from one of the touts along the Dandong riverfront.
Like in Ji’an, the boat brought us to within metres of the North Korean shore, but instead of civilians, we only saw soldiers.
And instead of a town, we saw military installations.
At some points during the tour, our boatman told us to put away our cameras, which made the trip feel a little more thrilling and clandestine.
And like in Ji’an, we had North Koreans gesturing for money, and in this case, cigarettes.
Only this time round, it wasn’t the kids but the soldiers instead.
Panmunjom, North & South Korea
The Cold War lives on here.
As we entered the Joint Security Area, escorted by soldiers, we were given a briefing about the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
And then we were made to sign an idemnity form which states, among other things, that we could die as a result of enemy action.
Following that, we were brought to the military demarcation line which separates the two halves of the Korean Peninsula.
As we took pictures of the North Korean building on the other side, we were also keenly aware that North Korean soldiers were also looking at us through binoculars.
We also couldn’t help noticing the many cameras affixed on that building.
Despite the tensions between the two Koreas (they remain technically at war), the Joint Security Area felt strangely peaceful.
But things can take a turn for the worse quite suddenly, and it has.
In 1976, two U.S. soldiers were hacked to death by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers when the Americans tried to trim a tree in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Despite the possible danger, however, the DMZ is a popular tourist destination.
But compared to what we can see along the Chinese-North Korean border, we don’t get to see much of North Korea here, other than empty hills stretching into the horizon.
While the town of Kaesong can be glimpsed through telescopes, it is still too far away for us to make out much.
Slightly better is the town of Gijeong-dong, otherwise known as the North Korean Propaganda Village.
The most distinguishing thing in town is the gigantic flagpole, which was built to dwarf the one on the South Korea side.
But you’ll need good zoom lenses to make out anything more.