Looking at Vietnam, North Korea and Russia from the border, what do I see?

  During the peak of the new crown epidemic, countries closed their doors to ordinary tourists. As I used to travel abroad, I felt a strong sense of being cut off from the world. When I stand on the vast plain in the hinterland of China and look around, it seems that everything around me is the same as before. But I know that in the unseen distance, the borderline that is so narrow that it is indistinguishable even on a satellite map has become a barrier that is difficult for ordinary people to cross.
  The 22,000-kilometer land border of China demarcates our borders with 14 neighboring countries – each of which has a very different style from China, but is connected to our landscape. I am grateful for this border line, which ranks first in the world in terms of length and number of neighbors. In the past two years when it was difficult to leave the country, I still had the opportunity to see a glimpse of the “outside scenery” through it.

On May 19, 2020, on the border bridge on the Sino-Vietnamese border
Looking at Vietnam from Yunnan: Empty Border Bridge

  In May 2020, when the first round of the epidemic that hit the country just ended, everyone seemed to be cautiously trying to get back their “normal life”. In Hekou, a border town in Yunnan, I stood on the bridge leading to the old Vietnamese market on the other side, recalling the scene I saw in the same place four years ago:
  a middle-aged man wearing a huge Vietnamese hat, pushing hard A dilapidated bicycle came to the Chinese side, the seat and rear luggage rack were all piled up with various kinds of goods, almost crushing the car; at the same time, on the other side of the bridge, a young woman hugged in one hand. The swaddling baby, carrying a huge microwave oven packing box in the other hand, is slowly pacing towards Vietnam… Scenes of vivid scenes, just like this, they are bustling and intersecting in this pedestrian walk that is no more than 100 meters long. on the bridge.
  Four years later, there are no traces of passengers on the bridge. However, under the bridge, the emerald green water was still surging in the boundary river called “Red River”. Standing by the river on the Chinese side, I could even clearly hear the roar of the motorcycle on the other side accelerating suddenly.
  At that time, Vietnam was also in a brief period of calm after the first round of the epidemic: on the other side of the river, the church that was still under construction four years ago had been completed, showing its beautiful appearance; The bus passed by the riverside road, and the passengers on the bus looked the same as before, except that they all wore masks.
  This kind of calm can also be glimpsed from the border bridge: the only Chinese border inspector in black uniform on the bridge at the moment, unlike the “fully armed” common staff at border ports today, only wearing a black uniform. A thin medical mask. On the opposite side of Vietnam, only sparse retractable doors were used to close the exit, and no personnel were even dispatched to patrol the bridge deck.
  No one in the two countries is as heavily guarded as the enemy, as if the bridge is only temporarily closed, and will be opened again after a short lunch break; those large flat-screen TVs, electric fans and rice cookers will also follow the people traveling between the two sides of the strait. Together, the border residents rushed to the bridge again.
View of North Hamgyong Province, North Korea from Yanbian, Jilin Province

  Most Chinese tourists who are curious about North Korea will choose to overlook Sinuiju, North Korea on the other side of the Yalu River in Dandong. As a “window city” in the literal sense, under the continuous efforts of North Korea to build, Sinuiju is actually not as bad as many people think.
  When I was in Dandong, I also looked at the opposite bank: there were many Soviet-style high-rise residential buildings, and there was even a round cake-shaped building with a unique shape. Although Sinuiju is still not as prosperous as the Dandong side, it is also quite different from what I imagined North Korea to look like.

