I am supposed to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (irreverently know as North Korea). As a prelude, I signed up for a two-week trip to Manchuria, the historic industrial heartland of China that occupies the northeast portion, bordering Korea as well as Russia and Mongolia. Three weeks prior to departure I get the bad news: due to devastating floods, the DPRK has cancelled its Arirang Festival and accompanying "mass games," the only reason that the no-visas-for-yankee-imperialist-dogs rule had been relaxed. No games means no visa means no trip. The Manchuria tour is now a prelude to nothing, but it's paid for, and so off I go.

There is now a non-stop Newark-Beijing flight. Using the new polar flight path, instead of heading west, the plane goes over the North Pole, where cloud cover keeps me from spotting Santa's workshop. We come down over Siberia, where there is a clear view of Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude, home of the world's largest Lenin head. (But not big enough to be to be visible from 40,000 feet.) After crossing Mongolia we land in Beijing. The polar route takes only 13 hours. It also freezes time -- it's high noon the whole way. We take off at midday and cross 11 time zones, but the time does not change; we land at midday the following day without an intervening night. The sun remains high in the sky the entire time.

In addition to immigration and customs forms, China requires visitors to fill out a health questionnaire. Do I have a "snivel?" How about psychosis?

The joining hotel is a dump. Have you ever heard of a two star hotel without an elevator? I guess the tour company (Imaginative Traveler) doesn't want to get our hopes up over what is to come.

We have a free day in Beijing. I had planned to use it to finalize my N. Korean visa, but that has been scotched. Instead, near the hotel is the Military Museum of the Chinese Peoples' Revolution, a place I have not yet been.

There is a grand display of tanks, planes, and missiles in the main hall, plus four floors of historical and educational displays. I start with the exhibition of gifts from foreign militaries. Mexico has presented a giant sombrero of the sort they sell to tourists in Tijuana, and Cuba has given a model of the Granma. A survey of presents from other communist countries suggests a competition on who could come up with the tackiest gift.

Every armed conflict in China from the dawn of time is covered. If you want to learn about the "Red Eyebrow and Greenwood Peasant Uprising," this is the place to come. We learn that the Campaign Against The Warlords in the 1920's had no success "due to the limitations of the democratic revolution of the old type." There is a display on "Resistance to Britain's Invasion of Tibet (1903-1904)," but nothing about subsequent invasions of Tibet like, say, in 1950 and 1959. The founding myths of the communists are duly depicted in life-sized sculptures and large oil paintings featuring a handsome and fearless Mao. There is no concern about offending Japanese tourists -- a gory display is devoted to "Savage Acts of Japanese Aggression Troops in China." There are English captions throughout until I reach the hall on the "War to Resist US Aggression and to Aid Korea," where it's Chinese only.

 It's hot in Beijing in August. Memo to 2008 Olympic Committee: work on getting vendors to stock COLD drinks. Warm Pepsi won't do.

That evening we board the overnight train to Qiqihar. Hard sleeper -- UGH! It's like a troop train: open racks of berths. The punishment endures until 8 AM when we reach our destination, a city that the guidebook characterizes as more fun to pronounce than to spend a day in.

But I like it. There is a clear blue sky, the likes of which will probably never be seen in Beijing again, and it's delightfully cool. This is the weather I came for. The population is only about a million -- that's nothing in China -- and the streets and sidewalks are uncrowded. We are staying at the Civil Aviation Hotel, a trusted brand in my book.

The point of coming this far north is to visit the Zhalong Nature Reserve, renowned for its birdlife. A stopping point on the Siberian flyway, its marshes host six species of crane and innumerable other avian types. The scarcity of western tourists means that there are no real guides here, so a local English teacher serves that function. We first visit an area in which red-crowned cranes are kept in pens. At precisely 10:30 they are released. They fly around for a bit before settling back. Then comes the real spectacle: watching the Chinese tourists interact with the birds. If they are not allowed to eat a wild animal, the next best thing is to torture it. They hold out ears of corn, taunt them with hats and umbrellas, and try to grab the birds. They then buy peacock feathers as souvenirs.

When the cranes are finally herded back to their pens, the Chinese tourists move on. A cleanup crew immediately goes to work on the carpet of litter left behind.

