Tiger Mountain – A tour to the east end of the Great Wall

A trip to the province of Liaoning (辽宁) in the northeast of China is worthwhile for many reasons. A special highlight of the region is the officially easternmost of all sections of the Great Wall. Quasi the east end of this colossal rampart, resp. of the ramparts. This section is restored, but less crowded and quieter than, say, the more popular Badaling and Mutianyu sections to the west. The Great Wall at Tiger Mountain (虎山长城) is located near the village of Hushan, ca. 12 km northeast of Dandong . The name Tiger Mountain (Hushan, 虎山) comes from the fact that the appearance of the mountain is reminiscent of a crouching tiger. This tiger stretches along the Yalu (鴨綠江), the border river between China and North Korea. For many tourists, the proximity to the neighboring Korean country is part of the attraction.

I visit the Tiger Mountain in 2016 during my stay in Dandong as part of my train trip from Berlin to Saigon . Only when I am in the city, I take note of this excursion destination. Also because Harry points it out to me. A blogger from South Korea, whose work focuses on Chinese history, and who saved me from a tourist trap the day before in Dandong. We arranged to meet at the bus station (not far from the train station) and get on a bus that will take us to the Korean border for 4 yuan (approx. 50 cents) along the Yalu River brings to Tiger Mountain. The trip takes ca. 40 minutes and is exciting in itself. It goes along the natural border. I had expected strong border security and military presence especially on the Korean side. In contrast, it is rather Chinese units that show presence and hold exercises at/on the river. At this point I am not yet aware of the unexpected things I would experience today.

Photo session at the gate tower

The entrance fee is 60 Yuan (~ 8 Euro) and leads through a welcoming, restored entrance gate. As an obviously western visitor I am an exotic here. This area is not one of the most advertised destinations for tourists from Europe. At the ticket counter I am asked in Chinese where I come from. Of course I do not understand anything. Harry, who is fluent in the language, responds: DoGo. Please? He explains to me that in Chinese, Germany is simply called "D-Land". This is then practically pronounced Deguo (德国). A concept also for other countries. France for example is called FAguo (法国). China itself is called Zhōng guo (中国), which means "Middle Land," or just "Middle Kingdom". After this lesson we go to the gate tower, the landmark of this section of the wall. Here I am asked for the first of many photos we will take together today. Very gladly. In many tourist places in the north of China (but not only there) it happens that I am asked in front of the lens. At places that are visited only by a few Europeans. I find that these situations are actually always nice or also sometimes funny. And so I usually also ask for a joint souvenir photo for my archive.

Gate tower of the Great Wall at Tiger Mountain

The cradle of Korea

This section of the wall was built in the 15. It was built during the Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century and apparently only identified as such during excavations in 1989. Between 1992 and 2000, a 1.25 km strip was fully restored and finally opened to tourists. Interestingly, there is quite some controversy about the authenticity of the original wall ruins. On the Korean side, they refer to an earlier construction date, around the time of the proto-Korean Goguryeo Empire (고구려) before ca. 2000 years ago. In Korean, the Bakjak Fortress (박작성) is also called Bakjak Fortress, which was not part of a fortification built by the Ming much later… Well, at least the current, freshly renovated construction looks very Ming..

Great Wall at Tiger Mountain

The climb up Tiger Mountain is very steep. Classic Chinese mountaineering on endless stone stairs. In best spring weather we are rewarded with a great view of the green mountains and the surrounding area: the Yalu basin with its branched river courses. The area is characterized by farmland, some plantation workers can be seen on the Chinese side, close to the course of the wall. Regardless of the fortress dispute, the region is indeed considered to be the nucleus of the aforementioned mighty Goguryeo Empire, and is thus an essential part of Korean cultural history and identity – on both sides of today's demarcation line.

