Conquering the Koguryo

Ji’an, Jilin Province, China

I know what Murong Huang’s soldiers felt when they sacked the Wandu Mountain City in 342 A.D. I’ve felt the pain of the mountain roads and the savored the taste of victory. Or at least, I savored the taste of free entry.

Wandu: The once capital of the Korean Koguryo Kingdom, born in 37 B.C. and surviving for some seven centuries of war before an allied force of China’s Tang Dynasty and the rival Korean kingdom Silla defeated it it at Pyongyang (yes, that one) in 667 C.E. The Koguryo capital Wandu was founded in 3 A.D. along the river banks and mountain slopes that surround the contemporary Chinese city Ji’an on the North Korean border. By the fourth century, the Koguryo kingdom dominated much of the Korean peninsula and northeastern China and was well-known for its skills in both arts – gilded jewelry and sculptures, and especially its dancing culture – and warfare. But it was that century when the Chinese commander Murong Huang attacked the city through the mountains from both the north and the south, captured it, and burned it to the ground. The fleeing Koguryo left their ruined city to the wild.

When I set off from Ji’an – perhaps the most beautiful city in China with its streams, parks, clean streets, polite populace, and river views of North Korea – for the few-kilometer walk up to the Wandu site, I didn’t intend to follow in Murong Huang’s footsteps. The path I’d mapped took me out of the mountain-hemmed city along the river and through a picturesque village that gave way to idyllic countryside, farmhouses and cornfields in which birds flitted and chirped and buzzing of insects in the thick vegetation accompanied my steps.


The path soon turned up a small valley carved by a creek. The creek, home to countless frogs both dull and bright, gurgled over rocks as it slipped out of the near-vertical, tree shrouded mountains above. At first, the path cut clearly through the bushes, an easy hike up the gully. I giggled as I walk, glorying in the sunlight and the water and the trees. Soon, though, the going got steeper and the way got murkier. In the trees above the narrow valley, I heard the ominous clanging of bells.

My steps, and my breath, quickened. Cows. I hate cows. I fear cows.

I climbed over a ramshackle wooden fence just as the path disappeared. My giggling stopped and smile drooped. I began to worry that I’d gone the wrong way.  But the bells still followed.

And then, there ahead around a bend, four bovine monsters lay in the grass. Beyond them, too, stood a bull, his nose ring tied to a horn by a series of menacing. makeshift rusty metal links. He eyed me and stomped the ground. But the bells behind me still hadn’t stopped. As I stood, petrified, the clanking grew closer, and at last, another handful of cows trundled out of the trees and blocked my escape.

There was but one possible path forward. Walking in the middle of the stream, I could wind past the cows, keeping a few spans between us. I started forward speaking softly and slowly waving my hands. The laying cows watched me and chewed the grass, swatting at swarms of midges and mosquitoes with their ears  and tossing their heads. I should’ve paid more attention to the swarms – a prophecy of things to come – but I had eyes for only the bull. He’d lowered his head and turned to follow me as I edged around. He snorted and stomped. When I pulled parallel with him, he came for me.

I took off up the creek, stumbling over rocks, not daring to look back. I tripped, picked myself up, and kept running. Locusts and frogs bounded out of my path, plunking off of my bare legs and hips. Suddenly something squirmed under my foot. I glanced down to see a snake writing half under my shoe and half under the rocks, seemingly stuck between trying to flee and trying to lash out at its tormentor. I skipped to the side, kept running up the ever-steepening hill and reminded myself to pay more attention to the path under my feet; I had no idea what kinds of animals lived in this forest.

Soon, I could only hear the blood pounding in my ears and my ragged breath. I’d left the bull, and those horrible bells, behind. The bull and the bells, but not the bugs. I staggered to a halt to catch my breath, and as my bodily sounds faded, the buzzing closed in. Hundreds of insects swarmed my head and naked shoulders.  No time to breathe, I started running again. The swarm pursued.

