One of the most interesting excursions we’ve taken for my program in Economic Development in the Russian Far East, offered at VGUES in partnership with SRAS, was to the Three Borders Zone (“Три границы” in Russian) so named because this is where the borders between Russia, China, and North Korea come together. Because the course is open to anyone with a strong command of English (the language the course is taught in), the course and excursion are both taken with a variety of international and local students, making it even that much more interesting and allowing us to gain insights not only from the guide, but from the various perspectives of the students. About four hours from Vladivostok, our trip also included a number of stops along the way to see more of the Primorye region and really use our day to the full extent.
Land of Leopards (Земля Леопарда)
The first stop was to the Land of Leopards National Park. This government-funded sanctuary was established in 2012 to protect the indigenous plant and animal species of the area. It spans a 1000-square mile stretch along the Sino-Russian border.
Upon arrival, we drove to the main building, decorated with giant leopard faces and silhouettes, and with a small monument to the creation of the national park. We drove another five minutes further into the forest and were dropped off at the foot of a small mountain where we met another guide who led us on an hour-long hike up the mountain, explaining the significance of different plants and animals along the way. Unfortunately, we did not see any leopards or large predators on our hike, but the views were beautiful. In the distance, Chinese mountains framed the landscape and provided a serene, jungle aura.
While not an outdoorsman, after the initial shock of having to do a surprise hike passed, I enjoyed the hike overall. It was very informative and gave us a chance to see the overwhelming natural beauty of Primorskiy Krai.
Port of Zarubino (порт Зарубино)
Our next stop was to the Port of Zarubino. In class we discussed many different ports and the significance of each for certain industries. The Port of Zarubino was initially a fishing sea port until it was transformed into a trading port in the 1970s under the Soviet Union. Today, a railway connects the port to Vladivostok in the north, the Chinese city of Hunchun in the west, and the North Korean city of Rajin in the south.
Zarubino, although in Russia, has been of great importance to the Chinese government. In 2014, China’s Jilin Province – where Hunchun is located – signed an agreement to help increase port capacity to 60 million cargo tons per year. This port is one of the primary avenues for international cooperation between the influential powers of Northeast Asia.
The Mermaid Diner (Закусочная Русалочка)
We then drove to the city of Zarubino, the name sake of the port, to have lunch at the Mermaid Diner. Although not the flashiest restaurant, the food was absolutely delicious and the staff was very kind to our group. All of us ordered traditional Russian dishes: borsht, pelmeni, cutlets, etc. Some students even ordered a second meal after the first and our guide had to rush us out of the restaurant because she said we were wasting “precious daylight” by sitting and eating too long.
Three Border Zone (Три Границы)
Finally, we arrived to the highlight of the tour. Within a small section of this border region, there is a special economic zone where goods are traded between vendors with lower tariffs than usual – a sort of “duty free zone.” However, due to security concerns of all three nations, because the zone allows essentially more mobility for commerce to mix in the area, it is very difficult to receive approval to visit the actual market. Our group instead visited a viewpoint in the town of Kraskino where we could take photos of both North Korea and China in the background and the town operating below us.
As a student studying international relations and global policy, this area was extremely interesting to visit and being able to see both North Korea and China only a few kilometers away was both beautiful and intriguing.
Korean Independence Memorial
Our final destination before returning to Vladivostok was the Korean Independence Memorial. Located in Russia and placed very near the North Korean border, this memorial commemorated the men who fought against the Japanese Empire for independence in 1909. It features a handprint, which is significant because Korean soldiers historically cut off the first section of their left ring finger to symbolize their dedication and willingness to sacrifice their lives for their country.
At first, I felt that this was just another memorial for a war that occurred long before my time. But there were two South Korean students on our excursion and they began telling us a brief history of the encounter and how Korea never truly gained independence from Japan until after the Second World War. In the middle of speaking, one of the students stopped, asked “is anyone Japanese?” Upon finding out that there were no Japanese among us, she began to passionately tell about how brutal the Japanese occupation was and how, she believes, they continue to be prejudiced against Koreans.
Americans, with few exceptions, have fought nearly all our wars on foreign soil, so it is easy for many of us to remove ourselves from the mental and emotional realities of war. While visiting this memorial, I saw that the trauma of war can linger generations after the war has ended, especially for those on whose homeland the war was fought and held under occupation.
The natural beauty, dramatic history, and dynamic international relations of Russia’s Far East region are entrancing. With a little development, I believe this region could become a viable tourist destination, especially for those who love the outdoors and nature.