The view to North Korea

Many steps and several towers later we finally reach the top and the watchtower with the comprehensive view of the natural border between China and the Korean peninsula. The river winds partly around islands, so that the state assignment of the land areas is difficult for me. In some areas, both countries share sovereignty over the river, while both banks are claimed exclusively by North Korea, for example. This we should experience later still very closely ..
The tower is used by tourists primarily as a viewing platform: in the direction of North Korea. There are viewing telescopes ready. For 10 Yuan we can have a look at the villages on the other side of the Yalu river. Borderline voyeurism, as already experienced in Dandong. Basically, we are looking at ordinary people going about their daily work. Agricultural work. It's exciting only because this ordinary work of ordinary people is localized in an unusual country.

View from Tiger Mountain into the North Korean province

This is actually one of those moments I had not expected before. The concept of border tourism was foreign to me. At the Chinese-Korean border, on the other hand, it's a big deal: fun tourism, sometimes reminiscent of amusement parks. At the observation tower there are some busy guys who not only assist us in operating the telescopes, but also offer us a tour. A boat trip on the section of the Yalu River that runs exclusively between the North Korean mainland. I would be there in principle, but because of the language barrier I am not sure to what extent tourist rip-off is involved here. Harry, on the other hand, has no language problems, trusts the people basically. However, he is not too motivated to venture into North Korean territory technically as a South Korean. The two countries remain in a state of war. Finally, salesmanship and curiosity win out.

The Yalu River Basin

The tour providers drive us to the pier. To do this, we first have to go down the wall to the parking lot. The stairs here are especially steep. In addition, the individual steps are extremely high, so that the whole undertaking is more like climbing down than descending. Many people prefer the safest of all descent techniques: Hand-supported on the butt from step to step. We take the time we need, and our drivers patiently grant us it.

Boat trip on the Yalu

On the way to the boat we have the opportunity to approach the Korean peninsula only "one step". We are at a fenced section of the river, which is so narrow that the "one step" does not seem too understated at all. A stone's throw, one might say. For selfie enthusiasts, a border stone has been placed here, which has exactly this "One step over" (一步跨) engraved on it. It should be clear to most that this is not to be understood as an active request. For security there is nevertheless a large sign, which points clearly to the fact that we are not in Disneyland.

At the boat jetty this finally seems to change. Not that they actually transferred us to Disneyland. However, the whole event seems more like fun for the whole family than a visit to an explosive, militarily secured border area. The boats are full. Standing room. The mood is cheerful, the children crunch relaxed from their fried crabs on a stick. We are waiting anxiously for the return of the previous boat. One after the other. The selfie sticks are fixed, the first memories as well. We are ready to go. The mood becomes even more exuberant. I definitely attract attention and feel the curiosity. After about 5 minutes it finally comes to the first photo request. First, an adult person asks me to take a selfie together. Since I am uncomplicated, now also other people jump over their shadow. When all interested adults are photographed, they send their children in front of the lens. Partly directly into my arms. Why not..?! The children are a little less enthusiastic than their parents, but endure the procedure without resistance. The photo shoot drags on for a while. I did not imagine my first experience on North Korean territory to be exactly like this. This has little to do with my dark fantasies of secret photos behind held hands and in crouched position.

But at some point it gets a little more exciting. I am again a bit surprised that only a few military border guards are securing the Korean shore. Anyway, I do not take note of much activity. At times, people can be seen in the river, where they appear to be fishing for fish. A man walks his daughter on the beach. Scattered cattle enjoying the Korean grass refined by sunlight and Yalu water. But suddenly watchtowers appear here and there in the periphery. On hills, somewhere in the sandy green near the shore. Apparent barracks with blue roofs dominate the architectural scenery on both sides of our route.

Finally a soldier can be seen on the shore, holding his (presumed) Kalashnikov under his right arm, ready for action. He walks along the beach and approaches the fishing boats. He talks to one of the boatmen, who, however, will not turn out to be a fisherman.


Our boat stops, and we have the opportunity to watch the well-gesticulated conversation between them from a safe distance. There seems to be instructions, also pointing in our direction. Since I can't hear much on the boat because of the language barrier, I'm not sure why we stop to watch this spectacle. But suddenly, after a final gesture, the soldier turns away from the boat and goes on his way again. The boatman starts his engine and moves slowly towards us. It is still not clear to me what this means.

