Peeking Into North Korea In Tumen (Before Entering It)

After a great day in Beijing, our 1pm train was to take us on a 25 hour journey into China’s Jilin province in the north east of the country, ending up in Tumen city, on the North Korean border.

This area of China is really interesting, as it’s part of an autonomous region called “Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region”, where a large portion of the population are ethnic Koreans, who speak Korean, rather than Chinese, as a first language. Being so close to the border with Russia as well, a lot of the sign posts and restaurants are written in 3 languages: Korean, Chinese and Russian. This part of China is regularly referred to as the “3rd Korea”, which most people do not know about.

As we approached the Korean border, the scenery began to become mountainous and pretty beautiful, but the rest of the journey was fairly flat and industrial. Despite that, we had a great time on the train, bonding with the tour group that we were soon to enter North Korea with. They were all fantastic, fascinating people. Our tour leader, Matt, from Young Pioneers Tours, was knowledgable and loads of fun.

Tumen seemed fairly small for a Chinese city (200,000 people I think?), but it was very pleasant and modern, with a nice boulevard beside the river marking the border with North Korea.

tumen restaurant

We ate some great food at the restaurant pictured above, located just beside the river overlooking the North Korean town of Namyang.

welcome to tumentumen shouting at korea

We noticed some very odd signpost just by the riverbed, facing Korea. “Welcome To Tumen” was a little strange, as the only people seeing that upon entering Tumen would be defectors… Oh, and apparently we weren’t allowed to shout at Korea.

Comparing Tumen to the view of Namyang on the other side seemed worlds away. There was a plasma screen blaring out aerobics music right next to the border, obviously the North Korean farmers on the other side could hear it.

As it got dark, I saw a couple of Chinese teenagers pointing strong lasers into Namyang in North Korea. I’m sure the North Koreans hated that, but oh well, they couldn’t do anything about it.

china dprk friendship

We got a nice group picture at the border. This wasn’t the whole group though, as we were meeting the other half after entering North Korea.

The next day, we were due to cross into North Korea at about 1pm, but our North Korean guides decided they’d make it a little earlier and add something extra onto our itinerary, meaning that we crossed at 8am instead.

The border crossing was pretty eerie. There was a large border terminal built on the Chinese side, but nobody using it other than us. The Tumen/Namyang border crossing is one of the least popular crossings between the two countries, and only opened to foreigners within the last couple of years. We saw a couple of supply trucks crossing it whilst we were there, but still very little traffic.

border crossing

This was the bridge we walked over, crossing into North Korea, with Namyang in sight. When we reached the North Korean customs building on the other side, our Korean guides met us. We had to declare all of our electronics, and we had expected them to be searched (apparently this particular border crossing is one of the strictest), but they went through without searching.

A North Korean official came up to all of us with a temperature sensor, checking whether  we were ill. One of our group members hadn’t expected this official to randomly point an object towards his face, and he mistook it for a gun! He was a little shocked but came to grips with it pretty soon.

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