Most people get it now that Korea is split in two and that one of them is evil and the other one makes great flat screen TVs. You'll also probably be aware that they're separated by the most heavily fortified, militarised border in the world, making weekend city breaks to Pyongyang quite difficult. What less people know, however, is that there's another Korea, west of the famous two. This third Korea is where the worlds of North and South meet head-on in a weird capitalist/communist clusterfuck overseen by the Chinese. Ever wanted to visit Kim Jong Il's birthplace whilst drinking Starbucks, listening to K-Pop and not getting shot? West Korea's your place.
The little known 'Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region' in North-Eastern China has got everything a politically bipolar vagrant could want: Hip South Korean coffee houses, massive fashion department stores and clubs filled with top Korean DJs flown over from Seoul, sharing space with grey communist vistas, kitschy militarised theme parks, socialist statues, workers' uniforms and an air of economic stagnation. To get there from Beijing I had to take a miserable 24-hour train ride, propped up against a hard, upright wooden seat in a permanently floodlit carriage, packed in with people who kept chucking half-eaten sausage skins on the increasingly disgusting train carriage floor.
Yanbian's two million-strong population represent the largest ethnic Korean group outside of the Korean peninsula. This is the point at which businesspeople, government officials and crazy Christian evangelists from the North and South meet, talk and trade using the Chinese-governed territory as a more or less neutral ground.
Unfortunately, when you're dealing with North Korea, getting along is never going to be simple, and when bad Korea does one of its villainous underground nuclear missile tests it can cause unwelcome earthquakes in Yanbian's capital Yanji. They also enjoy kidnapping South Korean pastors from the West from time to time.
The centre of Yanji is all bright neon lights and amazingly good Korean food; it's actually pretty good fun and walking around the place at night covers up most of its more obvious daytime blemishes.
When the sun's up, though, it's all communist-style housing blocks, packed in rows of crumbling rural buildings and socialist statues of dancing women.
To offset the evidence of growth and prosperity inherited from South Korea, the North has invested in a creepy, semi-abandoned theme park designed to showcase their own special brand of hallucinogenic trauma that only a nation of prisoners could confuse with fun.
Here are the traditional communist heroes: Mammary Pig and Queer Deer.
There's a fun monorail that takes you on a ride through a world of weeping teddy bears hanging by their necks.
Then a man with no eyes greets you before you have a go on the big spinner...
...a nuclear missile-themed swing...
...and see a show featuring a naked girl wrapped in a snake.
I think this tank is used for training child soldiers for that righteous day they'll pop down the road and blow up the South Korean coffee shops.
Here is a nice statue of a satanic necromancer trying to insert a reptile into a wench.
Given the general air of humdrum despair, it's really no surprise Morrissey chose to come here to die.
Continued on page 2.
But despite all this entertainment atrocity, Yanji and its environs keeps on ticking thanks to its one great tourist coup: it being the mythical birthplace of Kim Jong Il.
Heaven's Lake is perched at a height of 2,000 metres at the top of the expansive Changbai mountain range that straddles the border between China and North Korea, not far from Yanji. One side is barren bar a few barely visible military watch posts, the other is swarming with Chinese tourists throwing their fucking sausage skins on the floor.
Given its imposing biblical presence, the North Korean propaganda machine has retrospectively decided that this is where their leader was born. It is of course, complete bullshit, but it certainly sounds a lot more impressive than the grotty Siberian army camp where the mean squirt was actually popped out. Disregarding the truth, I paid £30 for a 4X4 to drive me and my friend Emily right to the top.
Before the Korean peninsula was split in two it was a hotbed of Christianity and Pyongyang was Asia's Jesus capital. But when the North Korean communist government took over they trampled all over it with a new mythology that refashioned the Kims as a kind of 'Best Of The Bible' but with nuclear warheads. To help people forget, they co-opted as many Christian staples as possible: That's why North Korea's national holiday celebrating the birthday of Kim Jong Il's mother conveniently takes place when the rest of us celebrate Christmas, and that's why they like to pretend their leader was born in isolated poverty in the mountainous equivalent of a stable.
Before we climbed the final peak on foot we found this hallowed little replica of his birthing chamber. Looks cosy.
It was part of this abandoned holiday complex for Koreans, now occupied by some mountain goats.
I think this would be a nice place to detain political prisoners.
It's really, really cold up the top of the mountain. Really cold.
Anyway, it's always nice to see children playing happily at the fortified border of a totalitarian state. Here are some kids who'd hopped the fence into North Korea with their mum, now looking back into China with its playful “Don't Approach!” sign attempting to deter defectors at the last minute. This is proof that kids today have no respect for axes of evil.
When we came back down, we realised we'd done literally everything there is to do in the mythical Third Korea. It was nice, but next time I go on holiday I'm going to Antigua.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY ALEX HOBAN
If you’re doing something interesting in a place that isn’t Shoreditch and that might make for a good Atlas Hoods story, send pictures and info to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be in touch.
Previously in this series:
BOTSWANA'S COWBOY METALHEADS
THE CROATIAN GRANDMA TATTOO CULT
TSUNAMI GROUND ZERO
VENEZUELA'S SKYSCRAPER SLUM
THE GANGSTER PREACHER
TRANSNISTRIA PART II: WEAPONS SMUGGLING AND YOUTH CULTS IN THE COUNTRY THAT DOESN'T EXIST
TRANSNISTRIA PART I: THE COUNTRY THAT DOESN'T EXIST