You'll be hard-pressed to find Ji'an in any English-language guidebook on China. Nestled deep in the mountains dividing China and North Korea, the capital of the ancient Koguryo kingdom—that stretched from Siberia to Seoul in its 5th century heyday—has always been insular. Even today, reaching this historical jewel of China's Jilin province is no easy task. From Beijing it means an overnight train to the Manchurian sprawl of Shenyang, then another eastward to the industrial city of Tonghua, followed by a gut-churning hour in a taxi via the hairpin turns and dense forests of the precipitous peaks of the Changbai range. Simply reaching Ji'an's narrow valley sanctuary along the Yalu River in one piece feels like a miracle.
There's more to Ji'an than its wealth of tombs and mural art. The Koguryo kingdom was once a leading power in northeast Asia, able to defy even the mighty Chinese Tang dynasty for a while. Contemporary Koreans—from both the North and South—take pride in Koguryo as a precursor of their own modern states. They wonder how Korean history might have been had the kingdom withstood the 7th century advances of a lethal alliance between the Tang and the Silla kingdom, a rival neighbor to Koguryo's south.
Surrounded by mountain scenery and set on the banks of the Yalu, Ji'an exudes a shabby charm. Dimly lit narrow streets, lined with local markets and Korean, Chinese and Manchurian eateries, lend Ji'an a small-town feel, despite a population of more than 100,000. Few buildings are taller than four stories, and many homes retain their traditional Chinese layout of inner courtyards roofed with orange tiles. Though at first glance Ji'an's ancient heritage appears to have been washed away with the changing course of the Yalu, the discerning eye may yet spot a stretch of ancient city wall among the lines and angles of more modern structures. For those less observant but able to read Chinese, a modest sign at the bus terminal marks a low stone wall as the last remains of Guonei, once the primary fortress of the Koguryo capital.
Ji'an is a popular pilgrimage for South Korean tour groups eager to take in the rich heritage of their national past. They're easy to recognize by their name-brand sneakers and identical baseball caps. Guesthouses along the Yalu are routinely booked up, and Korean restaurants are rowdy late into the night, the soju (a traditional Korean liquor) flowing like the Yalu. The South Koreans come too, to get a rare glimpse of the forlorn North. To do that myself, I hired a moped-and-rickshaw hybrid for a tour of the sites, culminating with a trip out to the Chinese border post. The guard in charge collected a visitation fee of $8, then pointed me to a narrow dirt path I was to follow—alone. Two minutes later—after passing a group of enthusiastic South Koreans returning from their own heady, if cursory, view of the North—I reached a ramshackle Chinese guard hut tended by a young Chinese soldier in a uniform two sizes too big. Once he ascertained that I was American, he made me an offer I couldn't refuse: "$10. We go together to North Korea." His practiced English made it clear this was not his first time.
Without bothering to bargain, I agreed. Setting off over the Yalu bridge behind my armed tour guide, I felt briefly like the hero from a John le Carré thriller, soon to be swapped for a rival spy. At the midway point my keeper motioned me quickly off to the side. The daily train to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, approached from Ji'an, its coal-fueled engine blowing black smoke and steam into the clear, summer sky. The imposing engine lurched by within feet of us, the wooden bridge shuddering under its weight. The train's handful of North Korean passengers peered down at me quizzically. A few even scrambled to the train's third, and last, car, anxious for a final glimpse of what they thought they saw: a Westerner under armed escort heading for North Korea. I waved to blank stares. But we didn't go any farther than that. Apparently by "North Korean border" my guide meant the halfway point across the Yalu, and not the border post, by now quite discernible not more than a hundred meters off. I was disappointed but also relieved at the thought that there was no chance of my being seized as a running dog, imperialist American spy. Ten dollars poorer but richer nonetheless, I headed back to Ji'an, crossing the Yalu by a bridge that I now know does so much more than just span a river. It links, and separates, two different worlds.