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China > China & World > Russian PM Putin visits China

Express train witnesses ups and downs in Sino-Russian ties

2009-10-11 09:00:49 GMT2009-10-11 17:00:49 (Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

BEIJING, Oct. 11 (Xinhua) -- On May 24, 1960, Express Passenger Train No. K3/4 left Beijing for Moscow to make its maiden expedition spanning 7,865 kilometers, via Mongolia.

It is the first international passenger train launched by the railways department of the People's Republic of China (PRC), founded on Oct. 1, 1949.

"Never talk to foreign passengers without official permission" was one of the rules learned by the attendants in their training for newcomers, recalled Liu Zhong, who began working on the train in 1970.

Liu, who celebrated his 60th birthday along with that of the PRC this year, would never forget his first cross-border trip.

"When the train arrived at its first foreign station, it was heavily guarded by police to separate local residents from us and stop any passenger who attempted to take pictures," he said. "And we Chinese attendants were also fearful of having pictures taken with the passengers to avoid making political mistakes, and we brought no magazines and newspapers except the People's Daily."

Liu was proud of his working experience on the train. According to him, all those who were strictly selected by the authorities to join the crew must be "ideologically strong", "with a favorable family background", and "well-experienced with the profession and well behaved".

In the initial years, government officials and delegations, diplomats, and sometimes senior officials at ministerial and provincial levels or higher were among the mainstream passengers, according to Gao Jun, now head of the international train brigade of the Beijing Railway Section.

The 1960s witnessed a fast deterioration of the Sino-Soviet relations. Like a thermometer of the bilateral relations, the number of passengers on the train fell to dozens, sometimes less than that of the attendants, during the 1980s, when the Sino-Soviet relations were still in difficulties.

Things changed in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Sino-Russian ties entered into a new era. The international train was crowded with business people who were profiteering from a booming trade across the Sino-Russian border.

All the crew members of the trans-Siberia train used to be men as they must be strong enough to feed coal to the boiler, to cope with the subzero temperatures in Siberia. The coldest record was minus 62 degrees centigrade, while a temperature varying between 30-40 degrees centigrade was normal, Gao said.

Gao said he used to buy overcoats, hats, electric shavers and telescopes in Russian shops, but now Russians are buying Chinese garments, porcelains, building materials and decorations in Beijing.

Western travelers, who are likely to take the weekly railway journey to sightsee beautiful sceneries on the way, now make up the majority of Beijing-bound passengers.

To travel between Beijing and Moscow by train used to be a low-cost journey, but after several rounds of price-hikes, the Beijing-Moscow train has become an expensive option for travelers.

Recently, the ticket prices of the train have been raised to 545 U.S. dollars, 805 U.S. dollars and 882 U.S dollars, respectively for a hard sleeper, soft sleeper and luxury sleeper.

Some people suggest on the Internet that travelers turn to aircraft for lower fares and saving time, but some others insist that to travel by train is worthwhile as one can see so many marvelous scenes along the long journey.

"The international train is likely to be upgraded into a luxury tourist train to compete with the airlines and cater to a changing structure of passengers," said Gao.

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