Manzhouli is a place on the edge. Literally, it sits at the edge of China, Russia, and Mongolia. Its name even means “In Manchuria.” Up until the 1991 this was a closed city, a militarized zone — nobody was allowed in except for soldiers and those unfortunate enough to have been born in the golden triangle of the eastern communist block. The PRC has always been a little sensitive about the Russian borderlands around Manzhouli, and during periods of heightened security they even still sometimes expel all the foreigners living there and temporarily shut the city down. Generally speaking though, the Chinese have clearly realized that Russians are far more interested in stomping over the border to buy cheap Chinese made fur coats, kitsch, and junk, going to discos, and then stumbling back hung over than invading. In fact, the first land border the PRC opened up to their neighbors was at Manzhouli in 1992.
I was momentarily deceived when I first entered Manzhouli. I’d imagined a little city that acted as an overlap between two drastically distinct cultures, two big geo-political players, and that it would be a mix of them both. I thought the town would be half full of Russians — perhaps those left behind after the Soviet troops and settlers scampered back to the motherland after the city became part of Japan’s Manchukuo empire or when the area was handed back to China later on. I was interested by the idea of a Russian minority in China — Europeans trapped on the other side of the line in a country they could never hope to blend into. I was excited to discover how much Russian culture had survived within the walls of China.
I’d hitched a ride to Manzhouli from Hailar with some Chinese hotel managers, and as soon as I caught sight of the place it seemed as if my preconceptions were to be fulfilled:
Ornate, bulbous spires and brightly colored buildings with distinctly Russian facades rose up in a tightly woven phalanx out of the otherwise barren, flat, and wide open grasslands. From the highway the place looked as Russian as I could ever imagine it being — a city of extensively decorted, over-sized dollhouses. Old Russian architecture is the stuff of fantasy, and it took me a good number of years before I realized that they don’t just make their buildings look like this in fairy tales, that they construct buildings like this in real life. As I moved into this city of 300,000 I felt as though I was riding through the gate of Europe.
When I stepped out of the van and into the streets this impression did not leave me. The old style Russian buildings did not lose their mystique when seen from close up. Just about all the signs were written in Russian Cyrillic, prices in stores were printed in Rubles, and the streets were full of sharp nosed, light haired, well-bellied, ass-endowed Caucasians. The Chinese would call out to me in Russian as I walked by, and they seemed very surprised when I didn’t understand and told them to speak Chinese.
The Russian men tended to be burly, with hairy shoulders and backs, and were clad in clothing of the Walmart sort — track pants, sleeveless sweatshirts, cheap sunglasses — and the women tended to be overly voluptuous and were almost invariably Saran wrapped in skin tight fabric. 35 to 50 seemed to be the average age, and they all seemed to be zombie walking through the streets carrying big plastic garbage bags that were packed full of stuff, like someone just released from an American prison. These Siberians appeared motley at best, beaten down and battered at worst. I tried to imagine what life was like being a left over Russian on the other side of the divide in China, but this is where my initial impressions were derailed by reality:
Manzhouli is 95% Han Chinese. Very few Russians actually live there. Those worn out looking Eurasians stomping through the streets were there on three day binge shopping trips, their plastic garbage bags were filled with merchandise to take back to Russia to be resold at a markup. Many of the Russians in Manzhouli turned out to be mules: they are given a free trip to China, a small stipend, and a shopping list from import/ export companies who retail the cheap Chinese merchandise they carry back throughout Russia.
The old looking Russian buildings that intrigued me as I rode into town were also misleading. Take a quick look at them and you immediately think that they were built by the Russians when they ran this town a century ago, and they seemed to give the place a sense of depth, history, and culture. Then it strikes you that there is nothing historic about them: they’re brand new, thrown up over the past fifteen years as props to give the place some flavor and perhaps to make the Siberian shoppers feel more at home.
“When I first came here there was pretty much nothing,” an Australian expat who has been in town for over 15 years told me. “Hardly none of the streets were paved and there wasn’t even any stoplights. The only building that is really old is the Manzhouli Hotel.”
It wasn’t the culture-scape of Manzhouli that I was expecting, but the place still serves the same function it always has. Three hundred years ago, at the height of the Tea Road trading route, Manzhouli was where Chinese tea merchants would hook up with Russian buyers, and few old log cabin fur trading depots are still standing. Practically speaking, little has changed today, and it is clear that Manzhouli is still what it has always been: a trading post.
It was this nothing-has-ever-changed-here feeling that gave this city a sense of definition. You can wrap your head around this place, and that lack of mystery made it feel depressing. Russians come, the Chinese sell them junk, Russians go . . . over and over and over again, everyday, nothing changes. They are still selling fur there.
Or maybe it was the ephemeral quality of the place that gave it a melancholy hue. The city seemed locked in a cycle of transition: it’s the middle man between a production economy and a consumption economy, a giant conveyor belt loaded with an never ending supply of cheap factory made goods that’s dumped into a land so deprived that even such banal and low quality merchandise is something to get excited over. In and of itself Manzhouli is really nothing; it’s a place that people and things pass through on the way to other places. Goods pass through, people pass through, even the Trans-Siberian Express passes though. It’s a border town.
