Once part of Tsar Alexander III’s plan to better link Russia’s Pacific coast with the capital for economic, cultural, and defensive reasons, the Trans-Manchurian Railroad has now become a unique and unforgettable tourism experience. The dream of Alexander (and later his son, Nicholas II) created a railway that today links the Far East with Moscow and provides tourists traveling from China with a weekly Beijing to Moscow train that can shuttle them in a mere 6 days to Russia’s capital city.
For most of Russian history, Siberia had been a vast and distant wilderness. Though it had plentiful resources, it had largely been inaccessible, and though it offered an immense land area, it had always been sparsely populated. The idea of accessing the resources of this region as Russia moved into the 20th Century – as well as the vulnerability of Russia’s eastern reaches to the European powers that were becoming increasingly active in Asia at the time – led some, including East Siberian governor Graf Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, to suggest a railway linking Moscow with its distant territories and particularly the port city of Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.
Construction began in 1891, with a peak of almost 90,000 workers and with materials largely delivered by sea due to the inaccessibility of the region. But even as this construction labored on, a new idea take shape – to cut the distance with an alternate line, the Trans-Manchurian, that would pass through the Russian city of Chita and slice through the northern China region of Manchuria which lay across the most direct route to Vladivostok, saving some 500 kilometers over the curving route within Russia.
This alternate route would allow a spur line southward to the crucial coastal city of Port Arthur and the Chinese capital of Beijing. In 1897 Russia had seized Port Arthur, under the pretense of protecting the Chinese from Germany. With little recourse, China had relented to a treaty with Russia giving them a 25-year lease on the city. Now, with the completion of the Trans-Manchurian southern spur in 1903 (a year before the completion of the original Russia route of the Trans-Siberian railway), Russia had a rail line directly to the vital Pacific port. At the time, the trip from Port Arthur to Moscow by train took 13 days, with a ticket costing between 64 and 272 rubles.
The Trans-Manchurian railway’s central hub was a simple village in China called Harbin, through which ran the straight line from Chita to Vladivostok, and from which led the southern spur to Port Arthur and Beijing. Harbin, like many of the Chinese towns along the route, exploded over the following years, becoming industrial and commercial centers as well as popular vacation spots for Russian visitors.
But the Beijing to Moscow railway would be a political powder keg in the region. In 1904 Japan seized Port Arthur, kicking off the Russo-Japanese War. The war ended a year later in humiliating defeat for Russia, giving Japan Port Arthur and control of the southern spur of the Trans-Manchurian – and greatly weakening Russia’s influence in the region.
Russia conceded its territorial claims in China in 1924 but had kept shared control of the railway with China. But China continued to increase its influence over the following years, ultimately engaging in a hostile takeover of the railway in 1929 and expelling Soviet workers. The result was the Sino-Soviet conflict, which ran from July to December of that year and which, with Soviet victory, returned to the pre-war status quo.
Japan would seize the Manchurian region in 1931, along with the railway. Rather than get dragged into yet another Eastern conflict, Josef Stalin sold the rights to the railway to Japan for 140 million rubles. The Russians would take control of the Manchurian railway once more at the end of World War II, but finally relinquished those rights to China, without compensation, in 1952.
Today, a hundred and twenty years after it was built, the Trans-Manchurian railway still runs on a route not much different from the original. While some of the cities along the original route have faded from their prime, Harbin is still a bustling cultural and economic center, and in many points along the route the original stations remain as historic markers.
The train to Moscow departs from Beijing station once a week, while a Moscow to Beijing train (the Vostok, or “East”) leaves the Yaroslavsky station at the same time. And while these trains don’t rank among the most modern on the Trans-Siberian rails, the vistas of the Chinese steppes, the sights and sounds of the many Chinese cities and towns along the way, as well as the experience of visiting the two capital cities of Moscow and Beijing within a week, make the Trans-Manchurian train a must-do item on the wish list of intrepid travelers in the region.