The 100-year History of Northeast China’s Frontier Railway
This article is the first in a series on the Chinese Eastern Railway, a historic train line in China’s far northeast.
More than a century ago, the declining Russian Empire began an ambitious undertaking that would become one of the great wonders of human engineering: the Trans-Siberian Railway. Spanning northern Eurasia and traversing the frozen Siberian wastelands, its tracks stretched all the way from Moscow to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the Russian Far East.
In 1897, Russia entered into an agreement with the Qing Dynasty in China providing joint funding for the construction of a rail line running through a lip of Northeast China that until that time had driven a wedge between the Russian cities of Chita and remote Vladivostok. The ensuing rail line was named the “Great Qing Far East Railway” — later simply known as the “Chinese Eastern Railway.” A hundred and twenty years later, it is still in use.
Hailar is the administrative district of Hulunbuir, a prefecture-level city in northern China’s Inner Mongolia. Today, Hailar’s train station is a towering white structure, similar in appearance to a traditional Mongolian yurt. Located on the square behind the train station is a lively farmers market, and sitting inconspicuously in one corner is a small two-story building. This is the old station house, part of Hailar’s 104-year history.
In 1901, the Russians arrived in Hailar to build their train station, a project that took two years to complete. Afterward, they decided to display the name “Hailar” in Chinese characters on the wall of the station house. Unsure of the Mongolian city’s nomenclature, they settled for the characters hailang — “ocean waves.” Although the embarrassing mistake was quickly rectified, these two characters are still clearly visible on the wall of the old station. Perhaps, after their long journey across the Siberian wilderness, the Russians felt that they were already close enough to the Pacific to hear the sound of ocean waves. In reality, they were marooned in a sea of grass.
Tunneling through the Greater Khingan Mountains was the most difficult phase of the Chinese Eastern Railway’s construction. Russian engineers built a number of small stations at each end of the tunnel, allowing steam trains to stock up on water and firewood, and change cars. Once trains completed the Khingan passage, their harried conductors and engineers found a warm welcome in a city that had been built to give rail employees some much needed rest: Zhalantun.
Zhalantun’s train station is distinguished by its mediocrity. No lofty buildings line the square in front of the station; instead, it looks like a quaint neighborhood park. However, this station has been around for 105 years. The old station house, still fully intact, stands beside the rebuilt version and today serves as the rail office. The outer wall of the original station is embellished with bricks creating ridges and impressions, its roof is made from corrugated iron, its walls and windowsills are richly decorated, and at the entranceway is an enormous, wood-framed lancet window. The entire station is colored in a mixture of red and white, a perfect example of Russian brick-and-wood architecture.
Not far from the station lies the old Russian-built locomotive garage, dormitories for rail personnel, the railway school, and the lodge where rail workers can escape the summer heat. To the north is Suspension Bridge Park, also more than a century old. Now a national tourist attraction, this park is one of the few outdoor recreational facilities left behind by the Russians after the railway construction.
The fate of Yimianpo, a small railway town under the jurisdiction of Harbin, capital of northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province,was quite different. Here, the prosperity of a century ago has long since faded. This small town once had an interesting name: Wukasi, a local approximation of the Russian word for “section,” referring to the nearby stretch of tracks. Yimianpo’s station buildings were constructed from brick and wood, with traditional Russian bricklaying techniques used for the walls. The buildings comprise two sloped wooden walls with either two- or four-sided corrugated iron roofs.
Because of its proximity to Harbin, this town became a vacation spot for the Russian aristocrats and merchants living there during the early 20th century. Not far from the train station is a towering structure incongruent with the other smaller buildings in the area: the former Railway Club. Senior staff on the Chinese Eastern Railway’s eastern rail lines came here to vacation or recover from illness. The building’s stone columns, carved railings, and wooden window frames are well-preserved, and original chandeliers still hang inside. Today, it is the site of the local hospital.
On the other side of town is a white fort-like structure, referred to by locals as “the Great White Tower.” Originally dormitories for the Russian train crew, the building was later taken over for use by Japanese troops garrisoned in the town. Today the structure remains entirely intact, and the Russian script on its walls reading “Locomotive Crew Duty Room” is still clearly visible.
A century ago, during construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway, this string of cities crossing Northeast China sprang up from the ground in less than a decade. Immigrants, primarily from Russia, gathered here and established their own communities. Nowadays, these small railway towns may seem inconsequential, but back then they were home to Russian restaurants, railway vocational schools, and China’s earliest breweries. These towns are slowly being lost to history, with their old districts falling into disrepair and their residents moving out to live in new areas. Only the old train stations remain as proof that these regions once stood on the frontlines of industrial advancement.
Today, most of the old stations on this route have either been demolished and rebuilt, or kept preserved next to a new station. In contrast with China’s enthusiastic construction of high-speed rail lines elsewhere, this railway — the most advanced in the world a century ago — now primarily runs regional and local trains. Some of the older stations are only visited by slow, “green-body” commuter trains, or have even been closed to passengers altogether and are only used as freight lines.
From my window seat aboard an almost deserted green-body slow train back to Harbin, I hear crewmen discussing how yet another small-town station is about to be closed to passengers. Much like the history that led to northeastern China’s railway boom, these old stations are destined to be slowly erased from memory, sinking into the recesses of time, their glory and splendor fading away.
Translator: Brian Bies; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A view of Yakeshi Railway Station just before sunset in Yakeshi, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, May 19, 2017. Courtesy of Ma Te)