Before long, the valley came to an end. The only choice was up … on all fours. I slipped and slid on broken covered by a skin of dead leaves. Whenever I tried to tack horizontal, I found myself trapped by thorned and stinging plants which shredded my calves and forearms. When the Koguryo climbed this hills, they used spiked boots to keep their balance. I did not have those. For every meter I crawled up the slope, grabbing rotten tree limbs for balance, I slide half as far back down. Bulbous gray spiders skittered in every direction and bouncing grasshoppers crackled in rage or terror. The swarm didn’t relent.

A lovely walk in the woods had turned into my personal Apocalypse Now.

Finally, a rocky outcropping rose out of the mountain top in front of me. Like some kind of harried, gasping seal, I dragged my slippery body over the top and lay heaving for a moment on the stone path on the top. Then the swarm found me, again, and I took off along the path, skating on the phlemy, mossy, stones and galloping up and down stairs. Through gaps in the trees I could see Ji’an down the valley, and there, up the river, the sand-colored burial mounds I’d been trying to reach.

I slipped, galloped, and stumbled all while swatting at my head, just trying to outrun the bugs for another half hour or so – up and down and up and down and then down, down, down, until suddenly the trees opened up, and there I was, surrounded by crumbled city gates in an open field. A pink-shirted tour group turned away from an ancient watchtower to point at me and shout.

I walked among the Wandu Mountain City ruins for the next couple of hours, marveling at the engineering of the mountain fastness. As I looked at a map of the former Koguryo capital, it at last dawned on me: like Murong Huang more than a millennium before, I’d assaulted the ancient city walls from behind, then run along them and at last breached the city.


Murong Huang had sacked a city. I’d snuck into a UNESCO World Heritage Site without a ticket. Feats, one and both.

Later in Ji’an a grilled corn hawker would tell me I was the second white foreigner he’d seen in two years. The security guards at the Wandu ticket check gaped at me as I walked out the exit, covered in leaves, mud, and blood.

I like to think the Wandu guards 1600 years ago had similar looks on their faces.

Toward Heaven

Changbai Mountain, Jilin Province, China

I didn’t notice all the upturned heads until I settled into my seat. As the bus doors closed, I glanced up and saw the eyes of everyone around me flicking nervously toward Heaven. Like any good primate, mine did too.

Yellow jackets. Dozens of them smacked against the ceiling above. And the windows around. My eyes flicked back down to the faces of the people whose eyes were flicking. Their eyes flicked up and around and mine followed. No one said anything. My world quickly shrank to silent flicking eyes and the little electric pop of wings and carapaces bouncing against the walls. Everyone so often, someone would slap at their hair in a cautious panic.

At last, the engine fired to life, and I was glad I at least couldn’t hear the bugs anymore, even if I still see all the crawling, jerking eyes.

But the bus growled onto the road, and slowly the insects disappeared, maybe into the air conditioner. Nobody seemed to care at all where they had gone.

It takes two bus trips to get to the western slope of Changbai Mountain in China’s Jilin Province, the volcanic peak jutting up out of the dense forests that surround Songjianghe Village – or these days, Songjianghe construction site: “Where everything is half finished and the restaurants never open!” The first bus, the one with the wasps, chugs past the half built resorts of the future as it pulls out of a faux Alpish ski village that developers must hope will one day transform into a real one. It rolls past toll booths, peeling police stations, and dilapidated villages, as it follows the muddy Songjiang River, swollen with the summer rains and the last of the snow melt from Heaven Lake in the crater at the top of Changbai. The water feeds the lush grasses and fir trees that give way to painted meadows just after the transfer to the second bus. This second one is the more harrowing of the two, even without the bugs, as camel caravans of the green-sided beasts sprint their way above the trees and charge past each other on the curves of the twisted road that leads them to the top.

