Li Zhuang, the young deputy mayor of Manzhouli, a city of around 3 lakh at the China-Russia border in Inner Mongolia, put it aptly during his interaction with foreign journalists from Beijing last week.
“The Russians come here to feel at home. The Chinese (from the rest of the country) come here to feel they are visiting a foreign country,” Li said over cups of green tea.
It is clear why Russians feel at home in Manzhouli: their country is less than 8 km away, many locals speak Russian, road and shop signs are in Russian (and Chinese but no English) and Rouble is accepted as a currency.
The urban architecture is planned, deliberate, and mostly, Russian-styled with domes and spires. A huge not-so-petite model of the iconic Russian Matryoshka doll — hollow wooden dolls of decreasing size placed inside the last, bigger one — stands right in the city centre.
Currently under construction but already a tourist attraction is a replica of Moscow’s famous St Basil’s cathedral.
Russian traders are allowed to purchase around 8000 (approximately Rs. 80,000) RMB worth of goods in Manzhouli every day and can take the goods back home to sell for some profit.
“The relationship between Manzhouli and Russia has been close because of geographical reasons. Manzhouli has developed into the largest land port in China,” Li said.
The 11,800 km long railway network takes around 18 days to transport electronic goods like laptops from China and bring back automobiles (Benz and BMW) and car-parts from Europe, Li said. The railway network takes a good four days less than the earlier one that connects Chongqing to Warsaw through Xinjiang and Russia.
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In Eerguna, a town about 290 km away, a Chinese-Russian ethnic community makes their living mostly through tourism and small trade. Yu Fuling, whose mother is Russian, works at the Russian Ethnic Research Association and said the Russian ethnic group was not recognised before the mid-1980s. The vast grassland border areas of north-east Inner Mongolia — which shares a 4,200 km long border with Russia and Mongolia — is a unique mix of three cultures. There are Russian communities living on the Chinese side and there are more ethnic Mongolians in China than in across the border in independent Mongolia. Strong, and probably often stormy, winds of change are blowing across the grasslands where Mongolian herdsmen traditionally led a nomadic life with their horses, sheep and cattle.
But the two Mongolian herdsmen living in modernised yurts — the traditional portable homes used by nomads — the visiting foreign journalists were taken to for interaction seemed to be adapting to the changing times reasonably well. On the face of it, Ao Qier and Te Ge Zi, Mongolian herdsmen for generations, live traditional lives: live in yurts, wake up early to milk the cows, take the sheep out to graze during the day, shear sheep wool, drink milk tea, eat lamb meat and retire early evening.
But actually, their lives have changed irreversibly. Their sons and daughters are now trained lawyers and computer specialists, stay in cities and are unlikely to continue their family’s traditional occupation. Like the Chinese-Russian community, the ethnic Mongolians too get aid from the government and are allowed to have more than one child.
Te Ge Zi does not speak Chinese. But his children have stayed in boarding schools in the nearest big cities. “They speak Chinese, even English in the city,” he said.
Even the earthy Mongolian herdsman has realised that it’s the under the city’s whispering bright lights that his children’s future lie. With or without the reins of their past.