One Step Across
Story and photos by Carolyn B. Heller

During an unexpected encounter on the North Korean border, a travel writer — and mom — straddles the boundary between safety and adventure.


Zigzagging through the tall grass, the soldier begins to run toward us, his olive coat flapping and his machine gun slapping against his back.

I'm standing on the banks of the Yalu River with my husband Alan and our eleven-year-old twins. We're chatting with a Chinese student named Min. We met him on the bus coming from the city of Dandong.

On our side of the river is China. On the other, not 10 feet away, is North Korea.

In Dandong, where we've been staying these past few days, the Yalu River is wide, and because it's really hard to actually visit North Korea, one of the world's most isolated and inaccessible nations, looking at the country has become a tourist attraction. Like the Chinese tourists, we rode a ferry that cruised across the Yalu to the North Korean side, close enough to wave to the kids playing on the riverbank and to the farmers leaning on their pitchforks. Close enough to see the rust on the aging Ferris Wheel that sits — still — along the shore.

At night, on the Chinese side of the river, the boisterous cafes and bars pulse with light. On the North Korean side, it's black. Totally black.

North Korea view

Further north, where we've come to see the easternmost section of China's Great Wall, the Yalu dwindles down to a narrow stream. We hike up and down the wall, and Alan snaps photos of our daughters peeking through windows that must have been lookout posts. Min — the student we met — practices his English and tells us about his hometown nearby. If you've ever visited the Great Wall near Beijing, you know that sometimes it can feel like Disneyland, so crowded you can hardly walk. But here, at the very edge of China, we see only a couple of other tourists.

Then we climb down behind the wall to the edge of the river. Min tells us that the Chinese name for the spot where we're standing is Yi Bu Kua, "One Step Across."

At first, I don't even realize that we're standing right on the North Korean border. There are no customs officers or border guards or even a fence, just this trickle of a stream. We see nothing but grass on the North Korean side.

Nothing, that is, until we spot the soldier with the gun.

He's running faster. I wrap my arms around my daughters' shoulders. And then I freeze. Because, because I don't know what else to do.

What are you supposed to do—or say to your kids—when you're looking across the field at a man with a gun?

My "mom instinct" is to grab my daughters and run.

But then I think, "Are you supposed to turn your back on a guy with a machine gun?"

china wall

And my traveler's impulse, like a little cartoon devil whispering in my ear, says "Wait. Watch. Don't you want to see what's going to happen next?"

So we all watch, as the soldier dashes right up to the riverbank and slithers under a string tied between the reeds, a string that's hung with a row of tin cans. The cans rattle softly, "Clang, clang." A make-shift border alarm.

When the soldier stands up, he's close enough that I can see his bristly black hair and his smooth cheeks. His bulky olive coat droops from his skinny shoulders. He's young! He's 16, maybe 17. He's not that much older than my kids, really. He wears his machine gun on a strap against his back.

He almost has his boots in the water when he calls to us in Mandarin, "Yan!"

"Cigarettes," Min translates for us. "He wants cigarettes."

Alan and I both shake our heads, and I call back, "Meiyou!" (don't have). Min pats his jacket pocket and pulls out a crumpled pack. The soldier points to a path of three flat stones that lead into the middle of the river. Min leaps onto the stones and tosses the cigarettes into the reeds.

As the soldier bends down to pick up the smokes, Alan, beside me, has slowly begun to raise his camera up to his face. Suddenly, the soldier looks up, notices him, and begins to yell. He jerks the strap of his machine gun, yanking it over his shoulder and into his hands.

I try to push my daughters behind me, as Min turns and hisses, "No photos! No photos!" Alan raises one hand, as he lets the other with the camera drop back down to his side.

And the soldier lowers his gun.

Then he calls out again, "Dao! "

"Knife," Min says, "he wants a knife."

A knife? "Meiyou," we shake our heads, as Min whispers, "The soldiers come often to the riverbank. Most of the time, they ask for food."

North Korea marker

I can feel my daughters' faces turn upward toward me, full of questions. But before any of us can say anything, the soldier abruptly turns, crawls under the tin cans—clang, clang—and begins to sprint back across the fields.

As we watch him go, I hug my daughters a little tighter, and I begin to wonder: What can they be thinking? And what will they remember about this trip to China?

Will it be climbing up and down the Great Wall? Eating dumplings on the streets of Beijing? Sleeping in their bunks on the overnight train?

Or will it be all the people we've met, like Min, who want to talk with us and take their pictures?

But maybe, maybe the picture that we'll all keep inside our heads is of the young North Korean soldier as he runs through the grass, with his olive coat flapping, and his machine gun slap-slap-slapping against his back.

Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Carolyn B. Heller is the author of two books, Moon Handbooks: Ontario and Living Abroad in Canada. She has contributed to more than 50 other travel and restaurant guides, including several editions of Lonely Planet's China. Her travel and food articles have appeared in publications ranging from the Forbes Travel Guide,,, and the Boston Globe, to the anthology Travelers' Tales Paris.

Related stories:

The Week the Earth Shook by Carolyn B. Heller
Kicking Back (and Kicking) Like a Monk in Korea by Michael Buckley
Lands of Lost Liberties by Michael Buckley

Other Asia stories from the archives

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Moon Handbooks: Ontario

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Living Abroad in Canada

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