From there, its 1,400 steps dodging selfie takers and breathless Korean tour groups to get the rim of China’s largest, deepest, and highest crater lake – a multi-hued blue broth in a bowl of lichen and stone outcroppings at 2,744 meters in elevation. I ran those steps, and it was good that I did. I got about five minutes of mostly unobstructed view of the basin, half of which belongs to North Korea, before the wind smothered the view in clouds.

Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake




I’d be warned about the finicky nature of both the weather on Changbai, which means eternal white, as well Heaven Lake’s very own prehistoric lake monster.

I saw the weather but not the lake monster. I’ll blame the weather for that one.


April 4, 2017 – Shenyang, Liaoning Province

I went to Shenyang because I knew it was a place no one would go with me. It has a reputation.

I’ll admit, it wasn’t my first choice, either. In fact, when I decided Sunday night that I needed to get out of Beijing for a couple of days, it was the only reasonable place to which train tickets were still available. Which tells one something.

Like I said, a reputation.

A reputation for being a dust-and-smoke-choked concrete slab strapped with ropes of unmoving cars. For being a frozen waste and a sweltering sweat-sink. For being a Dickensian hole, full of rusting and oil-painted factories and “satanic mills”.

And in the end, it was some of those things. I had a blast.



Shenyang (沈阳), like most places in China, is old. Archaeological evidence puts human settlement on the yang (阳)side of the Shen River (now the Hun river, and yes, “yang” as in “yin yang”) as far back as 8,000 years ago, but the city itself dates back to about 300 BCE during China’s Warring States period. It grew in importance over the centuries, eventually becoming a militarized settlement during the Ming Dynasty — one of the most important “guard town” strongholds beyond the Great Wall’s Shanhai (山海) pass wedged between the ocean and the mountains and blocking the way to Peking.

In 1625, horse-riding nomads from the Manchurian steppe took Shenyang. Within 20 years, the Manchu would breach Shanhai Pass and sweep into China proper. The Ming would fall and the “barbarians” would establish the last of China’s dynasties, a foreign one at that. The Qing Dynasty would rule all of China until the last of the emperors, the boy king Puyi, abdicated the throne in 1912 and ended Imperial China’s 2,000-year-long hold on history.

But in 1625, the Manchu had yet to move their capital to Beijing or adopt the full trappings and authority that Han Chinese culture and language would grant them from the Pacific to the Himalayas, and they renamed Shenyang to Shengjing (盛京) or Mukden (in Manchurian), meaning “rising capital”. Then they built a palace and later a tombs, and even after the Manchu ruled all of the Middle Kingdom, Shenyang would remain a secondary capital and a spiritual homeland, a place to keep their treasures and the bodies of their kings.

History wasn’t finished with Shenyang, or Puyi, for that matter. As the clouds of World War gathered over the Pacific Rim, Japan slipped iron tentacles into northeastern China. Then, they pretended to hack one off.

On September 18, 1931, a bit of dynamite exploded near a Japanese-owned rail line just outside of Shenyang.  The explosion was so weak it failed to so much as damage the rail line. Nonetheless, the Imperial Japanese Army blamed Chinese dissidents and used the incident as a pretext for a invasion. But the explosion was a ruse: The Japanese military officers, likely without the knowledge of Tokyo, set the false flag, and soon Japan occupied all of northeast China, setting up Puyi as the puppet emperor of a puppet state. Less than two years later, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations.

Surprisingly, perhaps, evidence of all that history and more still stands in Shenyang despite its wasteland-like reputation, scattered through leafy parks and grand museums. Most of Shenyang indeed does feel like developing China: Broad dusty streets crushed with cars and hemmed with unappealing shops blaring advertisements from tinny speakers. But not all of it.

Downtown, the Qing imperial city still stands amid the skyscrapers, and in the city’s lake-spotted northern park, one of the Qing kings still lies under a hill of dirt, surrounded by moldering gate towers and a circular wall.

