Visiting a Russian Cemetery from the Russo-Japanese War
After Koryo Tours’ most recent group tour to North Korea, tour leaders Simon Cockerell and Rich Beal visited the Chinese border city of Dandong on the Sino-Korean border to catch up with our local partners and take a closer look at the city’s history and culture. Rich Beal reports:
We arrived in Dandong by train from Pyongyang on a cold evening. Saying ‘goodbye’ to our group, the distinctive red statue of Mao Zedong greeted us at the square outside Dandong Station. After all, ‘Dandong’ literally means ‘Red East’, a revolutionary name given to the city in 1965 during the era of high Maoism. Before this, the city has been known to the world as ‘Andong’ (or alternatively ‘Antung’) which means ‘Peaceful East’. Its history in the last century was not always peaceful.
Our local Chinese partners, who operate our Dandong tour extensions, were there to meet us, taking us to dinner at a local Chinese BBQ. The dinner conversation drifted towards history: a funny anecdote about Dick Nixon and the Chinese spirit baijiu, the Korean War ‘MIG-Alley’ dogfights that took place in the skies above the city, a visit by ‘the Last Emperor’, and the Battle of the Yalu River that pitted Russians against Japanese in the heights overlooking the river.
On our return to the hotel it was great to see local people wrapped up and making offerings to the dead on the cities crossroads, offering coal, money and food to their ancestors at the onset of winter. These little fires burning away on a winter’s night, small testaments to all those who have come and gone in China’s long history.
In the morning after a hearty northeast China breakfast, we met with our local driver and left for our first destination of the day: an obscure Russian cemetery we had recently read about on the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang. Driving down the narrow streets of downtown Dandong, the ashes of the previous night’s offerings were still being whisked up from the crossroads by the chilly winter winds.
The drive north followed the Yalu River, which forms the border with North Korea. Peering from the car window over this watery divide one couldn’t but help think of the immense history that has taken place in this small relatively unknown corner of the world. It was here on a spring day in May of 1904 that Japanese colonial rule over Korea, which would last until 1945, was effectively established. The cemetery we were in search of, built to commemorate the 600 Russians who lost their lives defending these heights.
American author Jack London was there that spring day as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, having come with the Japanese army advancing northwards from Pyongyang, first to Anju, and then to the Yalu River. Facing a Russian force entrenched in the hills across the northern shore, the Japanese conducted a series of diversions downstream near Andong, meanwhile constructing a series of pontoon bridges across a series of islands upstream. The ruse worked and Japanese forces were able to cross the river and outflank the Russians. London surveyed the aftermath of the battle:
A visit to the ridge and conical hill of the Russian position showed a surface plowed and pitted by the Japanese shells and carpeted with shrapnel bullets. In the center of the position, where the battery occupied the crown of the conical hill, one could literally step from shellhole to shellhole. Those who lived through that rain of fire must have taken away with them a first-hand knowledge of hell far beyond the imaginings of Dante and Milton (1904).
We followed the Yalu along the north shore, passing the islands where the Japanese had laid their pontoons, turning inland to a small town and asking the locals along the way for directions. Here everyone seems happy to help even walking from their homes to point the way along the narrow lanes. The village streets dotted with low one and two story buildings covered in a film of highway dust. There are no street signs and the windows have are frosted over, the condensation from northern Chinese noodles and dumplings frozen over the night. Local stores sell machine parts and cheaply produced brightly coloured household items. Occasionally there is a truck selling local produce with the covers pulled back revealing its wares like a stage this season apples the must buy fruit and potatoes the season’s crop. Winters come early and the countryside has lost its beautiful summer greens making way to shades of brown. Apple, pear, and grape orchards now cover these hills, once pockmarked with Japanese artillery.
After making a few U-turns we eventually reach a steep road almost looking like many of the driveways to people’s homes. On the way up we squeeze past another produce truck , before pulling into a small courtyard where chained barking dogs jump up and down excitedly, barring their teeth. Meanwhile geese wander freely across a path as where we are greeted my old Mrs. Fu, the gatekeeper for the cemetery. The first thing she tells us excitedly is that she is 83 years old, then that she is paid 200 RMB (30 USD) to take care of the cemetery keys. ‘200 RMB per month?’ Simon asks. ‘No, per year!’ she corrects, without a hint of complain. She seems proud to bear the responsibility and tells us that occasionally foreigners come here.
We expect her to give us the key as we can see the memorial perched atop the hill, the white cross outlined against the bright blue of the winter sky. A step path running through an orchard of Chinese fruit trees, but she takes her job seriously and leads the way up the path grasping the barbed wire fence for support with her gloved hands as she goes.
The view at the top is lovely, looking out across the countryside out to the Yalu River. In the centre of the walled cemetery is a large mound, surrounded by six smaller Russian Orthodox crosses peeking through the tall grass. The dates on the standing crosses are still clear, but more than a century has weathered the Cyrillic script on the stone tablets at the base.
Across the way is another monument on adjacent hill and were told that is the monument erected for the Japanese whom had lost their lives in the same battle. It is probably a minor miracle that a Japanese monument survived the 20th century.
Mrs. Fu proves to be an excellent guide, directing us to a Chinese Muslim Hui cemetery just a few meters from the Russian monument. The views over Dandong are lovely and it seems a peaceful place to have ones final rest the Orthodox Christian cross next to the Arabic lettering on the newer Hui graves. But the Russians and Hui are not alone. On the edge of the Hui cemetery is also an aged Han Chinese grave accompanied by offerings of baiju, coal, paper money, and cigarettes from the previous evening. The Russian Consulate in Shenyang takes care of the Russian graves, while local Muslims also tend to their departed on specific days.
Once we have finished talking and taking our precious photos its back to the car, we worry about Mr Fu’s climb back down the hill. Should we take her hand or link arms? It turns out she’s faster and surer footed than us, stopping to pick a hand full of fire wood on her way down. We bid farewell and she comments that she hopes to see us again. As we depart she smiles and waves.
Rounding the corner towards the main street, we again pass truck the truck we passed in on the lane to the cemetery, now being loaded with the last apple harvest, stored underground cave before being taken to the city. This marks the start of a new winter in Dandong on the Yalu.
'Battle of the Yalu River' map credit from Wikipedia Commons (source).