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Manzhouli, the go-between city of border tourism

by fangrace

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If it were a person, then Manzhouli would be a matchmaker, or the go-between. Three hundred years ago, when the Tea Road is in its heyday, Manzhouli was where merchants from inland Chinese cities sold tea to Russian buyers.

Today, trade has extended in such diversity and scale that almost all the shops in the city are marked by bilingual signs in Mandarin Chinese and Russian.

Over 70 percent of the China travel service companies' Russian customers are here to shop, Guo added. As one of the ten Manzhouli-based travel agencies authorized for international travel operations, Guo's company receives more than 70 thousand Russian tourists each year.

During the peak times in July and August, the company has to extend its opening hours from 7:00 am to 10 pm. 

One of the company's Russian partners, Dolgopolova Yulia, whose hometown Krasnokamensk is only one hour and a half's drive from Manzhouli, spends four weekdays working in Manzhouli on average. As a tour guide, she brings 30-40 Russian tourists to Manzhouli regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays.

"Manzhouli is also my hometown now," Yulia said through her Chinese translator.

Indeed, Manzhouli is so accommodating to Russian tourists that the border inspection station in Manzhouli is open around the clock to ensure convenient entry. Local stores, ranging from modern shopping centers to family boutiques all willingly accept Russian Rubles as payment.

The latest statistics show that 99 percent of foreign tourists in Manzhouli are from Russia. The city is connected with Russian cities including Chita, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Ulan-Ude by air and a cross-country railway which links Moscow and Beijing (a must-see city for last minute China travel deals) runs through Manzhouli on a weekly basis. 

As Russian tourists consider Manzhouli an ideal shopping destination, Chinese visitors are finding the border city the perfect place to experience foreign lifestyles.

With gaudy baroque style buildings bordering the streets, Russian restaurants serving Borscht (red soup), black bread and baked salmon, shops selling Russian crafts such as wine glasses and gem-decorated hand mirrors, and perhaps most significantly, travel agencies offering tours to border cities in Russia, Manzhouli couldn't be more attractive to Chinese tourists.

In March, 2008, Manzhouli resumed the customs procedures which grant Chinese tourists permission to cross over the border and travel to Russia with an effective visa.

"There are two ways to attain the visa, one is applying it through your local embassy, the other is to register at the travel agencies in Manzhouli which will help tourists apply for a temporary visa valid only within the travelling dates," explained Huang Guoqing, deputy director of the Manzhouli Tourism Bureau. 

The special visa policy has essentially boosted the local China tourism  industry in Manzhouli. According to Huang, domestic tourists to Manzhouli reached 3.542 million by September, 2011, a nearly ten percent increase over last year's number.

To play its advantage to the fullest, Manzhouli has been organizing international events in conjunction with Mongolia and Russia.

Every year around Christmas in December, Manzhouli is turned into a festive venue for the Ice and Snow Festival and the China-Russia-Mongolia Beauty Pageant. A festival featuring food delicacies from China, Russia and Mongolia is also held in June. This year a new theme event is introduced showcasing the wedding ceremony traditions in China, Russia and Mongolia inside the newly completed church in the suburbs of the city.

In 2009, tourism officials from Mongolia visited Manzhouli and other cities along the Tea Road intended to renew the historical business road as an international travel route, Huang Guoqing said. "On the Tourism Bureau's part, we have been actively participating in the research of the Tea Road travel route, it would be another significant promotion of Manzhouli's historical and cultural resources once finished," he said.

Although Manzhouli's tea export has shrunk substantially, there are many small businesses thriving on Russian buyers.

Hu Jianbao, owner of the Southern Tea House in downtown Manzhouli, said that half of his customers are Russians.

Russian customers' knowledge on Chinese tea has also broadened. "They (Russian customers) used to only buy black tea, but in recent years, more and more Russian buyers are inquiring about different categories of tea such as Tieguanyin and Dahongpao," Hu said. He established his tea business in Manzhouli in 1997 and now he has made friends with many Russian patrons.

In this modern tea trader's eye, the cause of spreading Chinese tea and tea culture is far from fulfilled.

If you are interested in Manchouli, you can consider it included in your popular China travel package.

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