Manzhouli is a city lost in translation. It’s a city where two countries—China and Russia—share a border but don’t quite meet, and where notions of modernity, identity, tradition, jostle together in surprising ways.
When you first arrive in Manzhouli, you’re greeted by European-style buildings rising incongruously from the endless Mongolian steppes, more like products of an overactive imagination than buildings that exist in space and time. On the outskirts of town, colorful replicas of onion-domed cathedrals and colossal matryoshka dolls sprout from the grasslands. The city has reinvented itself as a Russian playground, but why?
Manzhouli might be seen as an encapsulation of China’s rise. Entranced by the idea of growth, the city has pursued development with little thought to its consequences. A feeling of incompleteness, of unmet expectations, hangs in the air. For all its enthusiasm for a foreign culture, the city seems stranded, stuck between a Russian fantasy and a Chinese reality ……………….
This is a story about Manzhouli, a city lost in translation. It is also a story about reconciliation in contemporary China—reconciliation with notions of modernity, identity, and the future.
When you first arrive in Manzhouli, you’ll be greeted by endless Mongolian steppes intertwined with aberrant, ahistorical buildings that seem to belong in someone’s imagination rather than in this time and space. There is a feeling of unfulfilled expectations in a place that is not quite whole or complete. In Manzhouli, as with many things in modern China, change and development came fast. Driving in and out of the city, colorful replicas of Russian cathedrals, larger-than-life matryoshka dolls, and other colossal structures are interposed onto idyllic grasslands. These strange designs at first glance, seem to be aesthetically satisfactory, if not arbitrary, but why has Manzhouli been reinvented as such? The region embodies China’s brave new world—where the modern Chinese dream has focused on grand possibilities and potential, with unintended consequences as an afterthought. That to achieve extraordinary growth, sacrifices are a given.
Since the 1980s, following a thaw in Sino-Russian relations, Manzhouli has thrived as an important trading town. Accordingly, it shows the influence of its closest neighbors. Storefronts in the city center display Cyrillic and Mongolian script alongside Chinese characters, and shopkeepers draw you in with pidgin Russian. Restaurants with names like Café Dryzhba and Restaurant Maksim advertise genuine Russian waitstaff and play Russian hip-hop while Chinese families feast on shashlik and take selfies.
Though the region of Manzhouli is landlocked and sits at the periphery of the PRC, this frontier territory serves as an important port for China-Russia trade, both concurrently and historically. In the 1980s, Manzhouli was revitalized through the renewal of cross-border trade and cooperation following years of complex Sino-Soviet ties; accordingly, the city came to appropriate influences from its closest neighbors. Storefronts in the city center display Cyrillic and Mongolian script alongside Chinese, and shopkeepers draw you in with Chinese-accented pidgin Russian. Restaurants are named Café Dryzhba and Restaurant Maksim; they advertise genuine Russian waitstaff and play Russian hip-hop while Chinese families feast on shashlik and take selfies.
尽管满洲里地处内陆，位于中国边境，但在今日乃及历史上，这里都是中俄贸易的重要港口。20 世纪 80 年代，在经历了多年复杂的中苏关系后，通过恢复跨境贸易与合作，满洲里重获振兴；因此，相邻的外国城市也给当地带来了一定的影响。在市中心的店面往往同时写着中文、西里尔语和蒙古语。店主操着一口中国口音的“洋泾浜俄语”来吸引你的注意。餐厅被命名 Dryzhba 咖啡厅和 Maksim 餐厅，甚至雇用俄罗斯服务员来吸引顾客。当中国家庭在享用烤羊肉串（shashlik）、自拍时，旁边就在表演俄罗斯嘻哈音乐。
Only a few decades ago, before it was retrofitted with European buildings, Manzhouli was a provincial backwater on the edge of China. First settled in 1901 as a stop on Russia’s Chinese Eastern Railway, it never achieved the growth or prosperity enjoyed by its southern neighbors.
Only a couple of decades ago, before the city was refitted with European-style architecture, Manzhouli was largely a provincial backwater in a China rapidly rising to power and prominence. The settlement was developed in 1901 as the first station of the Chinese Eastern Railway in China, but despite its early strategic location, Manzhouli and its surrounding regions never exploded in wondrous growth and wealth like the PRC’s southern hubs.