Then we board a flat-bottom boat for a tour of the reed marshes. Of the six species of crane, we see zero. We see nothing with feathers but a couple of ducks. I don't know where they are, but they ain't here. At the moment, Qiqihar is hosting a crane-watching festival. Perhaps they are all at the awards banquet.

Back at the hotel, the room guide is written in classic Chinglish: "Fighting, indulging excessive drinking and making trouble . . . the people who don't take the advice not to fight will be handed over to public security organs." I watch The Fly on TV. Still gross in any language. After the movie is some local news, a report on a water rescue training exercise. The "victims" being saved are inflatable sex dolls.

Due to China Universal Time (there is only one time zone for all of China) and no daylight savings time, it is broad daylight at 4:30 AM. It is also 4:30 in Tibet, but daylight won't arrive there for several hours.

We take the morning train 2 hours back to Harbin, our next stop. We are a bit early for the Ice Festival, but numerous billboards invite us to Harbin Polar Land, an arctic theme park.

Harbin was founded and settled by the Russians as a stop on the trans-Siberian railroad back when they owned this neck of the woods (they lost it to Japan who lost it to China). The onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral is now a museum on the city's early days.

Modern concrete, glass, and steel blocks have replaced most of the city's Russian architecture, but the main shopping street features many restored buildings. Numerous stores offer matryoshka (nesting) dolls and other tourist crap, which, judging from the low prices, has to be made in China. My favorite "Russian" souvenir is the fake cow horn molded into an Indian chief complete with war bonnet.

Something else interesting about Harbin: during periods of tense relations with the nearby Soviet Union a vast network of underground shelters was built under much of the urban core. These days they are used as shopping malls.

Our hotel is described in the guidebook as "once seedy but now refurbished, but watch out for the Russian prostitutes in the lobby." To my eyes, evidence of refurb is scant -- the place is again so seedy that even the prostitutes have left. (Instead they are hanging out at the Russian restaurant where we have dinner.)

Another night on the prison train brings us to Changchun, capital of Jilin province but formerly capital of Manchukuo, the brief-lived puppet state set up by the Japanese in 1932. As you might recall from the movie, The Last Emperor, Pu Yi was brought here and installed as emperor of a reconstituted Manchurian "empire." That lasted until 1945.

We are staying at the felicitously named Love Inn, conveniently located next door to McDonalds and right down from the Wal-Mart. It is a nice hotel, which is a welcome change. There are 72 channels of cable TV, but not one showing The Simpsons.

Changchun, like Harbin, is a mid-sized city of 5 million. Its prime attraction tourism-wise is Pu Yi's palace, now called the Puppet Palace Museum. The walled compound consists of two main buildings, assorted minor buildings, and two gardens, a considerable step downwards from the Forbidden City, his former abode in Beijing (then known as Peiping). One of the buildings served as his residence and the other, built by the Japanese, contains offices and official rooms. The furnishings are still in place, and several rooms contain mannequins (after all, this is the Puppet Palace) of Pu Yi consorting with his Japanese overlords which his decadent wife smokes opium upstairs. An exhibition, "From Emperor to Citizen," takes us from Pu Yi's childhood through the Manchukuo era to his capture and ultimate rehabilitation as a productive citizen grateful to his commie overlords.

Scattered about the city are buildings that used to house various departments of Manchukuo state. Now converted to use as hospitals, schools or current government offices, they are distinct in style from those built before or since.


In the middle of People's Square (actually, a traffic circle) is an interesting monument to the 23 Soviet airmen who died liberating Manchuria. Three days before Japan surrendered Stalin joined the war and grabbed Manchuria (which is how they captured Pu Yi). The monument was erected in 1945, indicating that the Russian built it in gratitude to themselves before returning the territory to China. These days, the memorial is closed, so you can't get a closer look.


I pop into Wal-Mart to answer a burning question -- is it full of crap made in America? Well, sort of. I also discover that Chinese love bargains too -- the place is jammed with shoppers piling their carts high.

