37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Wednesday 6 January 2016
That got your attention, didn’t it?
Well, before I dive into this sordid tale of borderland debauchery, I’d like to make one point very clear – I had no idea that place was a brothel. In fact, it might not have been one at all. The whole situation was a confusing mess and it ended with me inside a Chinese police cell, battered and bruised after a good kicking from my captors.
I guess I had probably better start from the beginning.
It was April 2013, that Spring when the so-called ‘Doomsday Clock’ was inched closer to mutually-assured destruction than it had been in a while; as North Korea, South Korea and Japan squared off over the test launches of North Korean missile systems. The press were calling it the ‘Korean Crisis.’
At the time that all started, I was in China. I’d booked a tour of North Korea, my second one, and this time I’d be heading into the very north of the country to explore the semi-autonomous region around the port city of Rason.
I met up with my tour group in Beijing, and together we travelled to our intended crossing point on the China-North Korea border: at a town in eastern China called Yanji.
Yanji is an oddity, in that it serves as the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture within the People’s Republic of China. The area has strong links with Pyongyang, and it operates like a kind of North Korean expat colony – the streets are full of Korean restaurants, manufacturers, massage parlours and other businesses, most of them staffed by teams shipped up from the DPRK.
These workers may not be free to go and travel elsewhere in China, but for many North Koreans, a work placement on the other side of the border in Yanji is considered positively exotic.
There were nine of us in the group, all male, and we’d taken the night train from Beijing through the city of Dandong, and onwards to our final stop in Yanji. The plan was to spend a night there, sample a little Korean culture outside of Korea, and then the following morning take the plunge – crossing the bridge into North Korea on foot, and meeting up with our Korean guides who’d be waiting for us on the other side.
So there we were, having a night out on the town in Yanji. We started at a Korean sushi restaurant (they call it ‘gimbap’ here), where the waitresses, Pyongyang girls, performed various musical pieces on the stage in between serving tables.
This was the same restaurant that VICE Media visited, when making one of their early documentaries about North Korea. According to their account, all of the other customers were North Korean spies and unless the VICE team stood up and applauded loudly at the end of each musical performance, they’d be refused entry to the DPRK.
Of course it was nonsense, every word of it. This was simply a regular restaurant, popular with Chinese families and Korean businessmen alike.
Our train had gotten us into Yanji late though, and by the time we’d dropped off bags at our hotel we didn’t get to that restaurant until pretty late in the night. As a result, we soon found ourselves getting kicked out – and so after that we hit the streets of Yanji, and went looking for a bar.
The first place was non-eventful, a comfortable, regular (by Chinese standards) drinking hole, where the nine of us were given a back room to ourselves and bottles of strong, local beer were regularly delivered to our table. Soon enough though, that place wanted to close as well. We’d only been in Yanji for a few hours by this point, after almost 12 hours spent on a train – I think we all just wanted to sit a bit longer, relax with an unrushed drink somewhere, and so we voted in favour of finding another bar for a nightcap.
That’s when we ran into trouble, though.
We were wandering through the backstreets of Yanji – not drunk, but certainly jolly – when eventually we came across what seemed to be a bar, with its lights still on. At that time of night, in a small Chinese border town, it was like finding an oasis in the desert. The bar’s windows were all shuttered up, but the warm glow from the doorway was welcoming enough that we made our way inside.
The place was empty before we arrived, the barman sleeping with his head down on the counter. He perked up quickly though, and as we made our way to a large, circular table in the corner he took our order for nine bottles of beer. It seemed alright in there. A little dingy, perhaps, the beer a little on the warm side, but it was comfortable and relaxing, the perfect antidote to a long journey on an over-packed train. Besides, we had a lot of talking to do: nine strangers, about to spend a week together on the road in North Korea.
We were maybe halfway through our beers when company arrived. The street door swung open, heralded by a chiming bell and a gust of cold air; then a large group of Chinese girls came into the bar and sat down. Each one of them was more beautiful than the last, and they were dressed up as if for a night out – heavy makeup, thigh-high leather boots. While perhaps it wouldn’t have been an unusual sight had we been in Beijing, or Shanghai, here in a Chinese-Korean ghost town at 3am on a weekday morning their arrival seemed just a little far-fetched.
I counted – there were nine of them.
One of the younger members of our group had apparently counted too, and his face lit up with excitement as he made the realisation.
“Nine of us, nine of them,” he was saying, “what are the chances of that?”
Less than zero, I was thinking, and I’d have wagered any money that the barman had just called up and invited them. It was too late though, as the less-travelled members of our group were already making eye-contact – the girls meanwhile, who didn’t seem to be drinking, were putting on a big pantomime of blushing, whispering and giggling and then, inevitably, they came to join us at our table.
