Li Entai, 76, who has lived all his life in the small Sino-Russian border town of Suifenhe, never imagined that this “century-old port” on China’s northeastern border would be “famous” in this way, which is bigger than the story of exchanging warm water bottles for fish.

In 1987, the first transaction was made between the city of Suifenhe and the Russian city of Pogranichne, using two sheets of blank and carbon paper. 1,000 air pressure warm water bottles and 100,000 kilograms of apples, exchanged for 30,000 kilograms of halibut and 50,000 kilograms of Mentai fish, the small town has since become a dazzling “pearl” on the Sino-Russian border.

April 15, Suifen River Passing. This is also the third generation of Suifenhe. Photo by Zhang Tao

When the new crown pneumonia epidemic hit, this small Sino-Russian border city located in the southeast corner of Heilongjiang and once jokingly called “you have to use a magnifying glass to find it on the map” suddenly became the focus of the world’s attention: from March 27 to April 13, 2,497 people entered through the Suifen River Port in Heilongjiang, of which 322 were diagnosed with new coronary pneumonia, and 38 were asymptomatic infections, and for a time a small city with a permanent population of only 70,000 became the front line against the “epidemic”.

Where is Suifen River? Why Suifen River? The birth and development of this century-old port is full of all kinds of accidents and all kinds of inevitability, and we look for answers from several selected fragments of history.

Born of integration

Every day at around 9:30 a.m., a “green-skinned” train slowly leaves Suifenhe Railway Station. Like most “green-skinned” trains, its interior is plain, but this one features a Chinese national emblem on the fore to highlight its identity as an international train.

The train travels for about 5 minutes and passes over a railway bridge engraved with the words “Built in 1903”, a Russian-style railway bridge once known as the “First Bridge in the Far East”.

In a few minutes, it will pass through the century-old Suifenhe railway station with its high dome and Russian-style window gallery, through caves 3 and 2, across the border, and towards the small Russian station not far from Grodiekovo…

In January 1903, the Qing government established the “Prime Minister’s Suifenhe Railway Negotiation Bureau”, and Suifenhe appeared on the map as a city for the first time.

If there were no railways, perhaps there would not be a city at all.

Initially, the town had no connection to the railway.

At the end of the 19th century, Tsarist Russia, for its own strategic goals, built a “Middle East Railway” on Chinese territory, centered on Harbin, from Manzhouli in the west to the Suifen River in the east, connecting Vladivostok.

The railway was originally intended to be built at Sanchakou in Dongning County at that time, and was named after the Suifen River, a water system in Dongning. But the construction staff found that the local geological structure was not suitable for the construction of the railway, and the railway had to move more than 50 kilometers north, which is the city of Suifenhe without the Suifen River flowing through it today. At that time, the small town was built on the mountains and was rich in forests, and it is difficult to find more records of its previous history in the literature.

In 1903, the Eastern Railway was completed, because of its unique geographical location 16 kilometers away from the Russian counterpart port Pogranichne and 210 kilometers away from Vladivostok, the largest port city in the Russian Far East, quickly became a “golden passage” connecting Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, which also laid the foundation for transportation, communication and trade in the Suifenhe region, enabling it to develop almost synchronously with Vladivostok and Harbin.

According to the official historical records of Suifenhe City, in March 1923, the Office of the Chief Executive of the Eastern Province Special Region established the Suifenhe Municipal Branch; In April 1927, the National Government established Suifenhe City, Eastern Province Special Administrative Region; In July 1933, the Suifenhe Office was established under the puppet Northern Manchuria Special Region Office. In the 30s of last century, envoys and businessmen from 18 countries, including Russia, Japan, North Korea, Britain, France, Italy and the United States, gathered here, cultural and economic exchanges were extremely prosperous and active, and colorful flags of various countries stood in the urban area, which was called “flag town” and “border commercial city”, and won the reputation of “window of East Asia”. Suifenhe was also the first to open trains and automobiles in China’s northeastern borderlands, and was the first to have electric lights and telephones, and was dubbed the “center of civilization”. At that time, there were more than 10,000 merchants from the interior and many countries, who traveled between the Suifen River and Vladivostok (Vladivostok) all year round, engaged in border trade, known as “running weizi”.

