The dreaded visa run: We’ve all done it, some of us fortunately just a few times. For others it has been, and remains, a heavy bi-monthly, or quarter-yearly albatross, hauling one’s arse joylessly to Hong Kong and back. A repetitive Sisyphean chore that few enjoy, nobody understands (why must one leave the country and briefly touch foreign soil every few months?) and that shows no sign of abating.
Did we mention we hate it?
There have always been options for those condemned to the old China in-n-out every few weeks, though: Hong Kong (the Classic), Taiwan (the Slightly Sticking It To The Man), Seoul (the Cool) or Japan (the Money Is No Object). And, of course, for US citizens not in need of visas to go there, the RMB300 round-trip to Erlian in Mongolia is the bargain-basement option – with which comes with free tales of sharing berths with the kinds of fascinating characters who also find themselves plying this route.
One guy we know got piled on by 30 Mongolian migrant workes in the flatbed of a pick up truck and taken the wrong way (geographically) – you can entertain your friends for literally minutes with stories of this rail-bound Mos Eisley!
Now, however there is a new Cheapest Option Available… and its most likely the most unique one that you can find for the ex-Beijing visa run (short of hitchhiking or simply walking to Hong Kong; we’re keeping the comparisons to conventional forms of transport). It is, of course, North Korea.
As many know, trips to North Korea do tend to be fairly expensive – this is true (but worth every penny, as almost anyone who has been there will attest). The quick, cheap, day trip you can do to renew the visa isn’t the same as a tour around the whole country, but is one to whet the appetite and gain those all-important two blurry red stamps in the passport. For this alone, it might be something to consider.
My company, Koryo Tours, was finally successful in opening the North Korean border city of Sinuiju to Western tourists in May of this year. It had been a years-long effort and I was the first Western tourist to visit the city (clarification here: other Western people, of course, have been there before. Diplomats, aid workers, even some journalists. I am referring to tourists only) and despite it being the 122nd time I had been to North Korea, I still found it very interesting indeed.
Here’s how it goes.
You get yourself to Dandong, in Liaoning Province, up on the North Korean border (claimed as China’s biggest border city – which it is, following the one-China policy). You can get there easily from Beijing by train: Takes 14 hours and departs from Beijing central every day at 17:30. Pick up the North Korean entry permit there, and then you get driven across the bridge into the mysterious hinterland of the DPRK. Here, you meet the guide and get a one-day whistle-stop tour of various monuments, museums, a park, a school, an art gallery, a look at the riverbank, a new swimming area (opening soon!), and even a wander around the town (accompanied, of course – this is North Korea after all).
The trip includes lunch at the one restaurant in the city allowed to take tourists (it belongs to the local travel company) and you may well see your name in lights – I was welcomed to the restaurant by an electronic board scrolling the immortal phrase WARMLY WELCOME COCKERELL SIMON DAVID TO OUR MYOHYANGSAN TRAVEL COMPANY which was a nice touch, although too long to fit on the board at one time (hence the awkward but inevitable moment of WARMLY WELCOME COCK).
After several hours in-country, it’s time to head back across the bridge. Customs may look at your photos (or they may not; depends which side of the bed they got out of in the morning) and then you’re back in China for another 60 or 90 days.
There’s a handy 18:30 train to Beijing that you can jump on (arrives at 08:34 the next day) or you might want to consider a night in Dandong, home of the best/worst nightclub in the whole of this vast nation. I’m talking about Real Love – spring-loaded dancefloor, warm beer, midget show, terrible music, interrupting MC – unforgettable experience. Or just walk along the Yalu riverside at night, looking out across 900m of water to the total darkness on the other side, aka North Korea’s seventh biggest city, the place you spent the day doing really more than just getting your passport stamped.
It might not be as obviously exciting as a weekend in Hong Kong, Seoul, or other Asian metropolis, but it’s the most unique visa run you will take, and as mentioned before, (possibly) the cheapest too.
Prices for the tour from Dandong depend on the number of people going and if you visit alone or with a Chinese tour group (recently, however, there have been very few Chinese groups going due to a new policy of the Chinese government). In either case, you are provided with an English-speaking guide. Costs range from RMB1,290 to 2,290 and more details can be found here (seven working days are required for the NK visa processing). Any comments or compliments on my unique writing style, contact email@example.com