Despite these pluses, the hotel does have its drawbacks, the main one being facetious service from the trilingual (Chinese, Korean and English-speaking) staff. A firm attitude is recommended; otherwise, they may attempt to add “extra” charges such as a drying fee for bathroom towels (60 renminbi), breakfast for more than one person in the room (25 renminbi per person, though every guest is entitled to a free breakfast), or pretend they don’t understand the language a guest is speaking. But such inconveniences are ultimately navigable, offset by unique experiences such as free nightly karaoke performances where young women clad in turquoise and red hanbok (traditional Korean dress) sing songs approved by the North Korean government praising the ruling Kim family and the country’s communist system; it’s a real Cold War treat unmatched in its sheer level of kitsch. But its beds, I discovered, are no joke in their level of luxury. Soft, warm… did I mention soft? One is entitled to their political opinions about the hotel’s ownership, but it can’t be argued that they know how to pamper their guests. Stretching out on the bed, I slept more soundly that night than I ever had before — quite a feat considering I once slept through a fire alarm in college.

Feeling refreshed after a quiet night of revelry, it was off the next morning to discover Yanji by day before my flight to the bright lights of Beijing. Yanji has its bright lights too, and even during the day they shine with the same wattage one would find at midnight. It’s enough to make the nearby North Korean city of Namyang, which like most of that country is prone to frequent power cuts, green with envy. Regardless, daytime has a certain unencumbered feel to it, lifting the spirits during the short, yet warm, summer with a dearth of opportunities a midsize city has no right to have. Several hours at People’s Park, a hilly area of refreshing greenery overlooking the Yanji River, is perhaps one of the best places for relaxation in all of northeastern China. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in attractions, offering both a zoo (the star of which is a particularly friendly Bactrian camel who is not afraid to amble up and nuzzle the outstretched hands, and even heads, of visitors) and small carnival, complete with miniature roller coasters popular with families. The view is nothing if not remarkable, and on clear days one can even peer all the way into North Korea, a closer encounter with that country than over 99 percent of the world’s population will ever experience. For a lasting image, however, only the highest resolution cameras are recommended.

That’s one thing to do while the sun warms Yanji. If things become a little too toasty (rare as that might be), an ideal stop would be the Yanji Christian Church, a massive contemporary house of worship just opposite the park. This dual Korean-Chinese church, originally founded by South Korean missionaries, caters primarily to the emigrant North Korean community, and its zealousness in aiming to send missionaries back into North Korea is nothing if not ambitious. Though dropping in on a Bible study and chatting with recent arrivals about their experiences is forbidden, there’s always the chance to run into them outside. There are also rumors undercover North Korean agents can be found here, but like the tales of nightclub abductions these seem more the product of an overactive imagination. I found it to be more of a cultural fascination than anything else, a symbol of the West steadily making inroads in its interactions with a deeply traditional Korean culture. I did cringe, however, when thinking what the construction costs must have been for the multi-story structure and its enviable riverside location. Those missionaries must have some rich donors.

Lunch rolling around, I felt good enough to return to regional cuisine. After all, when would I be in this corner of the globe again? Deciding after dinner the night before that I wouldn’t need to eat American food for another decade (not that I disliked it, but because it felt too ethnocentrist to eat multiple times when traveling), I endeavored to have my last taste of authentic Far East cuisine while I still could.

In addition to its stalls, central Yanji has a vast array of sit-down restaurants, many which cater to rich South Korean tourists or China’s domestic “newly rich.” For better food and cheaper prices, it’s best to go to Jin Da Lai (+86 0433 251 3634), for a huge bowl of Korean buckwheat noodles, served over ice, and buried beneath thick-sliced beef, pickled cabbage, quail eggs, goji berries, and chunks of half-frozen Korean pear. The restaurant itself is a bit dingy, but provides an ample opportunity for people-watching and interesting interactions with the Chinese and Korean-speaking wait staff, who like many in Yanji seem equally shocked and proud when foreigners are on the premises. It’s an experience not to be missed.

Sure, Yanji’s location near and ties to North Korea mean it’s not for everyone. But for those looking to catch a rare glimpse into the most mysterious region of the most mysterious nation on earth while remaining in relative safety, its decidedly unique appeal can prove as difficult to resist as saying no to 500-gram (1.1-pound) bags of seedless dates on offer for 4 renminbi (about 66 cents). A light breeze blowing into the interior of the taxi (a trip from the city center to the smallish airport — which in addition to Beijing offers connections to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Dalian and even Seoul — costs less than $10) I had summoned simply by stepping out into the street and raising my arm, the events of the past few weeks weighed on me as we drove. But like the city I found myself in, it was soon replaced by a hodgepodge of other feelings in a swirling stew of emotional tteokguk (broth with rice cakes, meat, egg and vegetables, among other ingredients) as the high rises that line the river whizzed by. So close to a land shrouded in secrecy, this “city on a hill” holds a special place as the last outpost of civilization. Darkness lies beyond, but here life clings to a certain familiarity, despite the rapid pace of development light years ahead of Western metropolises. It was good to be back in the known world.

It was at that moment the sun burst through the low-lying clouds, bathing the skyline and highway in golden mid-afternoon light.

Cincopa WordPress plugin