The story (in Chinese) was first published in Lonely Planet China magazine, Issue 06/2022.
This English version was translated from the Chinese original with DeepL, with the manual correction of some obvious mistranslations. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.
I haven’t had time to upload all the images yet, please refer to the images in the pdf.
From Harbin to Qiqihar, a Brief History of the Chinese Eastern Railway
I sat in the empty waiting hall of Harbin Station, waiting for the high speed train to depart.
It’s hard for me to describe this city of tens of millions of people in a few simple words. A day earlier, I had encountered an exhibition of watercolor paintings at the Heilongjiang Art Museum in the city by an elderly local man named Wang Huandi. His paintings were all about the old architecture of Harbin: verdant street trees hiding quaint houses, and a few leisurely pedestrians dotting the landscape. …… Judging from the people’s attire and the style of their cars, he was documenting contemporary Harbin. However, he seems to have intentionally erased the ugly contemporary houses that have been wantonly added, as well as the fugly shop signs on the old buildings. This makes the scene he depicts seem more like a small, uncontested European city.
In fact, Harbin was indeed a “European city” when it was born, and at the end of the 19th century, the Tsarist Russians started building the Siberian Railway, which, in addition to the main line, which ran along the Heilongjiang River and all the way through Russian territory, had an additional branch line that cut through northeastern China, from Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia in the west to Suifenhe in Heilongjiang in the east. Suifen River. Although it was called the Chinese Eastern Railway, the entire railway, including the rights of the surrounding area, belonged Russia.
The 1,480-kilometer-long railway, of which Harbin was the most important hub – the Chinese Eastern Railway ran east and west through the city, and a branch line led south to the long-coveted Pacific Ocean port of Lushun (Dalian) via Changchun and Shenyang. In fact, before the railway reached Harbin, this land was nothing more than a desolate mudflat along the Songhua River. The watercolor paintings of European-style buildings, the oldest in Harbin, were all built because of the Railway.
In 1903, not long after the opening of the Chinese Eastern Railway, British writer B.L. Simpson took a train from Harbin Station to Manzhouli on the Russian-Chinese border[i]. In that then cluttered and cramped waiting room he met Buryat cavalry in Russian uniforms, Mongolian horse traders in long coats and leather boots, and Indian Sikhs in red turbans. ……118 Years later, in the same place he described the scene, I saw an empty waiting room with a huge vaulted ceiling. No Buryat cavalry, no Mongolian horse traders, just a rush of contemporary beatniks waiting for the high speed train about to depart.
Simpson’s wonderfully written tale of the Chinese Eastern Railway past drew me to this place where he once walked. I hoped to take a journey that mirrored his to memorialize a history that is now long forgotten by many. But today’s well-connected road network has long since made the Chinese Eastern Railway’s transport status less unique. The train schedule tells me that to relive Simpson’s experience, there is only one sleeper train that leaves from Harbin Station west to Manzhouli on the Russian-Chinese border. If you want to see the sights along the way and schedule your trip during the day, you’ll have to take the high-speed train from Harbin Station to Qiqihar first.
The history of Harbin Station itself is a bit of a twist – in 1904, the year after Simpson’s visit, an elegant station building was completed in Qinjiagang on the banks of the Songhua River, using elements of the European Art Nouveau movement, replacing the The station was completed in Qinjiagang on the banks of the Songhua River, replacing the disorganized and dilapidated temporary station described by the writer. The construction of the station coincided with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, when Japan and Tsarist Russia fought against each other in northeastern China, and the unfinished station house served as a “temporary military station” for the Tsarists for a while.
In the following 55 years, it became a witness to more historical events: in 1909, the Korean righteous An Chongen killed the former Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi, who wanted to come here to discuss the division of Northeast China with Tsarist Russia; in 1935, the “Asia” steam express, which was operated by the Japanese “Manchurian Railway” and had a speed of 130 kilometers per hour, was built. Asia” steam express train, which was the most luxurious train in Asia at that time.
