There were no beaten tracks to Siberia before Yermak; people travelled mostly on the waterways and by towing. Starting at the end of the 16th century people started travelling over land, but it took more than half a year. One hundred years later, such lengthy travelling became a nuisance, while the way itself grew longer the Empire reached the Pacific Ocean (Vladivostok was founded in 1860). There was only one way to expedite travel eastward: by building a railway. The laying of the Trans-Siberian Railway, begun in 1891, came to a halt a few years later the question of which way to go on came up: should the railway follow the Amur River or use a short-cut through Manchuria (China). Sergei Witte, a powerful Minister of Finance at the time, endorsed the second option due to its obvious geopolitical advantages, and his viewpoint won the day.
A Time Loop
The CER was built using state-of-the- art technological and engineering ideas. The difficulty was in the terrain that the railway had to go through, which included numerous rivers and mountain passes. There was a need for bridges and tunnels. That is why the CER has a significantly larger number of engineering structures per 1 km of railway than the Trans-Siberi- an Railway. «I went through the moun- tain passes in the Alps and have never seen anything like the Khingan. What is amazing is not so much the immensity of the labour invested in it, as the splendid victory of human thought,» wrote one of the passengers of the CER.
The very first challenge that the build- ers of the CER encountered was the de- livery of construction materials: neither segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway was working yet, so it was decided to begin at Harbin with subsequent delivery of all materials by the Sungari, Amur and Ussuri Rivers, even a special shipping line was established for the purpose.
Alexander Yugovich, who graduat- ed with honors from the London Royal Academy of Engineering and had already built the Trans-Caspian Railway and the PotiTiflis Railway across the Surami pass, never lacked for experience or wit. The CER was built in segments of 70150 km. There were over 200 thousand Chinese workers employed at the enormous con- struction (contemporaries compared it to the Suez Canal).
The railway was put into service in stages, just as it was built: the first Man- churiaHarbin segment was opened all the way back in 1899, while the last one, with a branch to Port Arthur, was opened in 1903. Then, Russia finally made a step from the Middle Ages to the age of up- to-date technology: it became possible to travel from one end of the Empire to another comfortably in just a couple of weeks! The express train covered the dis- tance from Moscow to Port Arthur in 13 days and 4 hours, while a passenger train took 16 days and 14 hours. The voyage had cost quite a penny: a first-class ticket on the express was 272 roubles (approximate- ly RUB 300 thousand in current roubles), and a third-class ticket on a passenger train was 64 roubles (about RUB 70 thou- sand currently). Arrival of express trains at Port Dalny (present-day Dalian) was coordinated with the same day departure of express steam-ships going to Shanghai and Nagasaki.
Risen from the Ashes
The most remarkable thing is that the CER not so much promoted the prosper- ity of the Russian territories as that of the Chinese Manchuria. It is actually quite understandable: the railway only provided a short-cut for the Trans-Siberian Railway and expanded the Empires presence in the Far East for a couple of years, until the Russo-Japanese war. Tokyo perceived the CER concessions received by Russia as a threat to its interests and, all in all, the construction of the railway became casus belli. Russia lost the war and the railway had to be adjusted to transport cargo from Vladivostok.
But the CER had never stopped, mak- ing Manchuria one of the most advanced Chinese provinces in less than ten years. By 1908, the population of Manchuria nearly doubled from 8.1 to 15.8 million and its excess led to tens of thousands of Chinese going to Primorye to make a living.
The Russian Revolution destroyed the regular pattern of life as well as railway op- erations and the Chinese made an attempt to get a hold of it. Under the agreement of 1896, the railway became the property of China at the end of 80 years of the date it went into service (1983) or in 36 years after the end of construction, provided it was bought out (1940). Peking decided neither to pay nor to wait: in 1920 Major Lo-Bins command forces occupied the headquarters of the Russian Commander-in-Chief in Harbin and the CERs right of way. Soon enough, they returned the railway with all its facilities, realizing that there was more loss than profit in a railway encumbered by debt and with a fleet of decrepit steam-engines and cars. The adjacent lands, however, were organized into a Special District of the Three Eastern Provinces of China and exterritoriality for subjects of the Russian Empire was withdrawn.
In May 1924, Peking found common ground with Moscow, restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Russia and the royal concessions were terminated. The railway was to be administered jointly by China and the Soviet Union. Under the accord of 1924, only citizens of the Soviet Union and China could work at the CER and ex-subjects of the Empire quickly queued up for a red passports, radically increasing the population of the Soviet colony in Manchuria: from 25 thousand in 1927 to 150 thousand in 1931. There were still quite a few, however, who did not acknowledge the Soviet rule.
By 1914, the Chinese Eastern Railway was transporting 70m poods (1.15m tons) of cargo a year
The agreement between Peking and Moscow mostly existed on paper only. In just a few years, the leader of the Chinese government Chiang Kai-shek moved on from sharp criticism of the Bolshevik Russia («The red imperialism is more dangerous than the white») to action: on 30 March 1926 the Commander-in-Chief of Chinese forces in Harbin dissolved the elected public self-government bodies and created a Temporary Committee instead, composed only of Chinese. In three more years a diplomatic exchange began. In May 1929, Chinese police broke into the General Consulate of the USSR in Harbin, detained the head of the diplomatic mission Melnikov and his employees for six hours and beat his deputy Znamensky.
On 17 July, Moscow announced sever- ance of diplomatic relations with China and in November the Special Red Banner Far East Army headed by Blyukher conducted an operation to restore control of the CER. The raid was successful; the Chinese army that outnumbered the Soviet one was defeated and the status quo was restored at the CER according to the Peking and Mukden Agreements.
First-class fare from Moscow to Port Arthur was the equivalent of 300 thousand in todays rubles
After the invasion of China by the Japanese in 1931, the CER stopped work- ing and in 1935 there was nothing for Moscow to do but to make arrangements with Tokyo: the railway was sold for 140 million yen and the Japanese changed the tracks to narrower ones, like those in Europe. When, in August 1945, the CER became a war trophy of the winning coun- try and changed its name to the Chinese Changchun Railway, the tracks had to be changed again to those used in the USSR (1,524 mm). Property rights, however, were soon transferred from Moscow to Peking, but this time, at the decision of the Soviet government, which made a gift of the railway to the Peoples Republic of China headed by Chairman Mao in 1952...
Sixty years later, there is one train on the schedule of Chinese railways that goes along the old CER route: a passenger train number 4192/4194/4195 that covers the distance of 1,529 km from Manzhouli to Suifenhe in 25 hours. The railway is still alive.