Another overnight prison train brings us to Yanji, where we board a public bus that bounces along a dirt road for 4 hours (the karaoke videos they play are even worse than the road) to a village where we take a taxi to our destination, the Chang Bai Shan Nature Reserve. Straddling the N. Korean border, it is the largest and one of the most remote reserves in northeastern China and home to the Siberian tiger. It's rugged mountainous, and cold. We have three nights here at a hotel inside the park.

The first afternoon we visit the so-called "underground forest," so-called because one overlooks a deep forested depression with treetops far below. For the Chinese, walking through a dense conifer forest alongside a rushing stream is a novel experience. For North Americans and Europeans, less so.

The star attraction of Chang Bai Shan is Heavenly Lake, a 3-mile wide volcanic crater surrounded by jagged peaks. On the postcards, it looks great. In the morning the sky looks clear, so we take 4WD vehicles up a steep road to an overlook on one of the peaks. Halfway up we reach the cloud layer. At the top, it is WINDY and COLD. A guy renting heavy army coats does brisk business. A further climb takes us to the overlook where the visibility is just a few yards. The ferocious wind does some good -- for a few seconds the clouds below are blown away and the lake becomes visible. Very impressive. The opposite shore lies in N. Korea.

Back down below, we visit Lesser Heavenly Lake, which is MUCH lesser -- it's just a pleasant alpine pond.

On day three the weather is even worse. After waiting for the dense fog to clear a bit, we visit a waterfall that flows out of the lake. At the base, vendors are selling corn and eggs cooked in the hot springs that flow from the mountain. One can climb to the top of the waterfall to reach the lake, but we don't -- it's still too foggy to see anything.

There are a lot of Koreans in these parts, and a lot of (South) Korean tourists visit the park. The signage is in both Chinese and Korean. The restaurant where we have dinner features waitresses from N. Korea dressed in traditional costume who double as an all-girl band. Periodically, they doff their aprons and mount the stage with electric guitar, drums and keyboard. They are like automatons: at no point do any of their faces show a single smile.

On our last morning we wake up to severe clear. The front has passed through and the sky is cloudless. We will have to leave to the park at 10 AM, so we race to the ticket booth and plop down another $10 for a ride to the top. It's worth it. It's less windy and even colder than before, but the views are magnificent. (And, yes, the lake is that blue.)

Conditions also improve for the journey back to Yanji. We have private transport, which is quicker and more comfortable than the bus.

Another overnight prison train, another city. This time Shenyang, the third provincial capital we visit. (Manchuria is composed of three provinces, sort of like Gaul.) It is the largest city in the northeast and the 6th largest in China. On arrival at our hotel, we get our orientation: Starbucks and McDonald's to the left, Mao to the right.

Shenyang was the capital of the Qing (a/k/a Manchu) dynasty before they defeated the Mings and moved to Beijing. There were 12 Qing emperors from 1616-1911, Pu Yi being the last. Shenyang has its own Forbidden City built in the 17th century. It has the same layout as the one in Beijing (which was built by the Mings), but smaller in scale. I like it better in two respects: it is more accessible (the Beijing one is so big one can't even get a decent photo), and it's not teeming with visitors.

The city also contains the tomb complexes of the first two emperors. We visit one, located in a large park. It's very good.

The third sight of note is very impressive Mao statue erected at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Missing from the hands of the heroic peasants, workers, and soldiers on the base are the little red books they once grasped.

Shenyang station offers a VIP waiting room, a "sumptuous" waiting room, a soft seat and soldiers' waiting room, and the one we use, for peasants. We have a 4-hour train ride to Dandong, our next destination.

Dandong lies at the mouth of the Yalu River, which separates China from N. Korea. It is the principal corridor between the two countries, a bridge links the city with Sinujui on the opposite bank. There are actually 1 1/2 bridges: next to the current span the old bridge extends exactly halfway across from the Chinese side. The southern half was destroyed by the US Air Force in 1950 and never rebuilt. You can pay to walk on "The Broken Bridge" right to the imaginary line constituting the border. I do.

At night the new bridge is outlined in neon lights that change color. But only half is lit; the N. Korean side is dark. The riverfront park is jammed with people strolling, playing, and practicing synchronized fan dancing, while illuminated jets of water shoot from the river choreographed to music, similar to the show in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. One can only wonder what the starving Koreans on the opposite shore are thinking.

