Thursday, July 24, 2014

TOPIK Trip to Yanji China

This past week, I had the joy of visiting Yanji, China with Fr. Yoo, the TOPIK Director. The purpose of the visit was to pick up an ambulance that had been bought in China and transport it to the hospital that TOPIK supports in RS City, North Korea. Yanji, China is a fascinating area. It is in the Southeast corner of China where China, Russia, and North Korea border one another. As a result, it has a very multicultural mix of people, including a huge population of ethnically Korean Chinese. It is also one of the key points of access to North Korea for humanitarian organization. Here is a photographic look into our trip.

Fr. Yoo and I started at Incheon airport bright and early Sunday morning. Here is the terrible selfie to prove it.
We met Mr. Koo, a Korean now living in L.A., his son, and his nephew at the airport. After checking into our hotel, we went to collect the ambulance. What a beaut.

Along with the ambulance, a number of other medical supplies would make to journey to North Korea.

Mr. Koo's son and nephew testing out the ambulance.

Fr. Yoo baptizes the ambulance during our prayers for the ambulance and its service.

After we picked up the Ambulance, I discovered that we had done so in the parking lot of one of the many churches in China. I wasn't aware that there were ans many as there were. There are of course underground churches, which are not approved by the government. There are also Churches which are approved. This means they have pastors that have been examined and licensed by the government. Since these priests are in short supply, many of them visit several different churches to preach on Sundays. In the mean time, the various congregations sing and worship together. The church we visited had two different buildings, one that served the Korean speaking population and one that served the Chinese speaking population.

Korean side of the church.

Chinese side of the church.

After this we visited that the Yaiban Technical College. This is the first joint American and Chinese college established in China, and it serves a large number of Korean students as well.

A group of multinational, including one American, students playing basketball.

Some Korean students we made friends with.
That evening for dinner we went to a North Korean restaurant. The place is a joint economic venture of China and North Korea. The women who work there are all North Korean. They are allowed to reside and work in China for two years before returning to North Korea. In addition to serving North Korean cuisine, they perform a show of North Korean Folk music and dance every evening. Alas, I forgot to take pictures of the food or performance.
Fr. Yoo and I with two of the North Korean waitresses in Hamboks, traditional Korean clothing.

The next morning, we started early to the Chinese/North Korean border to prepare the the importation documents for the ambulance. Unfortunately, laws had changed and new paperwork was required to import the ambulance. So, another meeting with the company that manufactured the ambulance would be required before we could succeed. That day for lunch, we went to a small town nearby and had Chinese food. The town was even closer to the borders and all the signs were in a combination of Russian, Korean, and Chinese.
The restaurant where we had lunch.

Chinese customs station for import to North Korea.

Trucks waiting to be processed.
After lunch, Mr. Koo continued on to North Korea, this time without the ambulance to meet his obligation to TOPIK's partners there. Typically, South Korean citizens are not allowed into North Korea for any reason. The only way around this is to have dual citizenship and enter using the alternative passport. Mr. Koo maintains American citizenship, which, contrary to common belief does allow a person to enter North Korea, as long as an invitation letter is obtained.

On the way back to Yanji, Fr. Yoo and I stopped for some sightseeing. We visited an observation tower from which one can see China, North Korea, and Russia all at once. It was a tad bit foggy, but an amazing sight none the less. We also stopped by a tiny roadside stand where one can view the bridge into North Korea from China. There were lots of souveniers for sale ranging from mushrooms to traditional costumes, Russian dolls, and North Korean currency and cigarettes. Truly a strange corner of this Earth.

The left side beyond the water is Russia, the right side beyond to water is North Korea, and the foreground is China.
Last government building in China.

The main bridge leading to North Korea, just across the water.

The barbed wire ensuring you don't get just across the water.

Goods for sale at the roadside stand.

The Chinese military and processing station guarding the bridge to North Korea.
We then returned to Yanji, had supper, and went to sleep. The next morning, Fr. Yoo had a lot of work to do so I was free to wander about and explore a bit on the city.

Someones little slice of heaven.

Man under a bridge tries to sell dead turtle, hung upside down by tail to passing cars. Reminded me of the "Gofer Everett?" scene from "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"

Man attending his many fishing poles.

Riverside park. In the background is the largest church in Yanji.

After lunch, I Fr. Yoo and I were reunited. We went and toured the biggest university in Yanji. Fr. Yoo, like most Korean men of his generation learned Chinese characters when he was young. So he was able to read and write quite a bit. The Korean pronunciation and grammar of these characters is completely different, so he isn't able to speak any Chinese. Thus, we made our way about by Fr. Yoo writing down where we wished to go and showing it to passersby who would point us in the right direction. One fellow was particularly kind and guided us the entire way. We also went to the huge local market and poked about for a bit. Fr. Yoo had made friends with the owner of a stationary store there, so we stopped to chat.
The university motto: Truth and Virtue meeting. Fr. Yoo explained that it meant East meeting West, in that Truth is considered to be the end in Eastern philosophy and Virtue the end in Western.

The wide variety of food offered at the student cafeteria.

Turtles for sale at the market, this time very much alive.

A friendly fellow who helped us find our way.
That night, being my last in China, we had a wonderful dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. After that, we walked down to the river where I had explored in the morning. I was shocked by the transformation. It had been nearly abandoned when I was there in the morning. But, we discovered, the riverside is the place to be on a Tuesday night in Yanji. There were vendors selling ice cream, a stage had been set up and a youth dance school were performing traditional Chinese folk dances, people roller skated everywhere, up a little further there was an area that had been cleared out and was full of about 50 middle aged couples dancing happily to music from a boom box. To my great delight, there was a group of about 6 men around my age with a group huddled round giving, from what I can tell, a rather poor impromptu break dance performance. The whole area was lit warmly with neon and everyone seemed in high spirits. Certainly different from my expectation of China.

Middle aged couples dancing.

A section of sidewalk that lit up when stepped one. Very popular  with the kiddos.

So now, gentle reader, if you have reached this far, I have probably bored you long enough. I just wish to leave one final thought. While eating dinner and talking with Fr. Yoo that last night, he told me the story of how in the early 80s, as a college student, he had been imprisoned for participating in the democracy movement in South Korea, which at the time was controlled by military dictatorship. He said  that for many people, the idea of peace between North and South Korea, or even development in China seem like absurd dreams. But he said for him, when he was born, there was no democracy. He reminded me that the battle for civil rights in my own country had taken place within my parents' lifetime. So much has changed, and is changing. We must not give up hope.

And so, as I arose early the next morning to bit farewell, at least for now, to China, now I bid farewell to you, hoping that you have given some thought to a small area of the world that might otherwise not have passed through your brain. Goodbye.

Add caption