After being the chessboard of the powers for too long, the station finally became the stage for the Chinese for the first time in 1959. Amidst the “Great Leap Forward”, the old station building was knocked down[ii] (it took more than 20 days to do so because it was too strong), and a drawing was made to imitate the design of Beijing Station, which became the much-anticipated appearance of the new station. However, against the backdrop of the country’s economic difficulties, costs had to be cut by the “quick and easy” method: the two wings of the Stalinist concourse, which were supposed to be imposing, were reduced to a dull square box, and the main building, the heart of the station, was simply eliminated. The unknowable void left was not filled until the 1980s by an ugly modern building clad in blue glass.
In 2014, people finally remembered the old station that had been demolished. After a bit of debate, they decided to just rebuild it in equal proportions. However, in my opinion, like all Chinese architecture, which is full of “big is good” aesthetics, this replica of the station can only be called big but not proper, and the lightness and softness that the Russian architects wanted to express with curves is now only a subordinate and oppressive one. But I can’t deny that the high-speed trains that run here now are indeed much faster and more comfortable than back then.
In less than an hour, the bullet train, which concentrates the wisdom of 21st century mankind, is quietly speeding across the vast expanse of the Songnen Plain, along tracks that run parallel to the old Chinese Eastern Railway, and the view out the window changes from a grimy old industrial area on the outskirts of Harbin to a rhythmic cluster of oil rigs in the Daqing oil fields. Petroleum engineers in red uniforms put down their phones and merged into the bustling flow of people exiting the station, leaving a handful of passengers to continue their journey to Qiqihar, at the end of the high-speed rail network.
Qiqihar, a city built by the Khitan in the 12th century, is named after the “post guarding the frontier”. Unlike young Harbin, one of the oldest human settlements in Heilongjiang province, Qiqihar was the political and economic centre of the whole of Heilongjiang when the Chinese Eastern Railway was built in the late 19th century, and to avoid losing business opportunities along the line to the Chinese, the Russians intended to bypass the city and set up a station at Angangxi, 30 km outside the city[iii]. It was not until six years after the opening of the Chinese Eastern Railway, when the Chinese-built Qi’an Railway connecting Ang’anxi with Qiqihar City opened, that the city officially entered the railway era.
Next to Qiqihar railway station, the landmark building built in 1936 still survives. It was once used as a “Manchurian Railway” office building and hotel to receive the pseudo-Manchu Emperor Pu Yi[iv] who came here for inspection, but now the most notable part of it is a row of red slogans “Long live Mao Zedong Thought” that were placed on the roof of the building during the Cultural Revolution and have not been removed. It is like a final song of the times.
Into Inner Mongolia: the Golden Great Wall and the town of Genghis Khan
There were only a handful of trains to continue west, so I opted to rent a car and drive myself to make it easier to arrange my trip along the way. After a 2-hour drive along National Highway 232, I reached the border between Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia. The boundary that now divides the two provinces also happens to be where a section of the Great Wall of the Golden Age is located.
In the 12th century, the female Genghis rose from what is now the northeast to destroy the Liao and establish the Jin dynasty, perhaps because they were so impressed by the Great Wall built by the Han during their expedition that, after taking over the central plains, they built a 1,680-kilometer-long wall in their northeastern homeland to keep out The Mongols in the west were still living a nomadic life.
The Golden Great Wall was called the “Golden Border Trench”, and the name comes from the three wide trenches inside and outside. The trenches have long been obliterated by the dust of history, but the wall that existed between the trenches, even though it was weathered to the point of being a mound, still stands stubbornly, and its strength speaks for itself.
Yet this Golden Wall, which seems to be as solid as gold, never seems to have served its purpose – it failed to stop either the Mongols’ southward iron hooves in the 13th century or the Russians’ eastward railroad tracks in the 19th century. Mr. Peng Zhanjie, a researcher on the Golden Great Wall, has recounted a conversation that took place in the middle of the last century[v]. An old man fishing on the banks of the Yalu River, pointing to the train that was whizzing past, said to him.
“When this railway was first built , the border wall there used to have a shutter (of the Great Golden Wall). When the road was built, it was all levelled and destroyed by the Russian commanders of the road and the roadbed was refurbished. Now that the train is open, the remains are gone, and today not even a trace of it can be seen.”
I climbed the mound, the narrow pathway trampled out of its top stretching away from the dense coniferous forest on either side. When looking back in the direction of the Yalu River, I did see the Chinese Eastern Railway that ran alongside the broad river. This Great Wall of the Golden Age, made to defend against the Mongols, and the Russian colonists who came 700 years later with ambition, thus made a wonderful intersection across time and space.
It was not until late 1952, when the Soviet Union returned to China the Chinese Eastern Railway, which it had received from Japan at the end of World War II, that the Russians’ tumultuous back-and-forth involvement with the Chinese Eastern Railway, which lasted more than half a century, finally came to an end. However, their influence on the railway never disappeared, including the first settlement it passed through after crossing the Great Golden Wall and entering Inner Mongolia: the town of Genghis Khan.
Despite its location in Inner Mongolia, the town of Genghis Khan is not really associated with the Mongolian hero of the same name. To be precise, before the railway was built, there was still only a barren area around there. The Chinese Eastern Railway had 58 stations in Inner Mongolia, most of them in the middle of nowhere, just to allow two trains to meet, as was the case with the “small station 38” next to today’s Genghis Khan town[vi].
The roaring trains brought business, so the former Chinese road builders, as well as the people from Shandong and Hebei who had “broken through”, settled down next to the newly established station, giving it its original name of “New Station”. But when the station was officially named, the Russians remembered Genghis Khan – they used to call the Great Golden Wall “Genghis Khan’s Border Wall”, meaning the border wall that stopped Genghis Khan (Mongols). The nearest station to Genghis Khan’s border wall in Inner Mongolia was named “Genghis Khan Station”.
The name “New Station” remained in use until 1940, when the authorities decided to unify the name of the place with the name of the station, both being called Genghis Khan. In retrospect, this was a visionary decision, and the benefits to this mediocre town of mainly Han Chinese labourer descendants are endless. For example, the Zalantun Municipal People’s Government website proudly writes[vii] in its promotion of the town of Jis Khan that.
“In recent years, the party committee and government of Genghis Khan Town have seized the huge development opportunities brought by the intangible asset of ‘Genghis Khan’ and made every effort to shape the Mongolian cultural style in the town development process, so that a new historical and cultural city is rising on the northern part of the country.”
Genghis Khan probably did not dream of, in his crane almost 800 years later, in this place he had never heard of during his life, he can still as the town party government “clinging” to the intangible assets, continue to silently make contributions – “so that a new historical and cultural city is rising in the northern part of the country”.
This statement initially puzzled me, how they managed to be both “new” and “historical”. However, when I crossed the Golden Great Wall to the Inner Mongolia side of the town of Genghis Khan, my doubts were immediately dispelled.
Immediately outside the site mound, a brand new “Genghis Khan post” standing proudly in the vast meadow, quite with the mound opposite the Boru fire statue “across town confrontation” of the momentum. The colorful flags on the land in front of me and the yurts lined up in groups gave me the illusion that this was not a post representing peace and communication, but rather a frontline barracks where the “Genghis Khan’s army” had just set up. They are preparing to cross the Great Wall and launch the most fierce attack on the “Bolu Fire Army”.
In fact, it’s still marked as “Genghis Khan’s camp” on Gode Maps, so maybe that’s what it was originally called. But “Great Camp” is certainly too politically incorrect. After all, nowadays, both the female (Manchu) Boru fire and the Mongolian Genghis Khan are already part of the “Chinese nation” family, and should be united as a nation. –This is probably why they eventually replaced the “camp” with a “post”. In fact they were wrong, this “war” could not have happened anyway – after all, when Genghis Khan was born in 1162 AD, the Boru fire had been dead for 24 years.
