The name means “In Manchuria,” and it was first built by the Russians in 1905 when they completed their railroad shortcut to Vladivostok through the Manchus’ ancestral domains. I don’t know how the town got its Chinese name, but “In Manchuria” now lies in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, just inside the Chinese side of the borders with Russia and Mongolia.
And as the westernmost and main border crossing for Chinese and Russians, the town is a major port of entry and shopping destination. It’s also a deliberate showcase for the neon-lighted, bargain-priced grandeur that is China. At night, Manzhouli rises out of the vast, dark, empty grasslands of northern Inner Mongolia as a flashing beacon of 21st-Century, Socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics progress. The small town actually puts out an unbelievable amount of light pollution — the lights on the city government building, for example, could easily decorate about one million Christmas trees, and are bright enough to illuminate passing clouds. But all that light is necessary — to shine the way for the cold, huddled masses of Siberia, yearning to buy cheap electronics. Neon shop signs are in Russian.
But actually, in the true spirit of commerce, there’s something here for everyone. For the Russian families that come across on old rumbling buses, Chinese shopkeepers shout through megaphones (in the language of their customers) that they stock shoes and clothes for the big and tall. Also available in many shops, we noticed, were the usual cheap Chinese electronics and–strangely–a uniform selection of bottled beer from a micobrew in Minnesota.
For Chinese travellers, however, exciting Manzhouli potentially offers even more. First up is the chance to go to the Russian border, where they can get their picture taken and buy a fur hat or other sufficiently Russian-looking souvenir. Obtaining permission to travel outside of China to actual Russia, like any foreign country, is still a time- and money-consuming paperwork process for Chinese citizens, and foreign travel also risks the potential pitfalls of landing a bad tour group or going several meals without finding any Chinese food. Thus Manzhouli seems to serve for many Chinese tourists as a sort of proxy for the real thing–a condensed, purified version of the Russia (or at least the Russian products) they imagine.
And what they apparently imagine, in addition to the onion-domed architecture of St. Basil’s, is this: matryoshka dolls, furry hats, military clothing and binoculars, milk chocolate, and breasts. In fact, never before have we seen such a massive side-by-side concentration of military-style optics and painted (and sculpted) representations of buxom half-naked Caucasian ladies, in China or anywhere. Demand for the former seemed to derive from a curious urge from everyone to peer into Russia across the chain-link border fence. You’d actually think Russia, not North Korea, was the so-called hermit kingdom, with the way Chinese tourists strained to glimpse at the small houses in the distance on the Russian side. “So poor!” They’d remark (this comment is typical to hear from middle-class urban Chinese anytime they travel outside major cities). “Their population is very small!” Then they’d put down the binos, and turn to gaze at walls displaying those lovely paintings.
As for us, after checking out the giant border-zone market, with its blaring Europop and endlessly repeating selection of goods, we made our way back towards town. Along the road was a park, and a close look revealed that it was filled with big statues of matryoshka dolls. Seeing tour buses stopping and offloading their chatty cargo, we then wandered in to see for ourselves. What we discovered were a hundred or so giant dolls, all painted to resemble famous historical figures or, more abstractly, certain countrie of the world. The Chinese were taking pictures of each and every one. And their excitement turned to frantic urgency when they saw us stroll in; for here, at this most quintessentially Russian location, were actual Russians. (For the Chinese apparently, Matryoshka dolls vie with big breasts as the most quintessentially Russian thing.) The Chinese were confident of their national species identification (“Russians!”) as they pointed and shouted. Where else would Russians come to in China but this park filled with big matryoshka dolls? And look, the observant ones yelled, they have a Small Russian with them! Go. Get their pictures.
And that’s how we did a bunch of real Russians a huge favor, by sating the thirst of two tour buses-worth of Chinese photo-snappers for close-up shots of real-live Russians, in their natural Russian habitat, doing whatever it is that those Russians naturally do. Which in this case was chasing their giggling Small Russian around as he slapped the sides of giant famous-historical-figure matroshka dolls. And when asked to pose, Bayley the Russian and Owen the Small Russian found the perfect mix of famous dolls to stand among: Marilyn Monroe, Bolivia, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Che Guevara, and Michael Jordan. All smiling (except Bolivia) for the flashing cameras.
Eventually, we made it back to town and started looking for lunch. Trying not to gawk too much at all the European-looking faces passing us by, we almost missed one restaurant packed with families from across the border. But an old Russian lady seated in a little chair outside yelled at us, trying to get our attention. ‘Ah, she must also think we’re a Russian family, and is calling us in to eat!’ We thought. But she wasn’t. Seeing her frown and motion with her hands, it then became clear she was angry with us. Her scold: It’s cold; your child should be wearing a hat!
Some cultures, it seems, have much in common (our longtime readers will know what we mean). But others don’t. And attitudes toward the over/underdressing of children have a way of distinguishing. We kept going, and found another place to eat — a Buryat Mongol eatery with burly waitstaff and giant lamb dumplings. “American,” we told them. And there, with the restaurant doors wide open and a cool Siberian breeze blowing in, the Buryat family smiled at Owen and didn’t seem to think he was underdressed at all.