Until 1992, Manzhouli was largely closed to outsiders. But when the state recognized its potential as a hub for trade and tourism, it proposed to reinvent the city through fantastical architecture. One resident named Zhou, who moved to the city in 2001, recalled that back then the journey from Beijing took over 40 hours. The airports and giant matryoshka dolls had yet to be built, and the city felt more rural than urban: dirt roads were dotted with low-rise brick homes that had only communal lavatories. Today Manzhouli boasts apartment towers and shopping complexes, and Matryoshka Square, a pseudo-Russian fantasyland, brims with painted mass-produced Fabergé eggs, Soviet memorabilia, and larger-than-life Russian dolls, including the world’s biggest.
The city was closed to the outside world until 1992. This was a frontier region gradually opening and marked with great potential—the state pronounced to reinvent Manzhouli through fantastical structures and cultures. Back in 2001, a man named Zhou moved to the city from Anhui and recalled his journey from Beijing took over 40 hours. The region’s airports and matryoshka dolls were not yet constructed and the city felt more rural than urban: low-rise brick homes were dotted along dirt roads, along with pay-for-use communal washrooms to share amongst a community of homes. Today in Manzhouli, you can find new apartment and shopping complexes and the world’s largest matryoshka doll in Taowa Square, a pseudo-Russian fantasyland filled with hastily painted life-sized dolls and shops overflowing with mass-produced fabergé eggs and Soviet-era souvenirs.
直到 1992 年前，这座城市一直不对外界开放。这是一个逐渐开放并具有巨大潜力的边疆地区。中国宣布要通过宏伟的建筑和文化重塑满洲里。2011 年，Zhou 从安徽搬到这座城市，从北京出发，花了 40 多个小时。当时，这里的机场和俄罗斯娃娃都尚未建成，所谓的城市感觉更像是农村：泥路两边是低层砖房，住宅小区里还用着付费使用的公共卫生间。而如今，在满洲里，你可以看到崭新的公寓和购物中心，在套娃广场上，你还能看到世界上最大的俄罗斯套娃，俄罗斯风格的梦幻乐园，里面有许多粗糙绘画、真人大小的套娃，琳琅满目的商店里出售着大批量生产的法贝热（Fabergé）彩蛋和苏联时代的纪念品。
Tourist advertisements portray Manzhouli as a lively, cosmopolitan trading city. Yet step outside the center with its pseudo-European architecture and you find yourself in the old Manzhouli, the city of Zhou’s memories. Here the market stalls serve wonton soup instead of pelmeni, and old homes still line unpaved roads. Apartment complexes sit half-empty and perpetually under construction, as though a town destined for great heights had somehow been left behind.
Outside of the new city of European sentiments and symbolism, the old city of Zhou’s memories still exists. Official accounts and advertisements of Manzhouli portray a lively, cultural and international trade town; but beyond the tourist sites sits the old Manzhouli. This is a city strewn with familiar local markets, wonton soup instead of pelmeni, and old homes still standing on unpaved roads—now dwarfed by new complexes that remain perpetually under-construction and half-empty—like a town slated for great heights, but left behind.
在充满欧洲风情和象征主义的新城区之外，老城区依然保留着 Zhou 记忆中的老样子。在满洲里的官方帐户和广告里，展现的都是一座繁华、充满文化底蕴的国际商贸城；但在旅游景点以外还有满洲里的老城区。这里有人们熟悉的本地市场，能吃到真正的馄饨汤，而不是俄国饺子（pelmeni），老房子仍然矗立在未铺设的泥路上，四周是正在建设和半空置的高楼，就像一个等候发展成为新高楼的小镇，却被人们所遗忘了。
Despite the grandiose architecture, a quiet stagnation is setting in. Russia’s economy slumped after 2014, and with it so did Manzhouli’s tourism. Only a handful of small-time Russian traders and Chinese tourists wander through the downtown. To be sure, the city offers all the modern amenities, but the people are missing. The Wanda shopping complex feels likes a ghost mall, its newly opened restaurants already closed. Low-end shopping centers with fluorescent lighting and tightly packed stalls attract a little more foot traffic, but they also have a lot of shuttered storefronts. The Diplomat Hotel, its sprawling, manicured lawns originally designed to accommodate large groups of Russian visitors, sits elegantly and eerily empty; the only luxury hotel in town, the Shangri-La, is likewise quiet, and in a dire reflection of the general economic atmosphere, its Russian restaurant has closed. Locals say that many people have left the city in search of better opportunities, sending apartment prices plunging and developers scrambling.
Locals tell me that many people have left the city in search of opportunities elsewhere—in turn, apartment prices have plunged and developers, some tied to the state, have met with losses.