Soviet-style high-rise residential buildings line up in Sinuiju, North Korea on May 8, 2021

  However, on the far less-reported eastern section of the China-North Korea border, where Jilin’s Yanbian state meets North Hamgyong, North Korea, everything on the opposite side looks more like it could be. From Yanji City, the capital of Yanbian Prefecture, to Fangchuan at the end of the border between China and North Korea, I was accompanied by the tortuous Tumen River almost all the way. As the boundary river between China and North Korea, the opposite North Korea is only a few hundred meters away, and anyone can see what it looks like there.
  An old-fashioned commuter train with only one carriage painted in blue and green, whistling from time to time, drove slowly along the river bank, passing through the lush cornfields behind it. The railway station is not far from the village, and the portraits of the two leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, hang high in the middle of the outer wall above the main entrance of the station. Next to the pit stop, there are several old bicycles similar to the “28 bars” cluttered. In and around the village, I saw no trace of motor vehicles—North Korea is so starved of oil under international sanctions that electric trains and human-powered bicycles are the only means of transportation in most rural areas.
  The bungalows facing the river in the front row of the village on the opposite bank were all painted bright green, and the houses in the back row still retained the khaki color that had been exposed to the wind and rain for decades. The other towns or villages I saw on the way had no intention of entertaining the audience on the other side at all—the gray-faced square-box Soviet-style buildings, the rusted iron monuments, and the roof tiles that had been invaded into white by the years all made me In a trance, I thought I was back in the last century.
  Tumen City is located between Yanji and Fangchuan. The city center is built on the riverside. It is a place where every traveler will stop and look up to the other side. The highway bridge and railway bridge across the river connect it with the laborers’ area of ​​Namyang, North Korea on the other side. A group of unit buildings similar to the family home in China in the 1990s, the pink walls and golden roofs constitute the most conspicuous bright color on the other side, which just blocks the old buildings behind it.

  Standing by the river on the Chinese side, I could even clearly hear the roar of the motorcycle on the other side accelerating suddenly.

  In the Tumen River, in addition to the normal bridges and ports, there are at least three broken bridges across the two countries. Two of them are located near Zhuowanzi Village in Hunchun City. In 1945, as World War II came to an end, the Japanese remnants who had been pursued by the Soviet army hurriedly withdrew from northeastern China, crossed the Tumen River, and fled to the Korean Peninsula, which was also under Japanese colonization at the time. Some people say that the bridge was blown up by the Japanese after retreating to stop the Soviet army from continuing to pursue; some people say that before the Japanese retreated here, the Soviet army blew up the two bridges connecting northeast China and North Korea. The lifeline channel of the east.

  Today, only a row of cement piers are left in the railway bridge, standing alone in the river, and the iron components that used to connect the approach bridge and the main bridge on the bank have long been rusted. The road bridge not far upstream, the smooth concrete bridge deck is still as smooth as before, and it is surprisingly well preserved. Only the weeds stubbornly growing from the crevices are a reminder that it has been abandoned for more than 70 years.
  There is no fence preventing me from following it towards the center of the Tumen River, where the border between China and North Korea lies. This unobstructed flow made me almost a little scared. After all, most of the areas on the banks of the Tumen River were blocked by the thick border barbed wire. I have confirmed again and again that there is no prohibition sign on the way to prevent me from stepping on the bridge – in fact, on the official website of Hunchun Port, the Broken Bridge has even been recommended to Chinese and foreign tourists as a tourist attraction.
  The last section of the bridge on the Chinese side of the Broken Bridge is already tilted a bit, and in the quiet atmosphere, people are even more at a loss. There were also two drinking bottles that had been discarded not long ago on the bridge. I stood at the end of the Broken Bridge, and in front of me was the rolling water of the Tumen River. North Korea, one of the most mysterious countries in the world, was only a dozen meters away from me. The section of the bridge that belonged to North Korea was deserted, and there were no guards even on the shore.
  The solid bunker built by the Japanese at the bridgehead, after years of baptism, still stands “faithfully”, which adds a bit of chill to the scene. In the dark hole of the bunker, will a gun suddenly stick out and aim at the uninvited guest on the bridge? I didn’t dare to think any longer, so I turned around in a hurry and rushed down the broken bridge.
Looking at Russia from Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang

  The total length of the Sino-Russian border is more than 4,000 kilometers, which is the longest section of the border between China and all neighboring countries. Except for a corner of the Altai Mountains on the northern edge of Xinjiang that borders Russia, most of the rest are located in the northeast, bordering Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Jilin.