The boat docks at ours: It is a boat seller. The man apparently had to consult with border security and finally got the green light to offer us his specialties. Everything well coordinated. In fact, excitement arises. The curiosity and the rush are great. There are pickled eggs, fresh kimchi (typical Korean fermented cabbage), liquor and tobacco products.

Really everyone seems to be interacting in some form or another. Whether it is the Korean souvenir, cheap cigarettes or the culinary specialty – there is something for everyone. Whether the dealer speaks Chinese, the customers Korean, or whether the communication works purely by pointing gestures and volume, I can't judge. In my case, it works via the classic finger pointing in the direction of the cigarettes, which make a good souvenir due to their exclusive box design. I purchase a box of the good "Chonji" (천지). A brand of the North Korean conglomerate Naegohyang (내고향).

The box is adorned with a picture of the winter-decorated sky lake of the volcanic mountain Paektusan (백두산, "Whitehead Mountain"). In Chinese, this mountain is called Changbai Shan (长白山, "Always White Mountain"), and the border between China and North Korea runs through it. It is the Sacred Mountain of the (North and South) Koreans, and from it springs, among other things, the border river Yalu/Amnok, which we are on right now. Much like the entire region around the Yalu Basin and the (from a Korean perspective) witnessing ruins of Tiger Mountain, the Paektusan is an important part of Korea's founding history. And especially also central part of the North Korean hero mythology.

Busy boat sales on the Yalu. Korean brand Chonji (천지) cigarette pack with image of Paektusan.

After this small highlight the minds calm down again a little bit. Everyone is happy with their accomplishments – photos, selfies, suntans and exclusive merchandise from over there. After less than an hour, we reach the dock on Chinese territory satisfied. For some of us it may have been a brief glimpse into the past, for others a fun coffee trip. For me a totally unexpected impression of this natural border, which was not a border here, but divided Chinese-Korean waters surrounded by North Korean territory.

When we leave the boat, we inquire how we can return to Dandong most comfortably. Since Harry speaks fluent Chinese, it is easy for him to arrange a ride. One of the families I took plenty of selfies with is initially delighted to give us a ride in their car. As a guest from far away I even enjoy the privilege to sit in front. Harry is chatting with the family, the atmosphere is great. Until a moment just before arrival. It gets quiet, people look a little more serious than they did during most of the trip. I have no clue what might have been going on. The farewell is also a bit reserved. After getting out of the car Harry tells me that they talked about the prices for the boat tour in the car. Obviously, we paid significantly less than the family did. Probably on a scale that for the family it was an expensive venture, for us a cheap day trip. Privileges on the border between the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I can understand the displeasure of our short-term friends.

My tips

The Tiger Mountain is something for fans of the rather unusual travel experience. The wall section itself is no more spectacular than its restored counterparts near Beijing. The controversy over the origin of the ruins is interesting. The highlight of the visit to Tiger Mountain is certainly the boat trip on the Yalu River. If this adventure is not too scary for you, I recommend a half-day tour:

  • Getting there by bus from Dandong for 4 yuan
  • Entrance fee to the Great Wall: 60 yuan (April – October), 55 yuan (November – March)
  • Opening hours: 7:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m
  • Boat trip on the Yalu: apparently negotiable
  • Return cab ride to Dandong: ~35 yuan
  • Return by bus until 18:00

Overall, the visit to Tiger Mountain is worthwhile in connection with the visit to Dandong and its bridges over the Yalu River. Together a unique experience in an unusual place. The journey from Beijing takes about 5 hours in the fast train. A stay of 1.5 – 2 days is quite enough to see everything at your leisure.

Disclaimer: This is a travel magazine that deals with travel itself, culture and encounters with people. I generally try to present my reports as value-free and open-minded as possible. My travels are not state visits and I do not make any judgments here – neither positive nor negative – about the political and social conditions in the visited cities and countries.

Note: All travel described in this article was privately funded. I do not receive any financial contributions from companies or other organizations mentioned in this article.