In the Suifenhe Old Railway Station, which has been transformed into the Memorial Hall of the Eastern Railway today, through old photos, we can glimpse the prosperity brought by the railway to this border town, and in the old town of Suifenhe, one after another Russian-style buildings also record the prosperity of this small town.

Communication and integration with neighboring Russia are the innate characteristics of Suifenhe.

Thrive on windows

In the corridor of the new national gate of Suifenhe, in the exhibition hall of Suifenhe Old Railway Station, and on the display wall of the Suifenhe Museum, you will see an old photo of the Lantern Festival Lantern Festival.

In 1987, the then Ministry of Economic Affairs and Trade of the State Council granted Suifenhe City the authority to carry out trade and economic cooperation with the Soviet Union. Yamashiro stands at a new historical starting line. Since then, the idyllic life has been infused with an “international consciousness”. At that time, the annual Lantern Festival Lantern Festival was almost a trade fair.

In the early days of reform and opening up, Suifenhe was still a small city of 10,000 people with “one road, one lamp, and one loudspeaker for the whole city to listen to”. With the easing of Sino-Soviet relations, at the end of the 80s of last century, the city of Suifenhe began to carry out trade cooperation with neighboring Pogranichne. As soon as trade opened, the Suifen River quickly became a window for the opening up of northeast China.

In the continuous exploration, the border trade slowly began in Suifenhe. On October 26, 1987, the barter trade between Suifen River and Primorsky Krai was officially opened, and near the Sino-Russian border of Xiaosuifen River at the foot of Tianchang Mountain, the two sides set up a cast-iron manual stop bar to regulate the flow of people and vehicles in transit, which is the first generation of “national gate” of Suifenhe, and now this national gate is quietly standing on the Sino-Russian border of Suifenhe.

Li Entai, the retired former president of the Sino-Soviet Friendship Association in Suifenhe City, used to be willing to go to the Suifenhe National Gate with his wife to take a walk to see the third-generation national gate that has been officially put into use, and then look at the first and second generation of the national gate that has been “retired”.

“Xingbian trade has made Suifenhe what it is today.”

Lee Eun-tae said.

On October 1, 1991, the second generation of national gate was completed and used, and Suifenhe has a real national gate.

If the first generation of the national gate witnessed the beginning of the modern border trade of the Suifenhe River, then this building that integrates passengers, goods and tourism has witnessed the rapid growth of the Suifenhe Port. From the temporary transit port of automobiles in the late 80s of last century to the national passenger and cargo transportation port in 1994, Suifenhe has grown rapidly in trade, and a border town has become a well-known “border business capital”.

In August 2012, the construction of the third-generation national gate of Suifenhe officially began, and the new national gate was completed at the end of 2014. The third generation of the national gate is 51.8 meters high, 81.8 meters long, 54.1 meters span, two-way 8 lanes of traffic, the main building of the national gate is divided into nine floors, majestic.

Standing on the new national gate, people can look at Russia on the other side, vehicles and people traveling between China and Russia, and you can also see the first-generation national gate with manual levers and the second-generation national gate that has been “decommissioned”.

“From the cast iron stopper, to the second-generation national gate, to today’s majestic new national gate, they record the development of Suifenhe City, and also record the growing prosperity of Suifenhe as a window for economic and trade exchanges between China and Russia.” Lee Eun-tae said.

As a window for China to open to the north, it has always been Suifenhe’s mission.

Beautiful because of flow

Outsiders who first arrive in Suifenhe often mistakenly think that they have gone abroad.

The ruble can be used as currency, the streets are full of signs in Russian, blonde Russians can be seen almost everywhere on the streets, and their ugly bosses may also speak a few words of Russian.

In Suifenhe, almost everyone has buying and selling in their hearts, and if you and a taxi driver waiting for a red light casually mention the exchange rate, he will probably say it casually, because he probably also runs a small trading company.

All this stems from the deep imprint left by the market on the people of Suifenhe.

“Whether on the street or in the shop, adults and children say ‘owes’ (meaning exchange) when they see foreigners, and they buy and sell anytime, anywhere.” Li Baibo, a merchant of Suifenhe, recalled the scene. In the 90s of last century, the lack of light industrial products in Russia achieved the “barter trade” of Suifenhe. At that time, almost the entire people in Suifenhe “owed”, and locals stood on the streets exchanging light industrial products such as tourist shoes and sportswear for Russian watches, tweed coats, binoculars and other items.