If this is Genghis Khan’s “post”, then the town of Genghis Khan, 10 km away, must be their “city”. As I drove into the town limits, passing through “Temujin Street” and “Vogotai Road” and heading straight for “Tianjiao Square” in the center of town, I suddenly realized that the name of the square seemed There was something wrong with the name of the square. The phrase “Tianjiao” apparently comes from Mao Zedong’s famous poem “Genghis Khan”, but whoever named the square apparently forgot its next phrase, which is “Only know how to shoot a big eagle with a curved bow”. This serious omission has turned the square, which is supposed to praise Genghis Khan, into a sort of silent mockery of him.
The next line of the poem reads, “All has passed, and the present day is still to be seen.” However, in this day’s square, I didn’t even see a single person, not to mention the “people of style”. Even the square directly in front of the town government building, with a huge yurt-style dome is also dark, the staff has long gone home from work. The streets outside the square were equally sluggish, with few shops and few pedestrians, just like any northeastern town that hasn’t caught up with the times in time.
In order to meet “the man of the hour”, I went into a small restaurant that read “Genghis Khan’s Kebab”. The greasy walls were decorated with a giant green painting, the theme of which could be summed up as “The wind blows the grass and sees the sheep and cattle”. I took the menu and the first thing I saw was “Pork Fritters” and “Grilled Chicken Claws,” with Genghis Khan’s (presumably) favorite beef and lamb huddled in a corner of the page, clearly not the most popular item.
“Is this really the ‘authentic Genghis Khan kebab’ you’re serving?” I snickered at the shopkeeper, pointing to the menu in my hand.
The middle-aged man showed a few embarrassed smiles, but immediately turned into a helpless, bitter smile: “Don’t mention it! Two years ago, the top said that we should engage in tourism, that guy, said that engaging in tourism can make money, what Mongolian characteristics, a set of things. But we don’t have any Mongolians here! There are Han Chinese, Manchu, and many Koreans, but not many Mongols. When I heard that, I thought, “Well, it’s just lamb, I can grill it too. As a result of the opening of the shop, the tourists did not come a few, but encountered an epidemic …… Hey, what do you want to do, either grill a few bunches of five flowers?” I accepted his suggestion. After all, I understand that five-flower meat is his best dish.
When he heard that I was from Qingdao, he excitedly told me that several of his relatives had moved their families to live in Qingdao. I wasn’t surprised that Qingdao had welcomed hundreds of thousands of Northeastern immigrants in the first two decades of the 21st century, so much so that the language spoken in certain areas had become Northeastern. Apart from the economic opportunities in Qingdao, I think it’s more important to note that it’s where their ancestors set out a century ago to “break through to the East”.
Old Liu of Boketu, the man who wants to preserve history
After leaving Genghis Khan, I stayed in Zalantun for one night and thought about my next trip. The planned trip to Manzhouli had to be cancelled due to a new outbreak of epidemics there. As the main trade route between China and Russia, the epidemic in Manzhouli has barely stopped after 2020. A friend suggested I go to Boketu to talk to Old Liu, who he said had created a private railway museum in that town with his own efforts.
Boketu is located deep in the Daxinganling Mountains, where two tributaries of the Yalu River converge and run together to the Songnun Plain in the southeast. For the builders of the railway for over 100 years, this relatively gentle stretch of river valley was almost the only possible route for the Chinese Eastern Railway through the Daxinganling, and its strategic importance cannot be overstated. On a 1903 map of the Chinese Eastern Railway[viii], Boketu is marked with a circle indicating a large city, alongside Harbin and Qiqihar and Manzhouli.
The town of Boketu was even more withered than Genghis Khan. The sky is gloomy, and the air smells as stale as if an old, closed warehouse door has just been opened. Perhaps to counteract this blight, the facade of the station’s waiting room was intentionally painted a bright red, which stood out against the surrounding grey buildings. The color of the facade also happens to be the color of the reflecting red, which every spring turns the Daxinganling Mountains surrounding the town into a sea of red.
