It was sixty years ago this week that a direct passenger rail service between Moscow and Beijing was introduced. The very first train to ply the route left Moscow on 16 January 1954, running via the classic Trans-Siberian route to Chita, then turning south to cross into China at Manzhouli and on through Harbin to Beijing.
The train still runs, leaving both Moscow and Beijing on Saturday evenings. The Moscow-bound journey is Train Number 19, and the eastbound run from Moscow is Train Number 20. Typically the service carries seven sleeping cars, but it is rarely very full. The entire journey requires 146 hours on board.
Today’s departure of Train Number 20 from Moscow Yaroslavskaya Station will be marked by a little pomp and ceremony as representatives of the Chinese and Russian rail administrations celebrate sixty years of cooperation in operating direct passenger trains between the two capitals.
The significance of this route from Moscow to Beijing has been somewhat eclipsed since its opening by the development of a second route to Beijing via Mongolia. That route is slightly quicker than the route followed by Trains Number 19 and 20 and the Trans-Mongolian option is the one favoured by many travellers making the full run from Moscow to Beijing.
But for those who can pass on the pleasure of getting a Mongolian passport stamp, the eastern route still offers many attractions. The line passes through an area of north-east China where Russia once had imperial aspirations — and railways have long been key agents of empire. The line beyond the Chinese border at Manzhouli was built from 1897 to 1902 by Tsarist Russia as part of the Chinese Eastern Railway. It passes through beautiful Manchurian countryside, taking in grasslands, forests and hills before reaching the Songhua Valley and the coastal plain of Manchuria.