Dom Joly: Entering China was like a heady burst of freedom

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The Independent Online

It's a weird state of affairs when you find entering China to be some heady, exhilarating burst of freedom. Yet, last week, as I left North Korea and crossed into China by train, I felt just that. You become institutionalised remarkably quickly in a totalitarian state: what you find peculiar on the first day soon becomes the norm. I imagine it's just the way we are programmed to survive.

Arriving in Dangdong, the Chinese city that is so tantalisingly close that North Koreans can see it across the river, everything was different. For a start, we had our mobile phones back. They had been confiscated on arrival in North Korea and were put in a sealed bag. Suddenly everyone was ringing home to say they were safe and sound, but it was difficult to make ourselves heard over the din of Chinese passengers screaming into their own mobiles. I realised suddenly that we hadn't heard a raised voice for the whole week we'd been in the world's most secretive country.

We sat down for a meal and were served by a mouthy battleaxe of a waitress who queried every one of our choices. Simon, our guide, remarked that it was very difficult to have a row in North Korea and almost impossible not to in China.

As we stood on the platform at Dangdong, waiting for our train to Beijing, we looked through railings down into the streets below. The mass of humanity was infinitely varied. I saw Westerners and Japanese, even the odd African, as well as the full gamut of Chinese. In North Korea I'd seen one other Westerner – a lone Frenchman who would invariably turn up at the same approved tourist sites. I also saw no disabled people, no street hawkers, not even any shops really – or not any that we were allowed to visit anyhow.

We sometimes went to "exhibition halls" where we could purchase extensive amounts of literature written by both the "Great Leader" (Kim Il-sung) and the "Dear Leader" (Kim Jong-il). I opted for a rare tome, not penned by either of them, called The US Imperialists Started the Korean War. It's not exactly a page-turner, but it will look good by my loo.

Our hotel in North Korea, an approved "international hotel", was a curious one. An ugly skyscraper with a dodgy revolving restaurant plonked on top, it sat on an island in the middle of the river in Pyongyang. We were not allowed to leave the grounds unaccompanied and so had to make do with the facilities provided. These weren't bad, although very curious. There was a nine-hole pitch and putt. Golf in the axis of evil was a first for me. And in a claustrophobic basement I found a two-lane bowling alley (made in evil America), a table tennis room, a shoe repair outlet, a billiard table and a swimming pool.

Then I discovered another secret basement entirely run by Chinese from Macau. They boasted an Egyptian-style nightclub, a casino and a dodgy sauna. There was certainly plenty to keep one occupied, but North Koreans were not allowed in, and the only way we really mixed with locals was chatting to the three flirty waitresses in the lobby bar. They ran their own microbrewery and have the best-tasting beer in the country.

It took me some time to get used to traffic in China. Despite our guide in Pyongyang constantly worrying about us crossing roads, there was only about one car every 10 minutes. I imagined our guide having to cross a road in Beijing for the first time: he'd have a heart attack. However, despite speaking very good English and Chinese, he'd never left the country.

The world never fails to surprise me, but North Korea is in a league of her own.

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