There is a widely circulated story on the internet that the famous children’s movie “The Shining Red Star” from the 70’s was filmed in Boketu during the end credits. Unfortunately, this was a beautiful misunderstanding; The Shining Red Star was filmed in Jiangxi[ix]. But more than twenty years before the film was made, Boketu had already appeared in another popular children’s film, The Children’s Railway[x].
In 1952, a 400-meter-long “children’s railway”, based on the Soviet experience, was opened in the station’s front square at the initiative of Soviet section chief Huanoff at the Poketu station, which was still under joint Sino-Soviet control. This was the first children’s railway in China, four years before the one still in operation in Harbin Children’s Park. The driver, conductor and wrencher, all staffed by pioneers from Boketu. They drove the 4-meter-long, 7.5-ton steam locomotive from the “Beijing Station” to the “Moscow Station” via the “Bokhtu Station”. This railway made it a lifelong dream of countless children to become railway workers.
I’m not sure if Liu, who was also born in the 1950s, also has a love for the railroad from his childhood. But his “railway museum” happens to be located in the former office of the section chief. The section chief in Boketu used to oversee the section from Manzhouli to Anda, accounting for nearly half of the total length of the Chinese Eastern Railway. More than two decades ago, it was just a dilapidated building facing demolition. Old Liu bought it at the last minute before demolition, declared it a cultural relics protection unit, and little by little, renovated it into the private museum it is now.
It is a single-storey Russian-style bungalow in the style found everywhere in Boketu, but it has obviously been carefully renovated, contrasting with the mottled walls of the old building of similar shape across the street. There are two plaques in front of the door, one in Chinese and one in Mongolian, reading “Chinese Herb Buying Company”. All online profiles of this place mention this wonderful contrast – for Old Liu, the purchase of Chinese herbs is his job to support his family, while all the money he earns is spent on his lifelong hobby: the preservation and collection of Chinese Eastern Railway relics.
Old Liu is squatting in the doorway, refurbishing the old tiles on the floor with his workers. Despite the fact that it is mentioned in almost every travelogue about Boquetu, I am sure that the number of guests here should remain very limited, as Liu never seems to show the slightest boredom with uninvited guests like me. He pulled me along and described his treasures as if I were his own: “This fireplace, it took a craftsman a lot of work to restore it; and the radiator in this toilet, look, it’s all left over from the Russians, this one, all copper, how strong it is!” He struck the radiator with his hand, and the thick rattling sound wandered through the small toilet.
The house was not large, but it was like a treasure trove of Chinese Eastern Railway. Old Liu’s desk and chairs were used by Russian railway officials a century ago, and his desk was piled high with all kinds of old objects he had plucked, from hand-held signal lamps engraved in Russian to Soviet-era railway almanacs. The solid wood wardrobe opposite, carved with ancient Greek pendants and standard Ionic capitals, was, needless to say, a Russian legacy. The portrait of Chairman Mao in the centre of the cabinet speaks of its long life in China. Most of these old pieces of furniture were not originally here, but were “plucked” from the surrounding areas by Liu in the past 20 years; and some of them were even “rescued” from the garbage heap.
The bigger shock was outside the house. In a small courtyard, the railway machinery that could not fit in the house was lined up, and across the street were two complete wagon cars! “It was left behind by the Japanese.” Old Liu said. And now the wagons have become his warehouse, piled high with collections that he hasn’t had time to sort through, and a sign that his busy schedule is far from over. In fact, the work Old Liu has done over the years goes far beyond what is seen inside and outside the small building. Too many of the Russian-style buildings in the town of Boketu have been preserved thanks to his appeal and generous funding.
Afterwards, Old Liu made a point of showing me the fan garage and water tower next door. The fan-shaped garage in Boketu, which I had not seen in any literature, had 20 bays, larger than the 15-bay Hengdaohezi garage, and deserved to be called the “first garage of the Chinese Eastern Railway”. Not far from the town is the famous Xing’anling Tunnel and the Spiral Line of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which are as historically significant as the “human” route of the Beijing-Zhang Railway in railway engineering.