Extracting our group from that table was no easy thing. The handful of us who’d been to China before drank up, fast, left some cash for the beers and were on our feet and ready to leave. The others were already getting sucked into conversation however… or rather, a wordless exchange of smiles and hand gestures in the absence of any common language.
I had seen things like this before. In Qingdao, I wandered quite by mistake into a bar where rich businessmen pay pretty girls to sit with them and laugh at their jokes. That’s a real thing in China, and quite common; a service for men who won’t go so far as prostitution but still value (and, objectify) female company enough to pay for it. Another time, a taxi driver in Beijing drove me to a brothel instead of my hostel and tried talking me inside.
Even now, I honestly don’t know what the deal was in that bar in Yanji. All I knew was that these girls would be working for men who had seen us, and likely considered a group of nine presumably-drunk foreigners as a walking paycheque. Whether they were selling conversation, sex, or an invitation to some dark alleyway for an ambush… it was impossible to know.
Suffice to say I didn’t trust it, and I wasn’t the only one – our tour guide for the week was a fluent Chinese speaker, and he called the barman over.
“Jié Zhàng,” he said – The bill, please – and the man brought back a slip of paper. The printout listed 18 items: nine beers at 15 yuan, and nine conversations that each cost 100 yuan and brought the grand total to over £100. By provincial Chinese standards, it was a small fortune.
By this point most of our group had been roused from the table, were on their feet and eager to go; save for the last two optimists, who weren’t quite ready to abandon the possibility that this was all some divine coincidence. We put down money, enough for the beers, grabbed our friends and made straight for the exit. But we weren’t fast enough.
If there had been any doubt as to the complicity of these girls, it soon evaporated once we tried to escape them. I guess they’d seen how little cash we left behind, as one of them suddenly screamed – and the barman was on his feet, beating us to the exit.
As he argued with our tour guide, the girls mobbed us from behind. One of them barred the door, locking it, and then another made a grab for someone’s shoulder bag – presumably, trying to take collateral against the unpaid bill.
Voices were raised, the barman shouted and threatened while the nine girls made angry noises and blocked our exit from the building. It was an exceedingly strange situation and fearing that it could only get worse, we pushed our way through the crowd, pulled the door open and stepped hurriedly into the night… to the sound of approaching sirens.
I don’t know who called the police; likely it was one of the girls, the moment it became apparent that we wouldn’t pay the full price for our uninvited female companions. Considering how the squad car arrived within just a matter of minutes though, I find it hard to believe that they weren’t already waiting for this call – and therefore involved, somehow, with the operation as a whole.
Hearing that siren, we panicked. Not one of us doubted for a moment whose side the Chinese police were going to take. The car wasn’t yet in sight, adrenaline was running high after the stand-off in the bar and so when someone shouted RUN! it seemed like quite a good idea.
We split up, all of us running in different directions into the maze of Yanji’s back streets. I guess I just picked badly. Behind me I heard the car engine, heard it brake hard and then moments later, I was brought down by a baton to the back of the knee. Falling into a roll I grazed my hands on the cold pavement as I tried to cradle my head against impact – then suddenly the air was knocked clean out of me by a boot to the stomach. There was another kick, another, then something hit my head quite hard and things after that got a little hazy.
I remember sitting in the back of a police car, handcuffed, as red lights danced about over the interior upholstery. Then I was at the station, and I was being made to wait inside a bare white room. No one spoke to me – they simply pushed me into a cell, these little men in black peaked caps, and eventually I fell asleep on the wooden bench.
Four of us had been caught, I’d later learn. The others got away. Luckily for me, one of our group’s Chinese-speakers was my fellow detainee. While I lay there in purgatory, he’d been negotiating with our captors; and eventually they came for me, woke me up and escorted me back to the station’s booking desk.
We had been offered a deal. We could be processed, booked and charged with hooliganism and assault (against whom, I couldn’t say); or else we had the option of paying an administrative fine to make the whole thing go away.
The price was 1,800 yuan (£180), and we had no sensible choice but to pay it. As we walked away from the police station I was doing the maths in my head – 100 yuan for each ‘conversation’ with the girls, and then the same again on top. It was hard not to imagine it as a 50:50 split between the bar staff and their uniformed friends.
I guess there ought to be a moral to this story, though the truth is I’m not sure what I could have done to avoid it. Stay away from late night bars? Travel alone, or in smaller groups? Usually I’d do those things anyway, but sometimes I make friends; other times I fancy a beer after midnight. I’d resent feeling as though I couldn’t do those things for fear of entrapment.
When I got arrested in Moscow, the police there were abrupt, officious, but they treated us with courtesy and respect. In China though the experience was simply brutal, an unwarranted beating that I cannot believe was not financially motivated. I’ve heard similar stories too, from Westerners living in China – trumped up charges, police violence and ‘administrative fines’ as the only way out.
If there needs to be a moral here, perhaps it’s simply this: run faster.
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