Despite the construction of a grand, mythical city on the steppes, there is a quiet stagnation emerging. In accordance with Russia’s recent economic woes, business and tourism in Manzhouli has parallelly weakened since 2014, due to the town’s reliance on Russian traders and shoppers. The city center of Yi, Er and San Dao streets now only see a handful of low-level Russian traders and mainland visitors. To be sure, the city offers modern amenities – but a visit to the Wanda shopping complex feels like another ghost mall, with newly built restaurants already closed down. In the city center, the lower-level shopping malls of dim, fluorescent lighting and dense rows of shops packed together, had slightly better foot traffic but also displayed many shuttered storefronts. The Diplomat Hotel, originally designed to accommodate large groups of Russian visitors, spreads across manicured lawns and panoramic city views and sits elegantly and eerily empty; the only luxury hotel in town, Shangri-La, is unnervingly quiet for China and its lack of amenities such as the closure of their only Russian restaurant reflects on the general economic situation. Locals tell me that many people have left the city in search of opportunities elsewhere—in turn, apartment prices have plunged and developers, some tied to the state, have met with losses.
尽管在草原上建造了一座神话般的宏伟城市，但一种停滞感仍然悄然而生。由于满洲里对俄罗斯商人和购物者的依赖，近年来俄罗斯的经济困境也导致了当地商业和旅游自 2014 年以来遭到削弱。在一道街、二道街和三道街形成的市中心，现在只看到廖廖无几的俄罗斯小商贩和中国大陆游客。诚然，这座城市拥有现代化的设施，但踏入这里的万达购物中心，却感觉像进了个废弃的商场，新建的餐馆已经相继关闭。在市中心，低层的购物中心灯光昏暗，密集的商店成排挤在一起，这里的人流可能稍微好一点，但依然能看到许多关闭了的店面。满洲里外交会馆（Diplomat Hotel）最初是为容纳大批俄罗斯游客而设计的，这里有着修剪整齐的草坪，能俯瞰城市全景，外观雅致的酒店如今却空荡荡得令人毛骨悚然；至于镇上唯一的豪华酒店香格里拉酒店，在中国来说，实在安静得怪异。就连酒店内唯一的一家俄罗斯餐厅也已经停止营业，设施的缺乏也反映了整个经济形势。当地人告诉我，很多人已经离开满洲里，去其它地方寻找机会。反过来，房地产价格大跌，即使是有政府背景的开发商也遭遇损失。
In a study of trust between Chinese and Russian communities in Manzhouli, anthropologist Ivan Peshkov notes that the town engenders a distinct feeling of ahistorical and ahistorical emptiness. Architecture and other cultural symbols lack any meaningful connection to the past, and consequently the past becomes “a hostage not only to the present, but also to the economic expectations of the future.” With its bright lights, Manzhouli makes a show of excitement, modernity, and prosperity, according to the state’s vision of a globalized border town. Yet one can’t escape the feeling that something is out of place.
Feelings of displacement are amplified across the border in the much smaller Russian town of Zabaykalsk. Here the past lingers in the present. The town’s timeworn wooden houses and quiet, leafy streets contrast with the garish artificial lights of Manzhouli.
As the academic Ivan Peshkov notes in his study of trust between Chinese and Russian communities in Manzhouli, the town engenders a distinct feeling of ahistorical and atemporal emptiness. Cultural symbolism and architecture has been utilized but without any meaningful representation to the past – with the “past becoming hostage of not only the present, but also of the economic expectations of the future.” The brightly lit city of Manzhouli feigns excitement, modernity, and prosperity—synthetically created and carefully curated spaces according to a state’s vision of how a far-flung region should exist in the contemporary world. Is this a globalized and modern city or a place lost in translation and history?
Feelings of disconnect are amplified as you cross the land border to the nearest Russian town of Zabaikalsk, a town only eight kilometers away from Manzhouli but with a population of 11,000 compared to Manzhouli’s 300,000. Zabaikalsk and its neighboring town Krasnokamensk symbolize the discrepancies in development across these modern borders. Chinese spaces have been reinvented and reimagined for economic benefits, while in the Russian towns, the past lingers in the present. The timeworn wooden homes of Zabaikalsk and the leafy, quiet streets surrounded by uranium mines in Krasnokamensk contrast with the colorful, new city of Manzhouli, drowned in artificial lights every evening.
正如学者 Ivan Peshkov 在研究满洲里的中俄社区之间的信任时所指出的，这个小镇产生了一种明显的脱离历史和时间的空虚感。文化象征意义和建筑得到了利用，却缺乏了对过去任何有意义的代表，“过去不仅成为现在的人质，也成为未来经济预期的人质”。灯火通明的满洲里城市伪装出活力、现代化和繁荣的景象。它是按照着国家对遥远地区在当代世界中应该如何存在的愿景，精心创造和规划出的空间。它到底是一座全球化现代城市，抑或只是在变迁和历史中迷失方向的城市？
当你越过陆地边界，来到距离满洲里仅 8 公里的俄罗斯城镇扎拜卡尔斯克（Zabaikalsk）时，这种断联的感觉愈加强烈。虽然两个城镇紧紧相邻，但这里的人口仅为 1.1 万人，而满洲里的人口为 30 万。扎拜卡尔斯克及其邻近城镇克拉斯诺卡门斯克（Krasnokamensk）象征着跨越这些现代边界的发展差异。位于中国国境的那个城市已经被改造和重新想象，以获得经济效益，而在这个俄罗斯城镇，过去痕迹至今挥之不去。扎拜卡尔斯克古老的木屋、克拉斯诺卡门斯克那被铀矿包围的、安静的绿荫街道，与充溢人造灯光、五彩缤纷的满洲里新城形成鲜明对比。
Even after centuries of contact, the Russian and Chinese retain a feeling of separateness. One Mongolian-Chinese owner of a Russian café has an easy rapport with her Russian customers, yet she maintains that marriages between the two groups are ill-advised: Russians are sensualists prone to infidelity, while the Chinese are pragmatic and faithful. A Chinese shopkeeper claims that the stereotype that Russians like to drink is well-founded, and that they can only be seen at night at bars, like an exotic nocturnal species. A group of Russian traders complain it’s impossible to genuinely befriend the Chinese, since any relationship is based solely on economics. Other Russians say their European heritage and consciousness are fundamentally incompatible with Asian culture.
Still, both sides share a widespread curiosity about the other. In Krasnokamensk, a town a little ways in from Zabaykalsk, Chinese tourists gape at the city that looks so different from those in China, while locals marvel that tour groups would come to see their small city, best known for its uranium mine and its labor camp, which once held Mikhail Khodorovsky a prominent oligarch-turned-dissident.
Though interethnic ties have prevailed for centuries, sentiments of separateness persist on both sides. One Mongolian-Chinese owner of a Russian café has an easy intimacy with her Russian customers; she maintains that marriages between Russians and Chinese are prohibitive as Russians enjoy life and lovers on the side, while Chinese are more pragmatic and less inclined to do so. A Chinese shopkeeper told me that the myth of Russians drinking every day is true, and they can only be seen at night at bars, like a nocturnal, exotic species. A group of Russian traders declared that it is impossible to genuinely befriend a Chinese individual and that relations stem only from economics; others told me that Russian and Asian cultures are inherently incompatible, a historical national anxiety of too much intermixing with Asia rather than what they perceive as their true European consciousness.
Though these perceptions exist, the general response on both sides was one of curiosity along with unfamiliarity – and the sense that more can happen with cross-border cooperation. In Krasnokamensk, Chinese tour buses speed down sparse streets while tour guides try to explain to a bus full of middle-aged tourists why the town looks so different from the one across the border; meanwhile, locals in town marvel at the loud, large tour groups marvelling at their small city best known for its uranium mining and being the site of exile for a former Russian billionaire. It’s a town where visitors take photos with Russians for a few roubles and Chinese business owners navigate around town in luxury cars.
Manzhouli is trying to find its place in the twenty-first century. It’s chased modernity by building a fantasy version of its neighbor’s culture. Yet for all its churches and matryoshkas, it remains puzzled by the actual Russians who visit or live nearby. It’s easy to think that in a globalized world people will forge bonds across borders, yet coexistence doesn’t necessarily lead to comprehension, and in this far-flung Chinese outpost, identity often gets lost in translation.
Manzhouli, since its conception, has attempted to reconcile with disparate visions of development, identity and the future. This town that appeared out of nowhere allows for a deeper look at how border towns in contemporary China and Russia are finding their place in today’s world, tracing their historical intertwinement and concurrent legacies. Fundamentally, a visit to Manzhouli is a deeper look at China and Russia, of two cultures that are largely viewed as disparate and distinct; and of two nations and peoples that are often discussed but not so often, understood.