Fuyuan, the most easterly road to China
After turning back from Boketu, I took the train on a stop-and-go trip, following the Chinese Eastern Railway until I reached Suifenhe, the easternmost point bordering Russia. I didn’t want to dwell too much on that part of the trip, however. Simply put, along the way I saw four decaying towns that looked and smelled like Bokhotu, and five times along the way I heard locals tell me in restaurants, on trains and by the roadside that they had relatives or friends who had moved to Qingdao. This is perhaps the ultimate dream of collectivists: not only to have people living in the same cities and living the same lives, but even to have people leave their homes and go to the same places. This narrow railway, since it was built, has tied the destinies of people along its route, even if they are geographically separated by thousands of miles.
My only regret is that I have never met anyone who is as dedicated to the history of this railway as Old Liu.
I boarded a slow train from Mudanjiang to Jiamusi, and from there I changed trains to Fuyuan – the easternmost city in China. The Lonely Planet guide to Northeast China, published in 2018, says there are two youth hostels in Fuyuan, yet at the time of my visit, only the “Most Eastern Youth Hostel” was still open. The author says of it that it is “well known on the internet because of the very enthusiastic owner, Master Guan” but “simple conditions”. The first sentence is reason enough for me to choose it. The hostel is located on the third floor of an old dormitory building, and the walls on both sides of the stairs are full of “works” left by past residents, including many in English, Japanese and Korean. The walls are covered with “works” left by past residents, even in English, Japanese and Korean, spanning nearly a decade, but ending almost abruptly in early 2020, with only a few messages in Chinese appearing since then.
There was only one young employee in the shop, and his southern accent seemed a bit out of place in this small, remote and desolate northeastern town. I asked him if he came here to work for a change of lodging. “No.” He replied calmly, “I’m the owner here.”
“You’re the official master?” I was a bit taken aback, it was hard to believe that the Master Guan from the internet was a young man from the south.
“No, my surname is Liu.”
Liu told me that he was from Fujian. he came to Fuyuan for the first time after the epidemic in 2020 and immediately fell in love with the place. “I’ve traveled all over China, and there’s nowhere I’ve liked so much and wanted to stay so much.” He still can’t hide his excitement when talking about that experience, “Fuyuan is different from other places, it’s so unique. It’s the easternmost city in China, there must be many tourists coming in the future, the market opportunity is too big!”
So he approached Master Guan and offered the two of them a partnership, with him financing the renovation of the “most easterly youth hostel”, which was described in the book as “simple”. “He’s a really nice guy, a real person, and he knows Fuyuan very well.” He explained to me why he chose to work with Master Guan, “With him, plus my business acumen and eye, I felt sure that the Youth Hostel would do well.”
In the second half of 2020, after the wave of epidemic at the beginning of the year, the tourism industry had a brief round of recovery, and every practitioner was confident about the future, and Xiao Liu was no exception. Without much hesitation, he moved to Fuyuan with all his savings. He demolished a part of the room he had previously partitioned to create a wide common area, and replaced the old furniture with simple but stylish tables and chairs. The look of the hostel now, although far from luxurious, could definitely be considered clean and comfortable. After all, a bed here is only $30, and a single room is only $60.
When I returned to the hostel after dinner, I met Master Guan for the first time in the lobby: a simple middle-aged man with a kind of northeastern enthusiasm, exactly how I imagined him to be. He was planning a chartered trip to Hei Xiangzi Island for an elderly Shanghai couple in the shop for the next day. Hei Xiangzi Island is an island between the Heilongjiang and Ussuri rivers, and the main reason most tourists come to Fuyuan. After China reclaimed its western half from Russia in 2008, this unimpressive river-centered island became the easternmost corner of China’s 9.6-million-square-kilometer map. For most of the year, it carries the burden of “ushering in China’s first rays of sunshine”.