Border towns tend to exist for one reason: commerce. Or, more precisely, the type of commerce that fills in the gap in the supply and demand chain that occurs when a country prohibits, taxes, doesn’t offer, or otherwise encumbers it’s people from accessing the goods and services they desire. If crossing a line in the sand means that people can get the things they want that are not available in their home country a good border town will be right there to give it to them.
For this reason, Manzhouli is China’s busiest land port of entry and is responsible for 60% of all exports to Eastern Europe. The border is open 24 hours per day.
Manzhouli is divided in half. There is the Russian side, which is all done up to look “Russiany” and has all the shops, bars, clubs, restaurants, and hotels which cater to the Russian visitors, and then there is the Chinese side, which is just standard, run of the mill China — the place where the Chinese people who serve and sell things to the Russians live. This gives the distinct feeling of this city being two very different places, and as the place is pretty much only six streets big the contrast between the two sides is stark and the changeover is immediate. Manzhouli is a border town with a border of it’s own: walk one way and you’re in Russia, walk the other way and you’re in China.
This puts third country nationals in a unique position: you can chose which culture you want to interact with, and shifting between them just means going for a short stroll.
I met an English teacher from the United States who has been in Manzhouli for years, and asked him if there are any intercultural problems between the Chinese and Russians. He explained that the Russians and Chinese have an understanding: the Chinese sell goods and the Russians buy them. “It all just works itself out,” he said.
We were sitting together in a Russian style restaurant that churned out the typical Russian fare: borscht, black bread, baked salmon, green beer. I ordered a green beer for the novelty of it, as my new companion launched into expat tales of gangsters being stabbed with butter knives, big handed, thick necked Ivans, befriending mafia bosses, screwing the wives of incarcerated badasses, lots of talk of sex with hot Russian women, a difficult to believe low intensity spying invitation, and something about a ménage à trois.
“My biggest problem here is trying to figure out what Russian girl to go home with,” he said, and then added with a big smile, “Maybe there’s a reason I’ve stayed here so long.”
His stories made Manzhouli out to be the setting of a complex international plotline involving lots of sex, booze, money, violence, hot women, and powerful men — a dude’s playground.
That night I went out to find the Manzhouli he described. I walked into a disco and found myself in the middle of a restaurant. Apparently, they are one and the same in Russia, and this has been co-opted on the other side of the border. I then understood the American expat’s jest about the restaurant we ate at not having a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Most of the restaurants here did have disco balls and strobe lights too. They are restaurant discos, a combination I wouldn’t have thought would splice together very well. But eating full sized meals while getting sloshed and dancing seems to be a Russian thing.
I sat down at table near the dance floor, ordered a beer, and struck a conversation up with a waiter. He was surprised that I wasn’t Russian and would come over and hang out when he wasn’t running boxes of juice or vodka over to the Russians. There wasn’t a single Chinese client in the entire place, I may as well have been in Russia.
I looked out at the women dancing. I guess I was expecting to see the hot chicks from the American’s stories, but only saw 40 to 65 year old overweight Russian mothers and grandmothers breaking it down. The scene before me was remarkable, I’ve never seen old ladies dancing in clubs before. They were truly running the place, smiling, laughing, thoroughly having a blast. But I still wondered where all those hot Russian women were hiding.
I peaked into a few nightclubs, and settled for one that was packed with both Chinese and Russians. There were younger women in there, but they were almost invariably accompanied by their parents on a family vacation to China.
When I said that I was looking for younger people to hang out with, I didn’t mean elementary school aged. I was in genuine dance club, not a restaurant disco, and there were kids running around. They appeared to be as young as five, they were on the dance floor busting moves with their moms, dads, chicks in skimpy dance club clothes, dudes trying to score with those chicks, and an assortment of Chinese men with buzz cuts. It was past midnight, and at first I found this intriguing: in 14 years of world travel I’ve never before seen children rocking out at the knees of groin grinding adults in a dance club.
Then the stripper came out. She was Russian, of course, and was wearing a thin veil over her top half and a sash over her bottom. Neither were on long. Fake tits were soon bouncing in the lazer lights and a cottage cheese ass was jiggling in smoke shot out from machines at the sides of the stage. At well timed points in the song she was dancing to, where a female singer shreiked “ohhh!,” the stripper would throw herself back on a chair, spread her legs to the max, and grab her crotch. It was a legit strip show.
The Russians in the audience seemed more amused than aroused. I must admit that it was ridiculous. The stripper was well beyond her prime and the crowd knew it. The women rushed to the railings of the second floor balcony pretty much just to poke fun at the poor entertainer, most of the men didn’t even bother to do that. Did the Chinese think that Russians like strippers just because so many Russian women come to China to engage in this profession? I have no idea. But what I do know is that the kids in the crowd watched the show wide-eyed along with the adults, without inhibition.
Russians perhaps make the Chinese seem tame and ordinary. I didn’t find the Manzhouli befitting a Spike TV prime time event. Instead I found a bunch of bored looking Russian families on vacation.
It was time to go back to China.
I made some friends with some young Chinese people who ran a bar, and we went out for some noodles after they closed.
“Do you like Russians?” I asked the bartender.
“No!” he cried.
“Because all they do is drink and go ‘Ahhhhhhrrrggh!'”