China 2015: Cars of Mohe, Heilongjiang Province
We continue on our exploration of Chinese regions and after Harbin we head north to Mohe, still in the Heilongjiang province. This is the northernmost city in the whole of China, completely rebuilt in 1985 after a devastating fire, with striking Russian imperial-era style with colourful facades, spired domes and pillared entrances. A further 60 km (37 miles) north via a very quiet highway is Beijicun (literally “Arctic Village”), the northernmost settlement in China on the Amur River, the border with Russia.
In fact, from a couple places in Beijicun you can clearly see a Russian settlement on the other bank of the river. Even though it was the end of April when I visited, the river was carrying a large amount of ice blocks thawing their way toward the Japan Sea. As you can see on the map below the jump, in Mohe we are further north than any point in Mongolia and around the same latitude as the north of Lake Baikal — two regions I reported on in a previous Trans-Siberian series. You can see the Russian part of the Trans-Siberies Photo Series here and the Mongol part here.
So what are the most popular vehicles in Mohe?
Logically, the Mohe County is where the lowest temperature was ever recorded in China at a scary −62°F in February 1969. This location single-handedly places China as the 5th coldest country in the world after Russia (−90°F), Canada, the USA and Austria. (More trivia: the all-time lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was −136°F in Antarctica in August 2010.)
Mohe’s average temperatures stay below freezing for 7 months of the year, and the frost-free period just short of 90 days places it only a little south of the line of continuous permafrost. So did I freeze here? Nope. Two days before I arrived it snowed, and it did again the day after I left but temperatures graciously stayed above 0°C during my entire stay in Mohe, despite a vicious hail storm I got caught under on my first day…
Mohe marks the most “adventurous” location I have visited during this exploration of Northeastern China. I stepped out of the only plane straight onto the tarmac near the 1967-style airport, and then handled terse female taxi drivers (1/3 of taxi drivers are female in Mohe) who refused to take me on unless I paid double the usual amount for the airport-city center ride and hopped in one free taxi standing alone outside the airport only to have my driver be chased by the police for cutting the queue. I wasn’t able to stay in the one hotel recommended by Lonely Planet because I’m a foreigner, and discovered that the Golden Horse Palace (literally a palace but charging only $40 a night) wasn’t able to accept my MasterCard.
The China Post Bank almost swallowed my credit card as a souvenir, but I thanked the good old Agricultural Bank of China for graciously spitting out much-needed cash that allowed me to stay in town just as I was making plans to jump back on the plane and head home. In Mohe, more than anywhere else, I was the attraction in town being the only foreigner for thousands of miles, and I felt like a Hollywood movie star every time I stepped out. No one speaks English there, but everyone under 25 years old has a Samsung Galaxy smartphone (all the rage in that part of the world) with a Chinese-English translator that they excitedly held up to me so we can communicate, each of us with a big smile. That’s why I love China.
Now that we’ve set the scene, what is the car landscape like in Mohe? First, given we are at the lowest city tier level (county), foreign carmakers are having a hard time reaching these remote parts of the country and Chinese manufacturers edge past foreign ones to take the lead and represent roughly 60 percent of the parc. Although there are quite a few battered FAW Xiali around, the auto parc is remarkably young for such a remote location, and a lot of the latest sales stars are already in town, such as the Haval H6 Sport (a few of them), H1 and H2, Baojun 730 and, in the foreign aisle, Peugeot 2008.
There is also the lone, resident Toyota Tundra in Mohe, confirming that in each and every Chinese city I have visited so far there is at least one full-size American pickup truck …
At 5 yuan to ride anywhere in town (USD $0.80!), taxis are an overused means of transportation and they swarm the few streets of Mohe. Given it is such a small town, it is easy to recognise the taxi drivers that you have used and wave them down for further rides if they’ve been friendly – which is what I did for my trip to Beijicun as I will detail later on. Unlike all cities I have visited so far this year, there is not a standard taxi nameplate here, with a flurry of models being used such as the Toyota Vios, Hyundai Verna, FAW Xiali N3, BYD F3, Shanghai Englon SC7 or Chery E5.
There are a couple of car dealerships in town: one for Dongfeng proudly displaying the latest generation Rich pickup launched last December (first on the left in the opening picture of this article) and one for JAC which hasn’t exactly been met with extraordinary success so far, judging by the low number of JAC models in town. On the contrary, Dongfeng has already made a mark, with a reasonable amount of previous gen Rich pickups in the streets as well as the V27L van and its double cabin pickup variant.
The Wuling Mini Truck (aka Rongguang Pickup) is by far the most popular new nameplate in town, and it’s not rare to spot four of them parked behind one another during the daily morning market. The transition from traditional microvans to double cabin mini pickups is a trend I detailed in a China Light Commercial Vehicles April 2015 update. Other popular nameplates in town include the Haval H6 Sport, Wuling Hongguang, Baojun 730, Toyota Vios, Hyundai Verna, Elantra Yuedong and the latest generation FAW Xiali N3 – justifying its survival in FAW’s lineup. Volkswagen has managed to establish a solid presence in the county, with the Bora, Jetta, Sagitar and Santana the most popular in this order.
In line with the part of the world I found myself in, there are a few signs of “steppe customer tastes” (choices that would be typical in neighbouring Russia and Mongolia) in the form of a couple of badass BAW Yongshi trucks, one of them pictured above. Pickup trucks also point their bonnet in town, including the now mandatory Toyota Tundra, the ZX Auto Grand Tiger, Great Wall Steed and a few Chevrolet Colorado-cloned JAC pickups.
Taxi driver Guo Myang had been particularly helpful on my confused ride from the no-foreigner hotel to the Golden Horse Palace, and I waved him down the next day for the 70km ride north to Beijicun. Heavily militarized, it seemed to be a pretty sensitive area with a Russian mirador built across the river from the touristic northernmost point you can walk to in China — I won’t publish any photos of this location for security reasons. A rather fascinating spot with no roads to Russia, the only option to cross the border was private motorboats, none of them were afloat at the time I visited. Big ice chunks traveled at speed on the river while spring slowly transformed into summer.
Clearly visible from one of the Beijicun viewpoint where one Chinese military officer complimented me about my beard (what the?) is one Russian settlement pictured above. I tried to spot a few Ladas without success. In Beijicun itself a few of the latest faves of the Chinese market are represented, namely three Wuling Hongguang, two Haval H6 Sport, two Nissan Qashqai, one Baojun 730, one Zotye T600, one VW Sagitar, one VW Lavida police car, one Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5 and one Huanghai Plutus pickup.
And that was all for the Mohe car landscape description, the Photo Report continues below with 35 pictures.
Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia and runs a website dedicated to car sales, trends and analysis called BestSellingCarsBlog.
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What do people live off in a place like this? It looks very wealthy with all the well-maintained buildings. I've read that after the fall of the rouble, cross-border-trade has slowed. Selling babymilk from Russia to China is now bigger than selling all kinds of goods the other way. Again, another fantastic article drawing cars into a wider context. Keep 'em coming!
I don't see any in the photos, but did you see any of those tractor things, that looks like a rototiller (big), with a guy controlling it from a trailer? It's basically an engine on two wheels, then you can hook up whatever implement behind it. Often a trailer with two handles you can use to drive with.