Master Guan asked me if I wanted to join them and quoted an incredible price: 200 RMB per car, including a trip to several nearby towns along the Ussuri River. The Black Blind Island is 40 kilometers from Fuyuan City, and with the extra trips, it would take a full day to travel the hundreds of kilometers round trip. Minus the cost of gas and vehicle depreciation, Master Guan, a veteran guide who knows the surrounding area like the back of his hand, may not earn as much as a waiter at a restaurant in a day. “I don’t do it to make money, just to have fun.” He says.
Yet the cost of a charter bus wasn’t all I had to consider – according to the book, to get on Black Blind Island, you must compulsorily purchase tickets to all three of the island’s attractions, in addition to a sightseeing bus ticket, for a whopping total of $270 per person. I don’t want to condone this almost money grab, it took decades for the country to get this territory back, but in the blink of an eye, “China’s first ray of sunshine” has become a profit-making tool for some people.
When I mentioned this to Master Guan, I learned that the “sky-high admission fees” had been banned. Now, for a few dozen dollars, you can stand in person on the easternmost territory of China. He explained that the tickets were actually not expensive at first, until 2017, when the entire island was contracted out to a famous tourism company in Beijing. But to his surprise, the other company took over and first doubled the entrance fee for boarding the island several times. The local government in Fuyuan, however, could do nothing about it due to the terms of the contract until a new leader came in – “Thanks to the new secretary, ah, on the grounds of the epidemic, he took back the operation rights hard. I hear that company still has a lawsuit against him!”
Now I couldn’t find any reason not to go to Black Blind Island.
So, early the next morning, Master Guan drove us in his old car on National Highway 102 to Heijiazi Island. The road out of town was chaotic, with overloaded trucks and old rickshaw tricycles, all wreaking havoc on the already unforgiving road. “This man is probably going to Black Blind Island too.” Master Guan suddenly turned his head and said to us. Following the direction he pointed, I saw a tall, stout old man standing by the side of the road. He was dressed in a tattered red jumpsuit and a riding helmet, living like an elderly version of Spider-Man who had somehow strayed to the northeast. What was even more puzzling was that despite this professional cycling attire, he didn’t have a bike beside him.
Without waiting for our response, Master Guan had already stopped his bike sharply. When told that the old man was indeed going to Black Blind Island, he said to him, “I can take you there, but it’s not free. I am in the tourism business, this car is chartered by the three of them, the fare is 200 yuan in total. If you want to come, just spread out with them, it’s $50 a head, I don’t make more money.”
This maneuver shocked all three people in the car – I couldn’t think of any motive for him to do something that would benefit all four passengers, but would only cause additional trouble for himself. The old man outside the car obviously didn’t expect this either, but judging by the fact that he got on without thinking, $50 a day was obviously far less than he expected.
“Are you a biker?” Before I could say anything, Auntie Shanghai had pre-empted the question. “Yes! I rode all the way over here, and my bike just happened to break down yesterday, so I went to the train station to have it shipped.” “Rode here from where?” “Shanghai!”
Coincidentally, they came from the same city, only one came on a “fly with me” flight and the other on a bicycle. However, the aunt was obviously more shocked by the “bicycle ride from Shanghai to Fuyuan” than by the recognition of their hometown: “How long did you ride for?” “48 days!” The old man’s reply was as loud as a bell and full of vitality.
I couldn’t help but turn my head and take a closer look at this “Spider-Man” uncle. From the wrinkles on his face, he was well past his prime, but his body under that jumpsuit was comparable to that of a young man in the gym. “How old are you?” I asked. “Guess!” He flashed a mysterious smile.
“Sixty?” it’s never wrong to guess younger for an old man’s age. What’s more, he was doing things far less like someone much older could do.
The old man talked about his experiences along the way, from how he prepared for the trip, to how he took the ferry across Bohai Bay, to how he rode the last leg to Fuyuan in the pouring rain …… I suddenly felt a little grateful. Because of the inconvenient traffic in Fuyuan, I almost planned to rent a car to walk this section of the road. But if I had really rented a car, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to go on this trip with Master Guan, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to listen to the old man “Spider-Man” talk about his legendary experiences.