“At that time, one-third of the people who did business here were locals, and two-thirds were foreigners. There is a train back to Russia every day in Suifenhe, and the passengers are all Russians carrying various large travel bags. Li Baibo said.

A few years ago, the “owed” reappeared in Suifenhe, and many Russians came to “set up stalls” again, which evoked the deep memories of many Suifenhe people for a while. At first, after all, it was two different languages, and it was not possible to communicate directly how to do business, and a calculator was enough. How much does it cost, press the number directly, you come to compare me to guess, in fact, it is not a problem.

“With ‘owed’, language will be everything.” Li Baibo said.

In order to solve this scattered and disorderly trading state, Suifenhe City plans to build a five-story building of more than 3,000 square meters, named Qingyun Market. It was this market with 560 stalls that made Suifenhe one of the most active commercial centers along the open border between China and Russia at that time.

“At that time, the business was too hot, and there were many people who made hundreds of thousands a month.” Cai Qinghui, a 48-year-old businessman from Zhejiang, was among the first merchants to settle in Qingyun Market. He recalled that at that time, the shopping mall was crowded and bustling, and it became a “gold rush” in the eyes of Chinese and Russian merchants. With the changes of traditional border trade between China and Russia, Qingyun Market now covers tens of thousands of varieties of clothing, shoes and hats, daily necessities and other varieties, becoming the “face” for light industry products and mechanical and electrical products in southern China to open up the Russian market. Taking advantage of the Russian merchants and contacts accumulated over the years, Qingyun Market is entering many fields such as e-commerce, entertainment, catering, culture, tourism and other fields in Russia, with an average annual transaction volume of more than 1 billion yuan in recent years.

Before the epidemic hit, the Russian girl Lena liked to come to Suifenhe very much to shop. “Chinese goods are very cost-effective.” Lena told reporters that she is from the Russian coastal city of Vladivostok, about 200 kilometers from the Suifen River, and she often takes buses between the two places.

Shop first, then eat at the Maxim restaurant, watch a movie in the cinema of Suifenhe on weekends, chat in the bar…

At that time, in the spacious and tidy international waiting hall of the Suifenhe Bus Station, dozens of Russian ladies like Lena who liked Chinese goods could often be seen waiting in line with heavy packages, Vladivostok, Ussuriysk, Slavyanka, in these cities, Suifenhe was a resounding name. According to the regulations, each of them can carry up to 50 kilograms of goods into and out of the country at a time, and the long-distance buses here are specially attached to cargo trailers.

Mobility is the natural gene of ports and their people.

“Fight” for “great love”

Many people in Suifenhe said that this small city is too difficult now, and the small shoulders carry an unbearable weight. At the beginning of the epidemic, Suifenhe maintained a record of zero local cases. Today, the once prosperous port has to press the pause button for passenger flow.

Suifenhe is one of only two ports to Russia in China with two first-class ports, highway and railway, and is also the largest port in Heilongjiang, a major economic and trade province between China and Russia. After years of capacity expansion and transformation, the railway port has a replacement capacity of 33 million tons.

Although the passenger flow has pressed the pause button, the port’s window function is still functioning. Suifenhe is the “vegetable basket” of many cities in the Russian Far East, these days, in the vegetable greenhouse of Suifenhe, employees are still busy under the premise of protection, and the vegetables they grow will be exported to the Far East with the assistance of Russian transport companies. As one of the largest railway freight port stations in China and Russia, the train horn that marks the vitality of the city still sounds continuously over the small city, and the freight trains entering Russia are still carrying the economic and trade exchanges between the two countries.

The alarm of the epidemic sounded in small border cities, and the relevant departments of the state and Heilongjiang Province acted quickly to “prevent external importation and internal proliferation”. The National Health Commission has recently sent a working group and expert group to Suifenhe; Some medical staff from Heilongjiang Province who returned from Hubei Province have just finished their rest, and they have put on white “battle clothes” again and rushed to the front line of the port, for the health of their compatriots and for the sake of the world to join hands in fighting the epidemic, and maintain their efforts to fight the new war against the epidemic.

Heilongjiang Province implements closed-loop management and layered treatment for all inbound personnel, while Suifenhe mobilizes the whole city to fight the “epidemic”.

Small town big love, spring warm silent. The ice flowers on the border have broken the ice and bloomed, and after the war “epidemic”, the century-old port will be reborn and the noise will reappear.