Dinner is, of course, Korean. I can't get anyone to go in with me on the dog hotpot. (I don't want to eat the a whole pooch.) Also, I find that chopsticks are an imprecise instrument for peeling shrimp, although one can be used as sort of a forceps and the other as sort of a scalpel.

We are staying at the Dandong Railway Hotel, located above the station. At a putative 3 stars, it's one of our more acceptable lodgings. A plaque in the lobby from the Public Security Bureau proclaims that this is a "Hotel Concerning Foreign Affairs."  There door off the lobby labeled "Anne Protects the Department," but I never do find out what lies behind it.

The big attraction in Dandong is the large museum on the War to Assist Korea And Resist US Aggression (the order of the two purposes seems to be interchangeable) opened in 1993 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their victory. There are exhibits on every detail and aspect of the conflict, from which I have gleaned this short history.

After the Korean War "broke out" (it just "happened"), the US invaded. Outraged, Chinese from every walk of life rushed to the front to aid their Korean brothers. (Apparently, the Koreans were all on one side; opposed were the US and the "so-called United Nations Command.") The "Volunteers" crushed the UNC offensives and, smashed the "strangling warfare" campaign, and finally undertook a counterattack on which they were victorious on all fronts. "The longer they fought, the stronger they became." Meanwhile, in tense armistice negotiations, the US advanced ridiculous demands, attempting to gain at the table what it could not win on the battlefield. Finally, the invaders gave up.

One wonders why, after such total victory, there was only an armistice. As one walks from gallery to gallery and smashing victory to smashing victory, I half expect that the next one will show Truman and MacArthur in chains and the Volunteers marching down Pennsylvania Ave.

 There are galleries devoted to various aspects of the war. The Chinese Air Forced performed superbly; apparantly, their kill ratio was at least 4:1. The perfidious US Air Force dropped bombs containing germ-laden flies, snakes and crickets throughout Korea and northeast China, but vigilant sanitation efforts thwarted this biological warfare campaign. Chinese POWs waged a heroic and stubborn struggle against the enemy's atrocities of insult, torture, and murder. In contrast, the US POWs were hosted in what was practically a summer holiday camp, where they held spontaneous peace rallies. Also, the relentless propaganda campaign persuaded many disaffected GIs to cross the lines and defect.


During all this time, the Volunteers "never took a single needle or piece of thread from the Korean people and took good care of every mountain, river, grass and tree owned by the Korean people." For this and for their military assistance, the gratitude of the Korean people was and remains unbounded.

After the education comes the entertainment. An enormous 360? cyclorama puts you in the middle of the battle. You can don a helmet and grab a weapon and be photographed amidst the action. Or, you can go outside and have your picture taken atop a tank or other relic.

On the way out, I happen on a ceremony in progress: three old men in fatigues and combat medals are getting an award and make some sort of presentation. An honor guard stands in formation while martial music plays. Keeping the memory alive.

A must do in Dandong is a boat ride on the Yalu, during which you go right up to and along the N. Korean shore. What you mostly see is an armada of dilapidated vessels of every sort, which I suppose remain at anchor due to lack of fuel. Soldiers as well and downtrodden peasants return our waves. The contrast between the Chinese side -- with a forest of gleaming high-rises and more abuilding -- and the Korean side could not be more pronounced; it makes the US-Mexican border look homogeneous in comparison.

There are no westerners to be seen -- it's all Chinese tourists who have come for a glimpse of a foreign country. And they want souvenirs: hawkers offer the perfect gift for the folks back home, N. Korean cigarettes. I buy some N. Korean currency and what cannot be bought there: Kim Il Sung ("The Great Leader") and Kim Jong Il ("The Dear Leader") lapel pins. In the DPRK those items are like medals: they are not sold but are awarded solely for service or achievement.

Just out of town is the Tiger Mountain Great Wall, the easternmost segment of the Great Wall system built by the Mings in the 15th century. Unlike the section near Beijing, this one is not crawling with tourists and hawkers.

We return to Beijing on the overnight prison train. My attempt at an upgrade is unsuccessful -- there is a long waiting list of seat passengers hoping to obtain any sort of berth at all. Tickets aren't offered to the public until four days prior to departure and people queue up long before dawn in order to reserve a hard sleeper. There is only one soft sleeper car per train, and it is sold out.