After following Master Guan to Dongji Square (which was the easternmost point of China’s actual control over the territory before Hei Xiangzi Island was reclaimed) and the town of Zhaji (named after the “Zhaji Mountain” across the Ussuri River, but now the mountain is already After that, he took us to the entrance of Hei Xiang Zi Island, where we needed to change to the scenic bus to board the island.
The bus slowly drove onto the Usu Bridge, which connects the mainland to Hei Xiangzi Island, which was created only after the island was reclaimed. The blue Heilongjiang River swept under the bridge. For what was once decades, this narrow waterway served as the national border between China and Russia. Apart from the fact that there are hardly any human traces visible, the current landscape of the island is actually not too different from the rest of Fuyuan. The first stop was at the island’s wetland park, and while most of the tourists on the bus headed straight for the park entrance, I turned around and saw an old Soviet-style house standing alone in the jungle. It was the former barracks of the Russian border guards, and one of the few remaining Russian relics on the west side of the island.
The tour bus then headed straight for the East Pole Pagoda, and for geography buffs, there are few places that offer as much all-around excitement as that. Although the pagoda is still a few hundred meters away from the actual “easternmost point of Chinese territory”, it is already the “East Pole” that visitors can reach. From the top of the tower, you can see both Russian and Chinese posts on both sides of the border, and even a whole row of high-rise buildings lined up at the end of the skyline, which is Khabarovsk (Buri), Russia, on the other side of the Ussuri River.
The longitude here is 134°44’44.880 “E according to the phone’s location software – nearly one time zone (15°) further east than the 120°E longitude line that represents Beijing time, which also makes the “geographic time” here earlier than Beijing time. Geographic time” is almost an hour ahead of Beijing time: although the time on the watch is only 12 noon, the sun is clearly at 1pm. In fact, just a few hundred meters away, on the other side of the border in Russian territory, it is now 2 p.m. “legal time” there, a full two hours ahead of Beijing time – yet the legal time on each side is one hour different from the actual time here. One hour.
From the Great Wall of the Jin Dynasty, which divides Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, to this contemporary national boundary on Hei Xiangzi Island, I have been thinking about the question: What is the “border”? In fact, the so-called “border” is just an artificially drawn line. It may be separated by culture, but nature doesn’t pay any attention to it, it’s just a meaningless line – crossing the Great Golden Wall doesn’t mean that the sheep there will taste better; crossing the border on Black Blind Island, although the watch needs to be set two hours faster, the orientation of the sun doesn’t change. In contrast, railways and roads …… are breaking down such artificial barriers, allowing people thousands of miles apart to live increasingly similar lives. If there is anything I learned from my trip to the Northeast, this is one of the most revealing points.
As I write this, in May 2022, a full year after leaving Fuyuan, I suddenly want to go back and live there again for a while. I fished out Xiao Liu’s WeChat and tried to get him to book a room.
What I got instead was a long voice over: “The youth hostel hasn’t been open for six months. I’ve been in my hometown since New Year’s and haven’t been back ……” He said that the entire city of Fuyuan is now closed to tourists, and thus the youth hostel has no point in opening. “In fact, before that, there were almost no guests after that epidemic in the summer of about 21. We haven’t made any money for almost a year either.” He added.
I hadn’t expected that the situation would have changed so much already after only a year away from Fuyuan. Thinking about his ambitions a year ago, I realized that the sharp turnaround in tourism in the past year might have been too much of a shock for him. I asked, “So are you still going to stick it out?”
“Just hang in there until the end of the year, too.” His tone was clearly tinged with resentment and desperation, “If there are still no customers, no one can stand it if we keep going on like this, with no income all the time!”
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[iv] 张宏.侵略的印记 历史的回响[N].齐齐哈尔日报,2006-04-13(002)
[v] 彭占杰. 乌古敌烈路最好的一段金长城[C]//.《中国长城博物馆》2015年第4期（总第60期）——碾子山金长城保护与利用专刊.,2015:17-23.