  On the official website of Hunchun Port, the Broken Bridge has even been recommended to Chinese and foreign tourists as a tourist attraction.

  I started from the head of Montenegro in Inner Mongolia and headed north along the Ergun River, the Sino-Russian border river. Most of the time, there is no difference between the two sides of the river, only green grass and green mountains. The water surface meanders back and forth between the grasslands, under the scale of the vast land, it appears very small and thin. However, since the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in the 17th century, the passing Ergun River has always outlined the boundary between China and Russia, witnessing every intersection and collision between the two distant civilizations.
  Mengwu Shiwei is the most prosperous town on this section of the road, across the river from the Russian village of Oroch on the other side. Like many remote villages in Siberia, today’s Olochi Village can only be regarded as a pile of bungalows scattered on the grassland. Many of the almost collapsed Russian-style “wooden carvings” have been weathered to the point that their original colors cannot be discerned, and some even have broken roofs, apparently uninhabited.
  On the contrary, Mengwu Shiwei, a town named after the earliest Mongolian tribe, seems to be more “Russian” than Russia on the other side. On the tourist commercial street in the center of the town, merchants are clamoring for one after another, and the road is crowded with newly built Russian-style houses – one side is a “woodcut” bungalow similar in shape to the village on the other side (but much newer), and the other On the side is a row of tall and spectacular 4-story buildings, each wearing a colorful “onion head hat”. I don’t know how the Russians on the other side will feel when they look at China: Do they feel that this side is more like what “Russia” should look like in their hearts?
  The Ergun River continues to flow northward, through grasslands and forests, until it reaches the junction of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province. It joins with the Shileka River from the Russian side, forming the source of Heilongjiang, turning its head and rushing eastward. And this boundary defined by flowing water even includes two of the “four poles” of China’s geography.
  China’s “Arctic” is not the Mohe Arctic Village crowded with tourists, or even the Beihong Village farther north, but a shoal called Wusuli along the Heilong River. The latitude here is engraved on the stone tablet: 53°33′42″ north latitude.
  I stood on the shore, staring at the dense coniferous forest in Russia on the other side, trying to find something special that should belong here. But no, everything here is too normal. To Liushui, this is just a random spot on a long journey of thousands of kilometers. However, its true meaning is far from that—except in the deserted tip of the northernmost tip of Kazakhstan, no Asian country has a modern border further north.
  And China’s “East Pole” has undoubtedly always attracted more tourists. In 2008, Russia handed over the western half of Heixiazi Island to China. Since then, Jiangxinzhou, where the Heilongjiang and Ussuri Rivers meet, has become the easternmost and youngest border of China. Standing in the Dongji Square in Fuyuan (before the recovery of Heixiazi Island, it used to be the easternmost place in China), on the other side of the river on the left is Heixiazi Island, and the Russian Orthodox Church standing alone by the river, about This is where the border between the two countries is located—to the west of it is Chinese territory.
  In the western half of the island that has been returned to China, Russia’s former border posts are still intact. When I stepped into that old two-story building, it was hard for me to tell where I was. Everything in the room follows Russian standards, including Soviet-style wallpaper and European-style sockets. But the accents of the tourists beside him, as well as the words written on the display boards, clearly and unmistakably indicate that this is China.
  I climbed up the East Pagoda, which marked the eastern end of the Chinese territory, and in front of me was the azure Heilongjiang River and a pair of red and white Russian power transmission towers. The wires crossing the river connect the dilapidated factory buildings on the island with the Russian mainland on the other side of the river. At the end of my vision, I could even vaguely see the prosperous skyline of Khabarovsk (Boli) – Russia’s largest city in the Far East.
  Compared with the distant Khabarovsk, the opposite bank of Blagoveshchensk (Hylan Pao) seen from the river bank of Heihe City is undoubtedly much clearer. From the map, the two cities are like two halves of the same city. The “Khrushchev-style” old Soviet dormitory on the other side, the European-style high-end residences in Art Nouveau style, and even the flying giant Russian flag are enough to see clearly.

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