Located just 800 yards from Russia, the city of Heihe has a long history of cross-border trade and cross-cultural exchanges. But its future in one of the most remote corners of the world remains uncertain.
In China’s cold northern frontier, a small city has become a nexus for the exchange of goods and people across a frozen river.
Heihe lies just 800 yards away from Russia, separated by the Heilongjiang river. It is a sleepy border town but proffers its own brand of cosmopolitanism.
Here, conversations can be heard in Chinese and Russian. The downtown’s main shopping street is filled with made-in-China Russian goods, including smiling Stalin lighters and jeweled mirrors decorated with scenes from Tsarist Russia.
Skyscrapers are in short supply, but faux European buildings—just faintly reminiscent of those in Saint Petersburg—line the main streets. At night, neon signs in the central district advertise Russian bars and guesthouses fitted with disco lights and dance poles.
From Heihe’s downtown promenade, the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk can be seen in the distance, across the Heilongjiang.
The river crossing is Heihe’s central feature, and allows people to cross between China and Russia in just a few minutes. When the river freezes over—which is most months of the year—pontoons carrying passengers and overflowing bags bounce across sand and ice.
Also known as the Amur River in Russian, the Heilongjiang runs over 1,000 miles along the China-Russia border and has facilitated interactions between the two countries for centuries.
Exchanges here began in the 17th century as Russia was expanding east in search of land and fur. By the mid-19th century, a weakened Qing Dynasty in China ceded all land north of the river to Russia, and the borders were opened up for trade.
Chinese merchants and laborers began making frequent river crossings, and by 1900, over 20% of Blagoveshchensk’s population was from Heihe.
Today, these border crossings still make up a core part of the local economy. Russian traders and students looking for pocket change cross over to Heihe and bring back duffel bags full of clothing and household appliances for resale in Blagoveshchensk. They might also make time for some karaoke at a bar.
On the other side, Blagoveshchensk is a “window to Europe” for Heihe locals, who make the trip to purchase perishable goods such as Russian flour and fish, which are seen as higher quality. Russian chocolates, juice, and souvenirs are also bought to sell in Heihe.
(Read more: How Russian borscht became a Hong Kong staple)
This cross-border shuttling is so ubiquitous that it’s become known as the “suitcase trade.” In Blagoveshchensk, there is even a statue called Monument to the Suitcase Trader dedicated to the people who make the trip every day.
Although both towns sit very far from the centers of power, their fates have been inextricably tied to the ebb and flow of China-Russia relations.
A falling-out between China and the Soviet Union in the 1960s sealed off their borders, and the crossing between Heihe and Blagoveshchensk was closed for almost three decades.
When trade resumed and the Soviet Union collapsed, the two countries were already on divergent paths—as China progressed, Russia struggled.
The suitcase trade peaked in the early 2000s, propelled by China’s manufacturing rise and Russia’s commodities boom. But Russia’s financial decline starting in 2014 lowered its citizens’ purchasing power and affected trade in this corner of the world.
In recent years, China and Russia have been trying to forge stronger economic ties. New transport links, including a cable car, between Heihe and Blagoveshchensk have been proposed.
A road bridge connecting the two cities opened in November, but there is skepticism about whether it will actually generate more growth. Add to that bureaucratic red tape, and the fate of new projects like the new cable car becomes uncertain.
For now, the suitcase trade remains the most prominent symbol of the two sides’ intertwined fate.