The important thing to know about Yanji, located deep among the oft-frozen steppes of northeast China’s Jilin province, is that it is not a Chinese city. It’s a Korean city, in China. That is plainly evident by the sheer number of Hangul (Chosongul in North Korea) characters plastered on buildings and billboards, K-Pop music blaring from loudspeakers, or the aroma of kimchi and bulgogi wafting through the air from the doors of restaurants so steamy the vapors can be seen across the street.

But most important to remember when walking the streets of this booming city of more than 400,000 is this: less than 30 kilometers (18 miles) away, across the Tumen River, is North Korea.

Indeed, the proximity of the “Hermit Kingdom” to Yanji serves as the lifeblood of the city, linking it more to Pyongyang culturally than Peking. Businesspeople, refugees and — despite Western media claims contrary to their existence — tourists from the North are a regular sight here, as common as the KTV karaoke bars that dot Yanji with the same frequency as department stores selling knockoff appliances.

Such a connection to the world’s least-understood nation lends a more exotic air to Yanji than a city of its size and relatively, by Far Eastern standards, young history deserves. But it is there regardless, offering visitors a glimpse at what the future of North Korea itself might hold.

And what is that future, exactly? To put it simply: commerce, commerce, and more commerce. Commercialism slathers Yanji with the same eagerness of New York, albeit on a more haphazard scale. Take its burgeoning food scene, for example. Whereas decades of urban transformation have decimated Hong Kong’s throngs of dai pai dong, supplanting them with glitzy malls and big name eateries, the open-air food stalls thrive in Yanji, with multiple stalls on a single block competing to lure passerby with a variety of traditional Chinese/Korean fusion cuisine and cooks not above shouting to attract attention. Looking for a new pair of Nike shoes? They’re plentiful in Yanji — at least, shoes of the exact same quality as Nike but with names like Xtep or Li Ning. Or how about a Hermès handbag — they’re a dime a dozen, at a fraction of the price one would find in a Paris boutique.

For travelers such as myself, the city is both a beginning and an ending. I’d arrived in Yanji precisely to venture to China’s mysterious eastern neighbor, a journey unlike anything I had ever experienced. Back in the city, after eight unfathomable days in northern North Korea, I realized my first desire — shameful as it sounds — was fast food. Fortunately, there’s a plethora of options, from international chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken to domestic franchises with names difficult to pronounce for non-Chinese speakers such as Meiguo Jiazhou niuroumian da wang, (California Beef Noodle King USA, the former name of popular domestic chain Mr. Lee and still called that in Yanji) and Hai Di Lao Huo Guo (Hai Di Lao Hot Pot). The small, and understandably tight-knit, group I’d traipsed through Korea with and I settled on a Pizza Hut at the corner of Xinxing Street and Renmin Road, tucking into several extra-large Hawaiians while fashion-conscious young men and women strolled in and out of the equally fashionable Yanbian New Century Trade Square, a neon-plastered palace that symbolizes all that China aspires to be. Equal parts cheese, bacon, pineapple, tomato sauce and grease, the taste of the gooey round discs that practically melted in the mouth indicated that, apparently, Pizza Hut’s recipes do not change no matter where in the world their restaurants are located. After a consistent diet of squid and kimchi, it was heavenly.

It was also striking how similar the restaurant was to their US brethren despite the geographical and cultural differences. The same red logo was plastered everywhere, menus still relied on slick graphics more than words, and Coca-Cola was still served by the pitcher and consumed in clear plastic cups. For a brief moment, I forgot I was in a frontier city on North Korea’s doorstep. That is, until I stepped outside again and was accosted by a middle-aged woman selling pistachios. Needless to say, I didn’t purchase any.

For the young and young-at-heart, Yanji’s nightlife is positively scintillating. Nightclubs are a dime a dozen, with names such as “Lush,” “Cherry Blossom” and, perhaps ironically, “Ryugyong” (being the name of a 105-story skyscraper in Pyongyang that’s been under construction since 1987). Yet, unlike Los Angeles, Berlin, or even Beijing, queues are not to be found outside, bouncers admitting everyone in the spirit of increased sales; even safety regulations on the number of people allowed to be in a building at a time seem to be routinely ignored. Ethnic Han Chinese, Manchus from western Jilin and Heilongjiang Province, Russians from Primorsky Krai, and, of course, Koreans all intermingle with carefree exuberance, despite the occasional rumor of North Korean agents crossing the rather porous border at night to abduct (usually) inebriated revelers and take them back to North Korea to be forced to work in press gangs. Fortunately, evidence suggests these rumors are completely unfounded.

The rumors didn’t scare me, but returning to China only a few hours earlier after a nothing if not eventful overland exit from North Korea meant that I was in no condition to party. Instead, we headed back down a small side street past the locally famous Xiangfei Tea House and moseyed into the intimate bar of the Liu Jing Hotel, ordering a round to celebrate our triumph.

If you’re looking for an authentic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — North Korea’s official name — experience without the obvious danger actually visiting the country presents, then the Liu Jing (+86 0433 291 2211) is the place to go. The primary reason is that the hotel is actually owned by the North Korean government, and staffed by emigrants from the country. That might put off some visitors, but for those who do choose to stay in the five-story facility, their 300 Chinese renminbi (about $50) per night is well spent: large, two-bed suites with hot water (a rarity in this part of China, and unheard of in Korea), Western-style toilets, and a free breakfast in the well-appointed second-floor restaurant in the morning (the size of which is difficult for one to consume on their own), to say nothing of the stellar view of the bustling streets below and sunrises for which the Far East is famous.

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