China, Russia and mystic Mongolia have been on my bucket list for years, but never did I expect to do all three in one trip. Well, technically Manzhouli is in China, Inner Mongolia to be precise, but in just three days of visiting this intriguing town – currently reaping the rewards of the influx of Russian traders and the booming mining industry – I certainly dipped my toes into the cultures of all three countries.
The final minutes of our Hainan Airlines flight into Manzhouli saw us cruising over snow covered towns that could well have been Siberia. I spent six years visiting Japan’s snow fields, but never had I seen so much white covered over such flat land like what was beneath me as we edged closer to our destination in China’s far north.
Upon landing in the very Russian-esque Manzhouli Xijiao Airport, I struggled to concede that we were but a mere two-hour flight from China’s capital, Beijing.
Walking outside into the beyond freezing temperatures, I felt like I had just stepped into a James Bond movie.
As our driver sped away from the airport, our guide pointed out Russia to our left and Manzhouli’s CBD to our right, all while we passed larger-than-life snow sculptures perched alongside the snow-covered road.
With a population of 300,000 people, most Manzhouli citizens live in the city centre, where the buildings are grand. The design and architecture is influenced heavily by the Russians, who cross the border some 8km away in their mini-van vehicles and spend 3 days buying up everything from home wares to food products before returning to Russia to re-sell them for a hefty profit.
In summer, Manzhouli’s temperatures can reach a staggering 30 degrees Celsius, a fact I found difficult to contemplate while literally freezing my well layered butt off in sub zero temps during our winter visit. Despite the ridiculous chill – worsened by unforgiving winds – Manzhouli actually enjoys more than 280 days of sunshine annually, and we experienced nothing but blue skies during our stay.
What to do
When you’re rugged up in thermals, military jackets, rigid gloves, Russian faux fur hats and waterproof ugg boots, it’s hard to get inspired to take a day trip outside. But this is Inner Mongolia, you’ve got one full day to explore, and if you’ve made it out here you’re certainly the type to thrive on adventure. In winter, here’s what you can do:Matryoshka Doll Square
The largest of its type in the world, Matryoshka Doll Square (also referred to as Russia Taowa Square) is a unique land mark just 3km out of town, and home to more than 200 giant dolls including the world’s largest, bearing Chinese, Russian and Mongolian ethnicity. Among the dolls are some better-known faces: Jesus, Nemo, and Bruce the Shark. The park is free to enter, but the museum is closed during winter.
A reasonably guarded military check-point, there are certain days of the week when foreigners can actually cross the Chinese/Russian border a mere 8km out of town. The day we visited was not one of those days, so we were forced to take photos from the Chinese side of the entrance gate, which was still a remarkable experience.
Trains running on along the Trans-Siberian railway network from Beijing to Moscow pass through this popular trading stop, a fact I was privy to before my arrival thanks to a surfer friend from home who once rode this very leg of the TSR.Manzhouli Ice & Snow Festival
Our trip coincided with the preparation stages of this annual festivity, and we were privileged to witness the locals hard at work in the incredible difficult temperatures – many ditching their gloves to work on the intricate designs of their remarkable ice sculptures.
A trip out to the Ewenke Autonomous Banner is a must for adventurers, or simply anyone who has come as far as Manzhouli.
A two-hour bus ride with a local tour company will get you to the border town Bayantuohai, home to the Ewenke Musuem which is full of historical insight to the Mongolian way of life and evolution of the Ewenke people.
It is a further 10 minute drive to the Ewenke settlement, where in summer travellers can help the locals build yurts (local housing), ride the small, thick-furred Mongolian horses, and take cooking classes with the local women. Winter activities are restrictive but a visit is not wasted - witnessing the locals going about daily life in the chilling conditions is inspiring to say the least.
Our visit to the Ewenke settlement was a significant highlight in my travel career, and I would highly recommend any serious traveller suit up in winter threads and experience this epic world in all its white glory.
Where to stayShangri-La Manzhouli
Starting as low as A$100 per night, Shangri-La’s Manzhouli property is the first international hotel in town. In true Shangri-La style, the hotel offers stunning views, extending over the town’s famed Hulun Lake; during winter the sparkling, frozen lake is best viewed from the lobby bar on the first floor.
Rooms are a warm haven fitted with humidifiers and floor and wall heating units. While standard rooms are quite understated, after a tour around town or the greater Inner Mongolia region, retreating to the cosy room and running a hot bubble bath was quite a magical experience. As with all the Shangri-La properties I have visited in my travels, the view from my room over the remarkable CBD was alluring and I spent several hours during my stay fixated at the giant windows.
The lobby bar was my favourite meeting point, as much for the spectacular view of the lake as for the elegant décor and interior styling. This theme continues throughout the entire hotel, where blends of reds, greens and blues sit marvelously under the glow of the Shangri-La’s signature chandelier light fittings. The General Manager told me the designers were not afraid of taking risks when fitting out the Manzhouli property, a decision that contributes to the hotel’s five star rating.
Dining at the Shangri-La's signature outlet 'Shang Palace' is extra special at the Manzhouli property. During my visit, the team prepared an incredible 'edible art' feast, featuring local animals like thick-furred sheep and cattle carved from Taro and grazing among the green summer pastures - aka parsley.
Outside, the climate is so cold in winter that the locals drink beer warm (or just shoot straight vodka), but as the dining room was comfortably heated I requested my lager be chilled. Immediately the waiter popped a few cans of the local ale Snow outside of the window for around three minutes before pouring the well-chilled amber liquid into my wine glass. Apparently it only takes around five minutes to freeze liquids outside during the Manzhouli winter.
Our feast continued with cuisine elements from all three neighbouring cultures: China, Russia and Mongolia. I particularly devoured the hot-pot where we dipped thinly sliced cuts of locally produced beef and lamb, a local fish called turbine, shrimp balls, pork, black ear mushrooms, yam and carrots into the bubbling broth.
There is actually an amazing pool, fitness and spa centre at the hotel, but I don't recommend taking a dip after several courses in the Shang Palace. I booked in for a spa treatment, and was a little disappointed that the hotel does not have one of their world renowned Chi, The Spa, but considering I was able to get a 60-minute massage in the middle of nowhere, I was pretty humbled.
Video Source: www.traveltherenext.tv
If you go
- The writer visited as a guest of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts