Trips and Tales (Part 90)
I thought it was about time to say a little about a couple of offshoots that are reachable from the general region featured in recent articles. That’s pretty vague but I am trying to find some way of tying Harbin and Huhehot together. Their commonality is that both are in China but connected to the Trans-Siberian by rail links routed from external regions. That’s Buryatia (from Ulan Uday to Harbin via Manzhouli) and Mongolia (from Ulaanbaatar to Huhehot). That’s what happens when boundaries are redrawn on maps across static rail lines.
It’s approximately 953 miles from Ulan Uday to Harbin whilst from Ulaanbaatar to Huhehot it’s a relative hop of only 544 miles.
On the subject of (approximate) distances, it’s easy to presume a close proximity for Ulan Uday and Ulaanbaatar, because of that Ulan/Ulaan similarity. Wrong; for a start they are not even in the same county, secondly they are approximately 363 miles apart. That’s only 30 miles short of the North/South span of England (i.e. not Scotland), which in itself would just about shoe-horn into Lake Baikal’s length of 395 miles. So there you have it, a quick guide to relative scale.
There are a couple of treats that I’ll come back to – if I can swing them: a chat with someone who traversed Mongolia’s Ghobi desert by rail and later a report back from a visitor to Harbin’s Ice Festival. So don’t think we’re done here by any stretch. And (for now) that brings us indeed to:
Although the area was originally settled by late Stone Age humans in 2200BC, Harbin’s current incarnation grew out of one of the region’s rural villages when Trans-Siberian Railway surveyors entered the area in 1897 after the creation of the Chinese Eastern Railway. This was an offshoot extension of the Trans-Siberian itself and a link to Vladivostock.
Russia’s 1905 defeat by the Japanese saw its influence upon Harbin decline, so opening the door to an influx of nationals from over 30 countries, resulting in 16 consulates and a boost for the region in terms of foreign trade, banking and industry. As a result Harbin became China’s northern economic – and cosmopolitan – capital. The cosmopolitan air still prevails. There are professionals and students from various countries though the most numerous ethnic groups are Chinese and Caucasian, the latter regarded all as “Russian” by the locals apparently. That may be an issue for European tourists whose appearance may invite some of the enmity that the locals foster for their once-Soviet neighbours (and occupiers).
Harbin is China’s northern-most major city with a population of over 10,000,000 inside an area of 20,500 square miles. Surprising for such an “out of the way” place? Well, it is the region’s capital (Heilongjiang Province). Contrast the numbers with London’s 8,200,000 inside 607 square miles and you get a picture of an altogether more comfortable density. That’s a definite plus point (subjectively) to the lands that I’ve been researching: the amount of space they contain, allowing urban areas to sprawl, rather than forcing them to stack. Looking at footage of Harbin, it does seem comfortably busy rather than a complete nightmare. With a notable exception: driving.
I viewed more footage of a particularly nasty junction, made worse by road users of all types displaying an apparent conviction of their own indestructibility coupled with scant regard for the convenience (or lives) of others. Weaving erratic lines that only Jackson Pollock could have envisioned, taxis, private cars, Tuk tuks (those miniature 3 wheeler taxi rickshaws) and bicycles cross and re-cross each others paths, starting, stopping and turning at random in a multi-wheeled scrum, playing to a soundtrack of blaring horns. Just don’t. There are better pursuits, as you’ll see.
More (encouraging) info on Harbin next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 91) Trans-Siberian Offshoots #2
[Photo by Johan Bilien]