Tourists Replace Troops Along Russo-Chinese Border

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE barges and ferries are lined three deep along the bank of this Amur River port in the Russian Far East. From their decks a steady stream of people and heavily laden trucks rolls onshore, part of the almost constant traffic from the Chinese city of Heihe visible in the summer haze across the river.

On this side of the river, Russians fill out customs forms in a tin-roofed Quonset hut on the top of the river bank. Busloads of Chinese tourists laden with the bounty of buying trips in the stores and markets of Blagoveshchensk disgorge. A line of trucks loaded with everything from cement to farm equipment wait to pass a customs check before driving onto flatbed barges.

This is the scene at the largest and most active border crossing between Russia and China. It is a border that was, until only four years ago, virtually closed.

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After the Sino-Soviet conflict began in the early 1960s, this region became one of the most heavily militarized in the world, with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on each side. Chinese and Soviet troops clashed in 1969 on the Ussuri River, downstream from here. Barbed-wire fences were erected along the length of the Russian border. When the Amur froze for the winter, a temporary barrier was erected here on the ice.

Now trade across the long and remote border, which stretches from near the Pacific Ocean to Mongolia, is booming. Border trade reached $2 billion last year, 59 percent of it China-Soviet trade, according to official Russian statistics.

While centralized state-organized trade collapsed, decentralized border exchanges grew in 1991 by 45 percent over the previous year. Officials forecast that overall national trade will reach $5 billion this year.

Chinese merchants and factories are mainly buying industrial goods and raw materials, says Vadim Belokon, the Chinese-speaking head of the international department of the Amur House trading firm. Lumber, cement, chemicals, and farm machinery are popular items. At the port, the freight cars of a waiting Russian train are loaded with large red combines and shiny Kamaz dump trucks.

The Russians buy from China mainly inexpensive consumer goods such as leather jackets, sports clothes, Thermos bottles, and sneakers and other footwear. The flow of cheap, often counterfeit sporting goods, is so huge that Blagoveshchensk has acquired the nickname "Adidasovsk," or Adidas City.

The two river cities have become centers for Russo-Chinese trade. Chinese merchants from across the country come to Heihe, a city of about 100,000 people, to meet their Russian counterparts, Mr. Belokon says.

The hotels of Blagoveshchensk are filled with Chinese businessmen, many living there semi-permanently. Traders flow in from all over the former Soviet Union, particularly from the mercantile former republics such as the Baltics, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. A secondary market in airplane tickets in and out of this city of 200,000 has sprung up due to seat scarcity.

The city features three markets where Chinese and former Soviet traders, as well as goods-laden tourists, met to barter and buy and sell. By early morning, the "City Market" is crowded with people. Outside the building which houses a traditional farmers' market multiple aisles of peddlers have spread their goods on everything from car hoods and tarpaulins to folding tables.

Some of the items for sale are aimed at Chinese tourists who come over on a morning boat and return in the evening. Car parts such as headlights, distributor caps, and spark plugs are offered. Children's bicycles and electrical goods are also popular as are black felt fedoras that some Chinese wear out of the market in a small stack piled on their heads.

Chinese goods are everywhere. Half the populace seems to be wearing Adidas-label (though surely counterfeit) blue nylon jogging suits, selling for 1,000 rubles (about $10). A Vietnamese who has been living here for several years forks over 40,000 rubles (about $400) to a Moldovan trader for a sack full of jogging suits. The Chinese goods are of low quality, the Russians say, but in a country where consumer products of any kind are in high demand, there is a ready market for them.

"The Chinese are the best businessmen in the world," says the Moldovan, praising their patience. "They believe that drop by drop, an ocean is made."

The cross-border traffic opened up about four years ago, according to residents. But at that time it consisted entirely of organized groups of tourists and the representatives of state-run enterprises on both sides. Starting last winter, however, restrictions on ordinary people were eased. Visas good for multiple entries into China over a long period are easily available on the Russian side. Chinese are even freer to travel in Russia.

Starting this summer, the traffic has intensified. At the river port, several ferry boats a day go in each direction carrying several thousand people. At talks held earlier this month in Harbin, officials of the Russian Amur Region and their Chinese counterparts agreed to establish a direct air link and exchange trade delegations, according to Interfax news agency. Similar pacts were signed in June between the Russian Far Eastern province of Primorsk and Heilongjiang.

Down river in the village of Innokentievka, a group of Chinese officials and naturalists take a break aboard a docked river boat to do their deals in the small village store.

The visiting Chinese stock up on kitchen knives at 22 rubles, electrical cords, tools, leather belts, even plastic combs. One biologist holds up a bag of such purchases for inspection: "very cheap, only 100 rubles," he says, the equivalent of 4 Chinese yuan. The same thing would cost "at least 40 yuan in China," he says smiling.

There is some grumbling at the sight of Chinese scouring Russian shelves. But most share the view of young Natasha Masich: "There's no problem. They are the same as we are."

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