Those were for later,though. Shenyang is linked to Beijing by two high speed rail lines so the four-hour journey between cities starts or ends at one of two stations. I arrived at the main station and would leave from the north station before dawn two dance hence, so I’d booked a room (about 8 USD a night) at the state-owned China Post Hotel next to the north station square.

I resolved to walk from the main station to the north one in order to get a feel for Shenyang and hit a couple of the city landmarks along the way, starting with Chairman Mao.

I’ve got a thing for statues of communist leaders. And this one was supposed to be particularly interesting – the largest Mao statue sculpted during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

From the train station, it was a straight shot, and after a couple of blocks I could see him there, unblocked by buildings, arm outstretched, eyes locked on what would turn out to be a disastrous future. He stands in the middle of a barren traffic roundabout, surrounded by steroidal workers, scholars, and Red Army soldiers, all of whom grimace while they brandish stuff. If you were to look closely, you’d notice that many of these figures held one hand above their head, thumb and pointer finger nearly touching in a pinching gesture. When the sculpture was completed during the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, these hands all held Mao’s Little Red Book, required reading and required carrying for the legions of red guards – and ordinary people who did the best to avoid those gangs – for that decade.

All of those books were later disappeared, lost much like so many of the details – and lives, for that matter – from that decade of ideological insanity and murderous anarchy.

After Mao it was a slog of block after block of soon-to-open malls and closed-for-the-holiday stores, broken up only by one street leaning toward artsy with some new, western-style bars and cafes (an American BBQ joint) and some odd statues of girls reading books or men playing accordions and even a “Gutenberg’s Bookstore” styled – sort of – like a European book house.

Eventually I found the north train station, mostly on accident, and also my hotel.

The receptionist there would hardly talk to me, let alone look at me, and I began to get the feeling that things weren’t going to go as I’d planned. When I checked into my room, the first thing I noticed was the horrifying way the bad florescent light gave the room a nightmare, things-are-not-quite-real-nor-are-they-quite-right kind of sheen. It was hard to look at anything, as if everything shimmered just enough to throw me off balance.

The second thing I noticed was there wasn’t a bathroom.

The price-point, if not the actual furniture, was starting to come into focus.IMG_20170403_233750_HDR

I walked out of the room. The bathroom was next door. Communal. Urinals. Squatters. No showers. Floor covered with cigarette butts. I went back to my room and sat down on the shimmering bed. There was a plastic tub on the shelf in the corner of the room above the complimentary flip flop shoes. It was the kind of tub I’d seen before in Beijing’s hutongs and in villages next to rivers, the kind of tub people fill with water and use to wash themselves when they don’t have a shower. Great.

It took me a few minutes to get used to the idea. Well, at least it’s cheap, I thought. Then, before I could think for much longer, I left to go find a dead king.

I spent that afternoon walking around the lakes and visiting the Qing tomb. The tomb complex itself is a cluster of buildings encircled by a wall. At the very back is a giant, nearly treeless mound of dirt topped by a single leafless tree. The king is under there. I walked the wall around the place and looked at the mound for a while, then out, where in the evening sky hundreds of kites fluttered above the trees. And above the massive iceberg floating next to the boat dock. And just above the heads of seniors. And sometimes they simply fluttered right into those heads.

Exiting the park, I spent twilight walking through stall-lined night markets, trying to find one of the city’s bar streets. I walked one area for a couple of hours, coming up empty handed, then took a cab to another part of the city. I ended in the wrong area but found a craft beer bar, charged my perpetually dead phone, and set out again on foot. The kilometers slipped by and I still hadn’t found the place I was looking for, the Fat Dragon Ale house. I stumbled upon another beer bar, this one’s walls covered in fake grass and plants, charged my phone again, and set back out.

Being Tomb Sweeping Festival, there were plenty of fires in the streets, people burning paper money and cardboard phones and such for their dead relatives, but still no Fat Dragon. I’d been looking for hours and was about to give up hope when I turned the corner to see a Fat, stubby-winged dragon hanging from the side of the building.


The Fat Dragon.

I spent a few hours there drinking various craft beers from around China chatting with the bartender about Shenyang, about the sights and the climate and about beer. Then I talked to a pair of Chinese girls on holiday from university in Haerbin for a while longer. Then I went back to my hotel, watched some more people burn stuff in the streets, ate some 1-am hotpot, and then slept like the dead.

The next morning, I took the gleaming subway a few stops to the oldest section of the city where the Shenyang’s Imperial Palace still stands. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mukden Palace was constructed in 1625 to resemble Beijing’s Forbidden City, but the Mudken version also includes a variety of Manchurian and Tibetian architectural styles not found in Beijing. It’s also significantly smaller than the one in Beijing, so instead of an 8-hour slog, it’s easy enough to check out the halls and their exhibits on daily life, Manchurian military strategy, and the history of Manchurian craftsmanship in a handful of hours.

By early afternoon, I’d wrapped up my tour and exited onto Shenyang’s most famous shopping street, where I planned to eat at Shenyang’s most famous dumpling restaurant. Located in a hotel of the same name, Laobian Dumplings looks out over the shopping street. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Shenyang, too, having first opened in 1829.

I took the stairs to the second floor and walked into something that felt vaguely like a hotel and also vaguely like a cafeteria, then seated myself and ordered a couple of baskets. Dumplings are one of northeast China’s specialties, and these were no exemption. Steamed in pale bamboo baskets, their sticky, paper thin skins peeled apart in the mouth a bit slower than those I’ve eaten anywhere else. Combined with white vinegar instead of the common brown stuff, and Laobian was something of a unique dumpling dining experience, which isn’t something I can often say.

With a few hours of light left to kill, I decided to walk the banks of Hun river opposite downtown. I caught a bus through downtown to the far side where I was dropped off next to the largest plastic surgery hospital I’ve ever seen. It was shaped like an ocean liner. And as big as one. The way to the river seemed to be blocked, however, until I found a rotting stairwell in a tunnel that once seem to have played host to some condemned drinking holes. It led onto a roof, which led to the the banks of the river. From there, I strolled under the just-budding willows. From there, I crossed the bridge to the business district, where I walked underneath fancy hotels and Lamborghini dealerships, past the angular and sod-covered city library.

I finally stopped on the city’s bar street where I settled into a Swiss chalet run by a real Swiss woman. Down the way – next to a sex shop vending machine – a red, white, and blue sign called customers to come in to an American-owned restaurant for “Los Angeles-style” Chinese wraps. And across the street little a bar named “Crawlers”; the flashing neon sign called it a “reptile-themed bar”.

I couldn’t get too comfortable, though. I had one place left to visit: “Little Seoul”.

Near the western white pagoda, a banner strung across the highway welcomes visitors in two sets of characters, and then the Chinese melts into Korean. For a few blocks in each direction, waitress in traditional Korean dress beckon customers to sup on kimchi and Korean stews. Soju bottles line the walls. Bar television blast out K-pop hits. Shady hotels advertise Korean “massages”.

I found a small restaurant in a back alleyway and decided to have Korean dinner in China. Only one waitress spoke good Chinese, and she led me to the back room, where to my horror I remembered three things, and realized one.

One: I’d walked nearly 40 kilometers in the last two days.
Two: My hotel didn’t have a shower.
Three: It’s typical at Korean restaurants to sit on the floor. And guests must take off their shoes.

One: The tiny room had two tables. The other one was occupied by a couple.

I slid my shoes off and looked down at my feet. My socks were crusted and shredded around the toes and heels. I walked quickly to the low table and covered my feet with a jacket. The odor wafting up from underneath it was making me suppress a gag. The couple hadn’t seemed to notice yet.

In Shenyang, it’s still legal, or least permissible, to smoke, literally, anywhere. I think that fact may have saved my dignity, and their dinner.

I ate fast. And each time one of my poor dining companions finished a cigarette, I prayed they’d soon light another.