The Chinese–Russian Border Part I: Manzhouli

We were welcomed by the morning breeze of Manzhouli (满洲里) after spending 12 hours on the train from Harbin.

The Chinese–Eastern Railway (today’s Trans-Manchurian Railway) is a shortcut from Siberia to Vladivostok. (Source: Wikipedia)

Manzhouli is a city in Inner Mongolia situated at the Chinese–Russian border. It was founded after the construction of the Chinese–Eastern Railway, which was built by the Russians in the early 20th century as a shortcut from Siberia to the Russian Far East via China. Being the first stop in China after crossing the border, Manzhouli slowly emerged and developed to be one of the largest land border cities thanks to the busy border trade between China and Russia.

Located in Inner Mongolia, many signs also included Mongolian language. However, people here mostly speak Chinese and Russian.

Manzhouli in every way is branded as being Russia—from the Russian-style architectures popping up everywhere to the goods displaying on shelves. Many billboards are in both Chinese and Russian, constantly reminding you that you are just kilometres away from Russia.

After stepping out from the train station, unsurprisingly, we were greeted by a bunch of overly kind taxi drivers who wanted to drive us to the city centre. Knowing their usual tricks of earning extra bucks from tourists, we refused and tried to find a peaceful corner where we could figure out how to get to the hotel.

Manzhouli is separated into two parts by railway tracks. The town centre is located at the northern part, but somehow someone decided that the railway station should be built at the southern part where not much is really happening. Without efficient public transport, we therefore have to make a detour on foot to the bridge to cross to the bunch of railway tracks in between to our hotel which is just opposite the train station in -20 degree Celsius with 20 kg on our back. Having said that, it was nice to be able to take a closer look at the freight trains on the bridge. Manzhouli would be uninhabited without their existence.

Carriages loaded with timber (likely to be from Siberia) in Manzhouli.

There are mainly three types of tourist who come to Manzhouli: Russians who come to shop for cheap clothing, mainland Chinese attracted by the Russianness here, and transit tourists who are heading to the other side of the border like us. We had planned to stay here for a night and catch a morning bus to Russia the next day so we decided to spend the day exploring this border city.

To be frank, there isn’t much in Manzhouli. The two most prominent sightseeing spots are the Matryoshka Doll Square and the old China–Russia border crossing. The first one is sort of Russian Disneyland built by the Chinese, which might be interesting to people who have never been to Russia before, but definitely not us. Thus, we decided to head to the later one.

The small yet free ice sculpture exhibition

On our way to the bus station where we could get the tickets for the bus on the next day, we accidentally passed by the venue of the ongoing Ice and Snow Festival in the city. If you do not know what it is, it is basically an exhibition of ice sculptures (ice playground for kids). This kind of exhibition is originated from Harbin, and therefore the one there has become a must-do for tourists visiting Harbin. However, if you are planning to visit Manzhouli besides Harbin, I would suggest against going to the one in Harbin! Even though the one there is the world biggest, most gorgeous ice sculptures exhibition, its ticket costs over CNY300, which is ridiculously expensive considering the price level of China! Since I’m not a big fan of ice sculptures, I just couldn’t justify spending CNY300+ for an exhibition in China, and thus I’d prefer coming to this smaller one which is completely free.

Children having fun with the ice slide
Children having fun with the ice slide

After getting our bus tickets, we tried to utilise the public transport system here with the help of Gaode Maps (the equivalent of Google Maps in China) to get to the old border crossing, but we ended up spending half an hour freezing at the roadside. There isn’t any information indicating the frequency of the service at all. We finally gave up and hopped on a taxi which the driver stopped at the bus stop and asked us where we wanted to go.

One point worth mentioning. The taxi drivers here in Manzhouli would horn and slow down if they see anyone who doesn’t look like a local. We are not sure if they are always work like this or it is the way for them to survive the winter low season.

The 5th generation arc

The old China–Russia border crossing is where the Trans-Manchurian railway crosses the border and is still currently in use. The crossing for vehicles used to be here but was moved to a few kilometres away. Above the railway line stood a Chinese version of the Arc de Triomphe, or Guomen (国门), which literally means “the door of the country”. The one currently standing is the 5th generation. According to Lonely Planet, there is a sort of rivalry between the two countries to build arcs at the border to outdo one another. If the rivalry is real, China obviously wins. The one at the Chinese-side of the border has developed to be a 105m tall structure which houses a viewing deck and souvenir shops. In comparison, the one at the Russian-side is just a metal structure over the railway line.

Looking at Russia from the viewing deck on the arc

Such arcs can also be found at Erlian (二连) (the border with Mongolia), Tumen (图们) (the border with North Korea) and Suifenhe (绥芬河) (another border with Russia). Somehow the Chinese are really obsessed with showcasing their power at the border.

A train just crossed into Russia

The arc isn’t the only thing to see in the area. Apparently, Manzhouli has its historical significance to the Chinese Communist Party because it was where many of its founding leaders sneaked into the Soviet Union during the Japanese occupation in Manchuria to meet up and discuss how to build a communist China. There is even an exhibition hall in a Russian-style building reconstructing the scene of one of the important meetings of the Chinese Communist Party held in Moscow with wax sculptures. Prominent figures such as Mao Ze-dong (毛泽东) and Zhou En-lai (周恩来) can be seen there. Ironically, many of the participants of the meeting later betrayed the Communist Party and fled to Taiwan or the States after the civil war.

Thr Russian-style building that houses the Chinese Communism exhibition

The sun was setting as we left the border. This time we managed to catch the bus back to the city centre, even though it took us another 30-minute wait in the chilling wind.

After enjoying the last and also the most expensive dinner in China because we are scammed, we had an early sleep in the hotel to prepare for the infamous, time-consuming border crossing on the next day.

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