Time to eat my words: Beijing is under a clear blue sky. Fall has arrived, and the temperature and humidity have dropped.

I thought I had already been to the Summer Palace, but I hadn't, so I do. Most of it has been renovated for the coming Olympics. What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes! It is a riot of color.

Fifth time's a charm! On Sunday morning I complete my pickled-commie trifecta and see Mao. The queue is long but moves quickly. This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of his death, and the front hall is packed with floral arrangements. Many of the faithful have purchased from a booth just outside the entrance a plastic-wrapped single flower, which they lay them in orderly heaps at the foot of Mao's statue. I have no doubt that at the end of the three hour viewing session the flowers go right back out to the booth.

Compared to his buddies, Mao is looking pretty bad. But, then again, Lenin and Ho do not have extensive gift shops built into their mausoleums. I purchase some lovely and reasonably-priced pins.

In the afternoon, I return to the Temple of Heaven, which was closed last year for restoration. It's mostly open now, and it looks great.

Because there's no N. Korea trip, I have three more days to fill. I decide to head west to Datong. I've been through there before -- it's the first stop in China after Mongolia. What I remember is giant stacks belching orange smoke into a brownish sky. About 30% of China's coal is mined in the area, and the monster power plants burning it make this one of its most polluted cities.

It's a six hours away by train. Even thought it's a daytime ride, I book soft sleeper, with 2 people to a compartment instead of 62. Finally, a rail journey I can enjoy.

Datong has cleaned up its act. We pass the power plant, but there are no visible emissions. The sky is a bit hazy but mostly blue. The area around the train station has a small town feel, but a look at the map reveals that the station is several miles distant from the city center.

I check into the Hongqi Grand Hotel, a considerable improvement from the dives in which the tour company stuck us. A grand piano tinkling in the lobby sets the mood.

I check the room service menu: Fotiaoqiang costs $38 -- I don't know what it is, but at that price I'm not going to find out. More reasonably priced are the Choisum Sting Head, the Braised Traditional Griskin, and the Roasted Rabbit Meat. The Salted Donkey Meat is an outright bargain at $1.50. For starters, there's the Fish Mouth Soup or the Face Protecting Soup. I decide to eat out.

The only place nearby with a readable menu or pictures recognizable as food is Mr. Lee's California Beef Noodle King USA, a chain I have seen everywhere but I have not tried. The visage of Mr. Lee on the company logo looks suspiciously like Col. Sanders sans glasses and goatee. I order the title dish; it's not bad for a buck. In all my travels in the Golden State I must have somehow missed his California restaurants.

Western tour groups stay at my hotel, so in the morning, in addition to the Boiled Sheep's Bowel, there is actual breakfast food. No Froot Loops, though.

A long time ago Datong was the capital of something, so there is stuff to see. A Drum Tower marks the center of the city, but the city walls are mostly gone. Outside the city are two destination sights: the Buddha caves and the hanging temple. Eschewing the coach tour, I team up with an English couple beginning their two-year round the world tour, and we hire a car and driver to take us in comfort and style.

The Yungang Buddha Grottoes were dug out of a cliff in the 5th century. There are 51,000 of them of varying sizes and features. Some are VERY big. Impressive.

The Hanging Temple at Hang Shan is a marvel. Its buildings are on a narrow ledge and supported by long poles wedged into niches below. The best view is the free one from a distance. The effect is diminished after you pay the admission fee and get closer, but having come this far, I gotta go in. At least we beat the crowds on the tour buses.

That's it for Datong. Another night there, followed by another comfortable train ride back to Beijing, where I check into the Novotel. Finally, a hotel that meets my princely standards. The house is full, and they have to hunt for a room to honor my reservation. After seeing the ultra-discounted rate I snagged on the internet, they do not offer me an upgrade.

Beijing weather is back to normal ? sticky with near zero visibility. It seems that every other person on the street is a westerner.

On the plane there are about 20 couples bringing home their newly purchased Chinese babies (all girls, of course). During the entire 13-hour flight not a single one cried.

I still have one entry left on my double-entry visa good for another four months. I shouldn't let it go to waste.

Trip date: September, 2006