At A Glance
Manzhouli is a Russian border town in the north of Inner Mongolia. It is China’s busiest land port of entry, and once you’ve visited it’s easy to see why. Originally established as a small railway town in conjunction with the development of the China Far East Railway, linking Eastern Russia to Northern China, Manzhouli quickly grew as trade between the two countries boomed. Today there are still large numbers of Russians coming over the border to buy cheap goods such as trinkets, clothes and furs.
Evidence of Manzhouli’s Russian influence are everywhere. Many of the local Chinese speak Russian, road and shop signs are written in Chinese and Russian, there are hotels galore (offering higher prices to Chinese tourists than to Westerners) and the majority of the city centre architecture has a Russian influence. When driving through the city you feel as if you have indeed crossed the border into Russia. The streets are lined with a mixture neoclassical and baroque style architecture with plenty of turrets and white columns. However, on closer inspection the tell-tale signs of this being a Chinese city are everywhere.
A Second Look
Firstly the Russian and Chinese sections of the city are distinctly separate. The Chinese area looks just like any other sub-prefecture-level city, whilst the Russian area has a slightly tacky fake-ness about it often found in Chinese “western” resort towns. The Russian style buildings seem to have more of an appearance from a movie backdrop, rather than historic Russian architecture. Patterned blue tin sheets (meant to imitate slate tiles) line many of the baroque-style turret roofs, stone imitation clads neoclassical facades and buildings are adorned with more plaster-cast statues than you can shake a stick at. At night all is lit up in bright colours. It would seem that these original buildings, as well as the many new-builds, have been “maintained” in the original style more to welcome the Russians and Chinese tourists rather than out of any pride to preserve the essence of the city. There seems to be a certain expectation for such a look (after all that is what Manzhouli used to look like). In actual fact very little of the original architecture remains, with only a few log cabins that used to serve as shops and an old school, both in the centre of town.
Whilst it’s a shame that hardly any of the original buildings have survived it’s not that surprising for a town whose main trade for as long as can be remember is to sell cheap goods to their neighbour who will sell them on back home. Without any proper building protection or consideration for the continuation of certain materials it seems to me that when something falls into disrepair it is simply redone or replaced with a cheaper imitation. Almost like a form of unintentional fakery. Almost.
There are however still some areas worth visiting. Guo Men just outside the town is one of the Sino-Russian borders, and whilst there isn’t that much to see now you can still see trains passing from one country to the other, and there’s a small exhibition on Manzhouli’s history.
Just down the main road from the border is an interesting and slightly bizarre plaza called Eluosi Taowa Guangchang where there are several giant statues of Russian Matryoshka Dolls, the tallest one 30m tall, as well as what can best be described as several brightly coloured small castles and palaces in a mixture of Russian styles.
To give Manzhouli its dues, whilst I’m not a fan of overdone lighting, the centre does shine at night. With the tin roofs blending into the dark and just the outlines visible, it almost looks charming!
For more information on Manzhouli from a traveler’s point of view as well as a picture of the historic log cabins check out this post from The China Chronicle.
Image credits: Author of Manzhouli city image (above): user:seleonov, author of Matryoshka Square (above): Fanghong – Wikimedia Commons.