Notes from Manchuria, 2011 is a diary that I kept during a fortnight’s tour of the Dongbei or north-east of China, anciently known as Manchuria. My cousin, Tessa Keswick, an old China hand, had organised the expedition and landscape gardener, Arabella Lennox Boyd, and style guru, Romilly McAlpine, both experienced Chinese travellers, were our companions. A minibus was our transport, and Mr. Zhong, from a travel firm in Beijing, was our excellent bearleader. I wrote by hand at the back of the bus, sometimes by torch, while we covered immense distances.

Months of planning preceded the trip, with much consultation of JStor, the electronic library of learned articles. Owen Lattimore, who wrote extensively and incisively on Russian and Japanese interests in Manchuria following the First World War, became something of a hero. He focused especially on the railway leading to Port Arthur, in the Bay of Bohai, at Manchuria’s southern tip. This harbour, now Lushun, was a warm water alternative to Vladivostok, which froze in winter, and a prize for which both Russians and Japanese vied.

Manchuria is literally a fabulous area of the world, with the Manchu or Qing emperors (1644-1911) having their legendary home on Chang Bai Shan, the Long White Mountain that fronts North Korea. Shenyang, anciently Mukden, supplies the ‘Mukden incident’ of 1931, which allowed the Japanese to claim provocation and seize this part of China and pronounce it Manchukuo. They installed Puyi, the ‘Last Emperor’ of Bertolucci fame, as puppet ruler in Changchun. Manchukuo ceased to be, and Puyi became a prisoner-of-war at the close of World War Two. The last battles of the war included close combat at Hutou Fort, on the Ussuri river, a natural border with Russia, which the Japanese held. Later, in the spring of 1969, the world waited anxiously. A Sino-Soviet dispute over possession of a diminutive island, Zhenbao, in this river seemed likely to escalate into a third world war.The extract given below begins with our visit to the banks of the Ussuri and Hutou Fort and continues with an account of our visit to Zhenbao Island. It ends with our night on a sleeper train and with our arrival in Harbin. This fascinating city, housing an enormous synagogue – now a museum – and innumerable Russian buildings, was once a place of refuge for a Jewish community fleeing pogroms and for White Russians fleeing the Revolution. Today it is most famous for its Snow Sculpture Festival!


Wednesday, 28 September: Back of the back of beyond

So yesterday we were up [Ed. But up where? Mishan], and breakfast wholly Chinese. Not even tea – just milk. And noodle dishes. But a choice of fried or boiled eggs. Chose boiled, and found I could boil packets of tea in my room. So reasonably satisfied.

Set off for the banks of the Ussuri. Four hours through wheat lands. Passed through Hulin where we deposited our luggage in a very up-to-the-minute office and visited a loo. All loos in Manchuria basic straddle style and malodorous – some, almost to the point of being morally offensive. Then onward to the banks of the Ussuri – or Wusuli? The river is the border with Russia, and we looked over to pretty green and red foliage on the other side. Huge esplanade with lotus decoration running at least a kilometre along. Big staircases descending to the water. Willows all the way, and a little restaurant on the landward side and a hill dense with bushes into which Aabella plunged. Then a plaza – veritably – with a run of large hotels. But no occupants. Absolutely not a soul about. The idea is, Russians come over and land at the steps and stay and eat and drink and make merry. In practise apparently only three groups came this summer.

A steading with a dung heap and two chickens – one mangy – and a hibiscus and some scrubby dahlias to one side of the restaurant where we eat. Viscous fungi with chicken, cold fried shrimp, and the scrambled egg and tomato dish. Then into the bus and off to Zhenbaodao [Zhenbao Island], via Hutou Fort.

Hutou fascinating. Built after 1932 by Japanese, or rather, by 100k or so Chinese labourers and, later, prisoners of war. Story of labourers being massacred once they had finished after being called together to a banquet to celebrate completion. Very Brothers Grimm. So from here the Japs guarded the border, i.e. the banks of the Wusuli, against all comers, i.e. the Russians. Although the Russians only declared war on the Japanese in 1945. However, there was much moving of Japanese into Manchuria once they took it over. Hutou Fort – we were taken underground to see cellar rooms marked Store rooms, Infirmary, Public bath house. And then, thank God, we were released into the open air.

Strange that this pleasure ground – the esplanade – should be constructed five minutes from where the Chinese were executed. Or designedly so. The fort is all underground, but the museum on the site – aeroplanes and tanks above outside – celebrates the last fighting of WWII. Japs held out against Russians even after Emperor surrendered 15 August, ’45. Triumphant language. We will never let this happen again.

What is the message of Hutou Fort – and indeed Hutou/Ussuri Riverbank Complex? Well, there’s those damn Ruskies, watch out. But on the other hand, we hate those horrid Japanese much more. And sod you, Europeans and your opium war, should anyone make it to the National Historical – or even Nationalist Hysterical Museum – in Beijing.

Our first guide – Xiao Ma, or Little Horse, as his Chinese name translates into English – succumbed to appalling stomach ache at Jingbo Lake. At Mudanjiang a very crude youth – ‘My English name is Edward’ ‒ appeared and is a mine of misinformation. ‘Yes, this is Hulin.’ Well, actually it’s Hutou. ‘Lunch is on the 6th floor.’ Only 5 floors, etc. Plus he repeats everything he says ‒ which is all banal – at least twice. ‘So, Mr. Xong come luggage 8.15. Right. So, Mr. Xong come luggage 8.15.’ This doubles the pain of having to listen to him. Which is anyway extreme. Meanwhile a local guide – one of many whom we pick up – is very Hulin. Huge, and wearing sparkly black tights and sparkly grey leather high heeled boots over the knee with diamanté tassels at the back. Sadly, though she smiles a lot, like all local guides she speaks no English and her part seems limited to getting us lost en route to esplanade and taking photos of Edward. Is this Chinese romantic dating? Posing against stones inscribed with revolutionary or ritualistic messages. Plenty of those about.

We drive about an hour or more through virgin forest or what appeared to be virgin forest. Chekhovian birch woods all on the turn, marmalade foliage. Stands of it along the road, and oaks. Ash in there too. Then we arrived at the great site of conflict, now a dirty slow moving river dividing us from the island. Firmly Chinese these days with a garrison of six. Apparently excruciatingly bored, as one of the soldiers appeared across the river in front of the barracks, gave a banshee wail and lay down. Then got up, took off his shirt and gave every indication of being about to commit Chinese version of seppuku.

I asked Edward: ‘What happened over there?’ He said: ‘You not know? War!’ The way he expelled air on this word, it sounded more like: ‘Waaar!’ Ten thousand Chinese attack. Oh, so who started it? Russians. Russians. They start it. Hmm. It’s really unfair to press them as they would suffer terribly if they even thought any other answer.

Painted, Russian-style wooden houses frame approach to dock on the Chinese bank. Everyone – us, Edward, local guide in diamanté boots, Mr. Xong – very excited to be at this place of great historical importance. All agree that the soldier disrobing – and now lounging down towards a boat – is Very Bored. There are only six of them on the island. But there is perhaps a Chinese poet among them. Quite a thing to say you have done garrison duty here, no doubt.

After some hours we got back to Hulin. Pitch dark. And were dazzled by what appeared to be a very smart hotel. Until we noticed signs, Girl Side and Man Side, and understood it was a massage parlour. Tessa and Arabella deciding they would forego massage, we went across the road to a restaurant to eat. Normal upper private room. Dingy table cloth. Table far too big for four. Large lazy Susan bringing round in turn northern pancakes, tea, and beer, which Arabella and I have rather taken up. Very frazzled by the long day. Practically didn’t go for the massage. But in fact Romilly and I did. And did not regret it.

We were taken off and put into Korean baby doll pink silk pajamas. Then marched out to the lifts and taken to a very dubious black and purple floor. Teeming with boys in white coats with what looked like shoeshine kits not attending to us. They kept coming to check the numbers on our locker wristbands. Time ticked by and the sleeper awaited.

Finally we had the most fantastic pummelling, then beating with wooden drumsticks on our feet. Massaging of our calves. Climax – he lit something, and a huge and fierce flame appeared between my toes. I thought he was going to singe the soles of my feet. In fact, he was doing cupping – heating small glass bowls which he applied to my soles. This whole process had us in fits of laughter throughout and quite renewed my spirits which had been sagging. At 9 we rushed back to the others after an attempt to find a loo in the vast perfumed chambers which lay within Girl’s Side. All we found was a very naked buxom lady sitting on a stool and letting down her long black hair.

Off to the station. Really wonderful VIP waiting room. Marquetry scene on one wall of a 1920s maiden travelling across water. Huge leather armchairs. Chinese clear out so we can sit down. Then a batch of GORGEOUS Chinese teenage boys appear, like something off a catwalk. Hair absolute dernier cri, the parting near the ear. Slouch jeans. Concave chests. Divine. They are to be our porters. Unclear whether we are to have our own compartments or be all four in one. Edward says one each, so probably all in one. As turns out to be the case.

My case won’t go over or under bunks and we are at first rather bouleversées not to have Orient Express memsahib experience. But Edward says he will watch my case all night, and no doubt he will. So that is a revenge on him, although why I should wish to be revenged on a poor boy from Harbin making his way in the world is unclear. But he definitely regards us as maratas or logs without bark to be lugged about. Mr. Xong, who may have exactly the same view of us, makes us think he regards us as memsahibs all.

Arrived in Harbin around 11am. Tiny Confucian philosopher takes my Goliath of a suitcase on a mini contraption of iron and webbing bands. We follow, other makeshift porters having been pressed into service. Up and down stairs and then we come out into this total surprise. A Russian city in the middle of China. Half magic buildings. A quarter of the edifices now occupied by KFC [Kentucky Fried Chicken] or made over into modern hotels, etc. Not really anything like those figures. But on a normal walk you seem to have onion domes popping up on every corner, and Art Deco bus shelters on every street. Keenly looking forward to our programme of events here, although Unit 731, Japanese vivisection centre, may be hard to take.

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