“But apparently this stems from a tradition whereby Russian ladies would meet Chinese men here in the forest and kind of go on dates. But I guess it’s evolved to become more of a, you know, all encompassing thing.”
Those were the remarks in a recent episode of Travelogue on CGTN, or China Global Television Network (formerly CCTV International), that piqued my curiosity.
In Inner Mongolia 2: Life in the saddle, the host of the program Tianran He walked through a virgin forest in the Hulunbuir region of Inner Mongolia, China, when he started talking about these small messages dangling from the trees: “…in the forest there’s loads of these little good luck charms, and most of them are for love, but this one’s like, I wish my dad, mom, granddad and grandma good health.”
And then he explained this came about because of these rendezvous in the woods between Chinese men and Russian women who were apparently lovers.
Naturally, I was intrigued and set off to find whatever I could about this secret tradition in one of northern China’s border regions.
And I looked…and looked…and looked. But nothing definitive surfaced among the many searches I made in Chinese. (Incidentally, the host’s description of those items as “good luck charms” is inaccurate. Chinese would call them 许愿牌, xǔyuànpái, which could translate to “wish cards”.)
To be sure, Inner Mongolia’s Hulunbuir is a very remote destination in China. It’s tucked right up in the northeast corner of the country, sharing a border with Mongolia and Russia.
The close proximity to Russia does add plausibility to stories of cross-border dating in a forest. And if parents back then were anything like today — after all, it’s not uncommon for families to oppose interracial or intercultural love — chances are couples like this would welcome the cover and privacy of all those trees.
But exactly where is this forest in Hulunbuir? Based on the trees in the video, I suspect it’s a virgin birch forest — and there is such a place in Hulunbuir: 白桦林, báihuàlín, the white birch forest or white birch corridor in Ergun (额尔古纳). This area of Hulunbuir borders Russia, making it the most likely candidate.
Chances are, I’ll have to travel there to get the full story from the locals.
Then again, given that China has a long border with Russia (and the fact that white women in China like me are often mistaken for being Russian), there are probably many more forests out there that have served as sanctuaries of Chinese-Russian cross-border love. What stories have you heard?
P.S.: If want to see the episode for yourself, watch it in full on the CGTN Youtube channel: