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, and 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.
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.
从 1980 年代开始，随着中俄关系的缓和，满洲里一跃成为重要的贸易城市。因此，相邻的外国城市也给当地带来了一定的影响。市中心的店面往往同时写着中文、西里尔语和蒙古语。店主会讲着一口中国口音的“洋泾浜俄语”来吸引你的注意；饭店会以俄语命名为“友谊咖啡厅”（Café Dryzhba）或“格言餐厅”（Restaurant Maksim）；甚至雇佣俄罗斯服务员。在中国家庭聚餐、享用烤羊肉串和自拍的同时，店里也会演奏着俄罗斯 hip-hop 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.
就在几十年前，在满洲里被欧洲风格的建筑改造之前，它还是被中国遗忘的边缘之城。尽管早在 1901 年，俄罗斯的“东清铁路”就在这里设立了车站，但满洲里和周边地区却并未像中国南方城市那样繁荣和富裕起来。
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.
1992 年前，这座城市一直不对外界开放。直到当局看到了它作为贸易和旅游城市的潜力，提议通过建造宏伟的建筑来重塑满洲里。Zhou 于 2001 年从安徽搬到这里定居，他说当时从北京出发的话，到满洲里要花超过 40 多个小时。那时满洲里的机场和巨型俄罗斯套娃都还没建成，所谓的城市感觉更像是农村：黄泥马路两边遍布低层砖房，只有公共卫生间可供人使用。
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.
旅游广告里，满洲里被描绘成一个欣欣向荣的、国际化的贸易都市。然而走出中心城区的伪欧式建筑群，你就会发现自己置身老满洲里，也就是 Zhou 记忆中那个满洲里的模样。在这市场里还能吃到真正的馄饨汤，而不是俄国饺子（pelmeni）；老房子们仍然沿着土路排成一行。四周正在建设和半空置的高楼，就像一个等候发展崛起的小镇，却被人们遗忘在半路。
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 is a dire reflection of the general economic atmosphere. Locals say that many people have left the city in search of better opportunities, sending apartment prices plunging and developers scrambling.
尽管这是一座神话般的宏伟城市，但滞空感依然存在。2014 年后俄罗斯经济滑坡，满洲里的旅游业也遭受连带影响，只有屈指可数的俄罗斯小商贩和中国游客会途径满洲里市区。毫无疑问，这座城市提供了各种现代化设施，但却毫无人影。万达购物中心仿佛是个鬼城，就连刚开的饭店也关门歇业了。低端一些的购物中心闪着荧光灯，小店铺挤挤挨挨排在一起，这里来的人可能多一点，但还是有不少店面大门紧闭。满洲里外交会馆（Diplomat Hotel）门前修剪整齐的大草坪，原先是为了容纳大批俄罗斯游客而设计的，如今却空荡得出奇；而香格里拉大饭店，全城唯一的一个豪华酒店，也一样静得令人可怕。而这恰恰反应出满洲里的整体经济环境。当地人说，已经有不少人离开这座城市，去寻找更好的机会，导致房价大跌，开发商陷入混战。
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 atemporal 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.
在研究满洲里中俄社区的人际问题时，人类学家 Ivan Peshkov 指出，该城镇产生了一种独特的脱离历史和时间的空虚感。建筑和其他文化象征，缺乏对过往任何有意义的联结，其后果就是，过去“不仅是现在的筹码，更成为未来经济预期的筹码”。灯火通明的满洲里，伪装出活力、现代化和繁荣的景象，它按着国家对全球化边境城市的愿景而生。但人们却无法避免那种游离之外的不适感。
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.
Manzhouli appears to still be trying to find its place in the 21st century. It’s chased modernity by building a fantasy version of its neighbor’s culture. Yet this adaptation doesn’t necessarily lead to comprehension, and in this far-flung Chinese outpost, identity often gets lost in translation.
在这个 21 世纪，满洲里显然还在寻找自己的定位。它通过建造幻想版的邻国文化，以追求自身的现代性。但这种对异国文化的改编，并不会让人们全面理解这座城市本身。并且满洲里身处遥远的中俄边疆，滞留在两种文化的夹缝中，它也往往容易迷失了自身的文化认同。
Contributor & Photographer: Yvonne Lau
供稿人与摄影师: Yvonne Lau