Life in limbo on the Sino-Russian border

Society & Culture
Golden Street's bear and panda
/ Credit: Photo by Ankur Shah and Nina Zholudeva

Russia has recently overtaken China in recorded COVID-19 cases, resulting in worry from Chinese authorities that a new wave of infections may come from up north. In border towns such as Manzhouli, residents are learning firsthand how circumstances in one country can affect the lives in another.



Mǎnzhōulǐ 满洲里, a sub-prefectural city in Inner Mongolia on the Russian border, is best-known in China for its Disney-style Russian architecture, which includes the world’s largest Russian doll in its main square. At the very heart of the city sits the aptly named China-Soviet Golden Street (中苏金街 zhōng sū jīn jiē). “Golden Street,” as it is known by locals, is a microcosm of Manzhouli itself.

At the top of the street, visitors are greeted by an oversized sculpture of a smiling bear and panda, whose hands are interlinked. Like many of the architectural oddities that decorate Golden Street, it pays tribute to Manzhouli’s fate as a border city, which is tied as much to China as it is to Russia.

Before COVID-19, the pedestrianized street bustled with merchants and travelers, both Chinese and Russian. The city and its residents rely heavily on tourism and trade from both countries. Nowadays, however, it is stuck in a coronavirus limbo. Manzhouli, like other cities along the Sino-Russian border, is dealing with a new outbreak of COVID-19.

This month has seen an influx of Chinese citizens cross the border, fleeing Russia in fear of poor medical facilities and ethnic profiling. Many of these people have reentered China using Manzhouli’s land port from neighboring town Zabaykalsk. With them, they have brought a wave of re-imported coronavirus cases, overwhelming the city’s limited local resources.

Just as life in the city was returning to some semblance of normal, authorities have once again been put on high alert. Such is the severity of the situation that two designated specialized hospitals are rapidly being constructed at the time of writing. The passenger land port frequented by tourists and traders alike has now also been closed.

Many local hotels have been tasked with isolating recent returnees from Russia, some of which are already reportedly at full capacity. The Manzhouli Grand Hotel, located at the entrance of Golden Street, formerly accommodated the city’s wealthiest visitors, but now serves as a quarantine site.

Le Xiang Craft Beer Supermarket Ankur Shah and Nina Zholudeva
Architectural oddities at Manzhouli Airport, Ankur Shah and Nina Zholudeva

Golden Street is quiet these days. Enterprising hawkers who, in more normal times, flogged goods to unsuspecting tourists now lay idle at home. Many who returned to the streets when the city recorded no cases in late March and early April are now being forced back indoors.

This includes Fu, a single mother of two young daughters. Fu sells all sorts of things. Like all the others on Golden Street, her shopfront is written in Chinese and Russian. This surface-level detail, however, gives the street a strange Russianness, as if designed by an architect who had never actually visited the country.

Like most of Manzhouli’s business owners, Fu has never been to Russia, though she can manage a few bartering phrases in the language. She laments: “Russia is closed, and without Russians, we are closed.” Although shops such as hers are now allowed to be open, Fu believes the best way to keep her family safe is by staying shut.

She now fears that it will be months before her daughters can return to school. A fierce businesswoman who frequently deals with short-tempered Russian traders, Fu says that for the first time in her career, she is enjoying time off.

A few doors down from the Restaurant Baikal on Golden Street, Gao and his girlfriend set up a boutique beer business last year. Hidden in a basement, their small stockroom-cum-bar is advertised by the booming sound of automated messages in Russian playing from loud speakers at street level.

Golden Street boutique beer bar
Le Xiang Craft Beer Supermarket, Ankur Shah and Nina Zholudeva

Manzhouli’s recent surge of COVID-19 cases does not seem to have affected his sales. The couple claims that alcohol makes excellent company in the current pandemic. The irony of Gao’s recent promotions for the Mexican beer brand Corona Extra is lost on him. The name of the beer brand in Chinese (科罗纳 kē luō nà) shares no resemblance with the term “coronavirus” (新冠病毒 xīnguān bìngdú).

Although Manzhouli’s ports are open to cargo, Gao admits that the supply chain for many international breweries he imports from has ground to a halt. As a result, his business is now heavily reliant on the depths of his stock. He shrugs it off, laughing, “Don’t worry, we still have everything, from pale ales to pilsners!”

But not all of Manzhouli’s businesses are adapting as well. Just off Golden Street, Xin, a typically bright-eyed millennial, has decided to close his quirky hostel. Though he is officially allowed to remain open, “No tourists means no business,” he says. This is the situation many in Manzhouli’s hospitality and leisure industry are facing.

But, as spring begins to blossom in the Inner Mongolian grasslands, he has quite literally moved onto new pastures. Instead of hosting hipster travelers, he now rears cattle and sheep on a makeshift farm outside the city. Swapping spreadsheets for sowing seeds, his new daily routine bears little resemblance to his old one: “In the afternoons, before the sheep come home, I head down to the river to catch fish for my dinner.”

For Xin, life in the pandemic has taken several unexpected turns. Asked if he has found peace from the pandemic by reconnecting with nature, Xin jokes: “Well, now, when I can’t sleep at night, I count actual sheep.”

Regardless of the effect on Manzhouli’s local economy, Xin bears no resentment towards those returning home from Russia. “Of course, it will affect my business,” says Xin, “but the Chinese returning from Russia are our people.” Fu is no different. She expresses little concern about the economic impact of the virus, despite her waning income. She also shows no resentment for her returning compatriots, simply emphasizing: “We must all remain united during this pandemic.”

Fu feels that the tolerance and unity her fellow nationals have shown is not shared by most foreigners. She believes that since the start of the crisis, Chinese people have been looked down on, and quickly cites Donald Trump’s repeated reference to the “Chinese virus,” and the widespread discrimination of Chinese exchange students who wear face masks abroad. According to Fu, this rhetoric and retribution narrative misses the mark. Only through a global and united response can the virus be successfully controlled.

Despite the economic disruption caused by the virus, many in Manzhouli share this sentiment. In some ways, the psychological toll of the return of the virus has been muted by the border mentality and an intimate knowledge of the interconnectedness of the world, having learned firsthand how circumstances in one country can so easily affect the livelihoods of those in another. When the Russian economy has struggled in recent years, for instance, Chinese border cities were among the first to feel its impact. This is the reality of life on the border.

Each of Golden Street’s residents have been affected differently by the recent resurgence of COVID-19. While a few pin their hopes on the reopening of the land port, with which they believe tourists will return and trade will resume, others prefer to wait and see. They are closely watching how Russia will deal with the coronavirus crisis.

Just as the panda and bear stand hand in hand on Golden Street, no matter how well Manzhouli manages its own outbreak, the fate of the city and its citizens is inevitably tied to that of its Russian neighbors.

Manzhouli National Gate, Ankur Shah and Nina Zholudeva