History of the Moscow to Beijing Train Route
The Moscow to Beijing railway is not only an impressive feat of international coordination; it’s an exhilarating trip for modern travelers with interesting historical tales behind it. With a history of international socio-political implications, feats of engineering and a mix of cultures carried out on the train itself, the Trains-Manchurian railway is an experience come to life.
Eastern Russia sat isolated from the western seat of power at the end of the nineteenth century. Thousands of kilometers away from the Tsar and the major concentration of the population, the isolated east had mounting defensive concerns about nearby Asian countries.
Moscow and Vladivostok were being connected by the Trans-Siberian railway at this time. However, this was not a short project, especially given the climate and terrain. The exact route had yet to be decided. The proposition was to wind around the northern Chinese territory. However, a more direct route accessing significant Chinese cities like Beijing and Port Arthur suddenly sprung onto the table for consideration by the Russian empire. Sergei Witte, the Minister of Finance, had delivered the idea for this shortcut through Manchuria in 1897. The benefits outweighed the detractions of this plan, so the final leg would be the “Chinese-Eastern Railway.” Little did the leaders of the Russian empire know about the sociopolitical ramifications that would ensue from constructing an international railway through China.
From the start, the logistics of this shortcut challenged railway engineers, and certainly the workers on the ground executing the work as well. Materials couldn’t easily reach the east because of Lake Baikal. The tracks around the massive lake weren’t finished. Instead, construction on the eastern portion would have its headquarters in the middle to span out in different directions.
The tiny Chinese village of Harbin received the honor of becoming the epicenter of coordination and construction. Harbin quickly blossomed into a boomtown because of the stimulation of the railway. In the twenty-first century, Harbin has continued this momentum to become an industrial powerhouse of this region of China. Overall, Manchuria also reaped the benefits of stimulation by the railroad. In seven years, the population doubled to 16 million.
This section of the railway opened in 1903. Three tracks branched out from Chinese Harbin. The southernmost branch of the three connected to Port Arthur and Beijing. The Eastern branch ventured to Vladivostok. The Western Branch went to Chita. Today, only the Western and Southern branches are served by the Trans-Manchurian route. When it opened, Third-Class tickets cost 64 roubles. A First-Class ticket set a Russian back 272 roubles. Back then, the voyage from Moscow to Port Arthur lasted over thirteen days. However, the duration of the trip has since diminished greatly. In the twentieth century, steamboats operated by the railway company connected train passengers to Port Arthur, Shanghai and Nagasaki. The Russian empire had completed a truly ambitious international transportation venture.
Nevertheless, it’s often said that with every blessing there’s a burden, and the topographical and climactic challenges would not be the only major struggle of the Trans-Manchurian railway. This branch of the Russian railway would bring conflict with other nations. Japan took over the majority of the southern branch after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). During Soviet rule, the former empire’s usurpation of territory like Harbin was rolled back in 1924. Still, it maintained control of the railway. In 1929, Chinese soldiers gained control of the railway. They subsequently arrested and deported workers from the Soviet Union. It became known as the Sino-Soviet conflict when the Soviet Union fought back.
The conflict surrounding these international branches continued in the form of territorial and diplomatic struggles. The Soviets relinquished control of the part of the Moscow – Beijing train route in 1952. The People’s Republic of China, also a Communist power, gained it. This actually signified positive relations between the two communist governments.
The present-day name of “Trans-Manchurian Railway” supplanted the Moscow to Beijing train route on the “Chinese Eastern Railway,” at least in English. It still traverses almost exactly the same route from Moscow to Port Arthur. However, the time has been halved from the original six days. The Vostok train runs weekly on the Trans Manchurian. Vostok means “East” in Russian. The Trans-Manchurian departure stations are Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station and the main station in Beijing. Vostok’s trains received a renovation a few years ago. Most trains still lack showers, so planning to stop and see the sights overnight is not a bad idea.
The train still passes through interesting and historical Chinese cities like Harbin, Shenyang and Beijing. Although the Trans-Siberian receives more acclaim, the Trans-Manchurian offers interesting stops and views of steppes instead of the monotonous forests of Siberia. With the lure of a multi-cultural adventure through Russian and Chinese landscapes, towns and cities, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The train itself brings the next country to life by changing out the cuisine from Russian to Chinese, or Chinese to Russian, as soon as it crosses the border. Immerse yourself in one culture and then quickly dunk into another.