Winter road trip to the China-Russian border

 

Mohe is a small city in northeastern China, deadly quiet in winter. It has all the look of hardscrabble living, where side streets are lined with single-storey brick houses, and dogs skirt piles of snow. Scott Morrison would feel at home as coal heaps are sold off trucks, and smoke flutters from chimneys, leaving a burnt taste in the air.

The burnished steel character for North/Bei at Beijicun. Photo by Jeremy ClarkeIn the minus 20 degree temperature the market enjoys natural refrigeration, and vendors hawk whole frozen fish, plucked chooks and pork slabs laid out on plastic and bits of cardboard. It gives the impression of being a tough town, where even the karaoke bar looks weary. Not surprisingly, the second-most remarkable thing about Mohe is that travellers who arrive there have already worked out how to leave it.

I was investigating vestiges of the Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese nationalist sentiment, and thus was visiting places like Shenyang and Harbin, both of which had been occupied by Japanese troops. Many Australians know about the South China Sea debates, but the historical underpinnings of these issues, including the long-term effects of the bitter conflict with Japan, can still be seen throughout the northeast. As a result, chasing hints of Chinese patriotism and self-identity, I wanted to visit Mohe.

More than for its ordinariness, Mohe is primarily known for being literally the northernmost Chinese city, being further north than most of Europe. Here the Chinese province of Heilongjiang abuts one of China's 14 neighbours, Russia, and thus the point of intersection between Chinese nationalism and Mohe is not Japan but the fact that this provincial town is also a border town, and one which has exercised this role for centuries.

In fact in 1689 diplomats negotiated the Treaty of Nerchinsk. This saw the Russian czars and the Chinese emperor agree to delineate a formal boundary between their respective empires. Mohe lies just inside this boundary, which in some places is the river running between the two countries. On the Russian side, this is called the Amur, but the Chinese know it as the Black Dragon River, which gives the province its name: Heilongjiang.

And yet, in China, there is always some sort of catch. The city of Mohe is not in fact the northernmost point, as the city stretches for about 150km, south from the train station north to the border. I thus worked out a deal with a local driver who agreed to drive me up to the border, so long as I did not mind him bringing a pup along in the back, which he was giving to a friend along the way. I turned up to the car, and found that the one had become the two, as a Mr Ma from Hangzhou had now joined us. So, two hitherto-unknown companions on a winter's road trip to the China-Russian border sounded about normal for China travel.

It was a great drive, an expansive blue sky, whipping past birch forests or stopping to take in their grandeur, feeding reindeer and then finally reaching the actual northernmost 'northernmost part of China'. This village names what it is: 'Northernmost Village' (Beijicun), and it provided my sought after symbols of Chinese nationalism.

 

"The symbols may stand tall, the guard posts are manned and a barracks is in place, but there was no great sense that this northern line causes either side too much angst."

 

Borders and walls, and a national identity buttressed by a concept of inside and outside, seemingly only make sense if there is something to define oneself against. I sometimes wonder that because Australians can only gaze out towards ocean horizons this influences our own sense of identity. There is no someone who can be seen just beyond our girted mass, and who thus needs to know that here is not there. I think this desire for differentiation is one reason that nation states spend so much time both defining extremities like 'northernmost' and seek to bolster them through public rituals.

At Beijicun China uses an artistic installation on the side of the riverbank. There is a massive burnished steel character for 'North'/Bei, standing at the edge of an expansive map of China outlined on the ground, which shows land stretching from the disputed islands in the South China Sea all the way up to this small village. Any tourist to this spot presumably stands in awe under the character, having crossed the full delineation of Chinese territory, and then gazes out over the Heilongjiang to Russia on the other side. North: them. Here: us. Cue national pride.

And yet, for all formal depictions, it is how people engage with these imaginings that perhaps provides deeper truths. It being winter, the real winner that day was the weather. In front of the proud 'North', Chinese and foreign tourists alike had built snowmen, and the chain link fence built on the frozen river surface was only haphazardly marking the border.

In many sections where there was a gap, people parked their scooters and sat over ice-fishing holes. Their patience seemed not to suggest concern over north or south, territories and treaties, but rather a more pointed consideration as to whether or not the fish would bite. The symbols may stand tall, the guard posts are manned and a barracks is in place, but there was no great sense that this northern line causes either side too much angst. I looked at Russia one last time, found my driver and went back to the bright lights of Mohe.

 

 

Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is the founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a China consulting company, and a Visiting Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University. His company also leads people on immersions through China.

Main image: The burnished steel character for North/Bei at Beijicun. Photo by Jeremy Clarke

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Russia, nationalism

 

 

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