Trains and Koreans in the bustling Russian Far East

Nikolsk’s first train, now Ussuriysk, crossed the Russo-Manchurian border. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Hungarian engineer writes about Tsarist railroad in Manchuria

From 1897, a young Hungarian railway engineer spent years in the Russian Far East and Manchuria and played an important role in the construction of local railways. According to his recollection, many Koreans had worked on the Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and he wrote some interesting observations about them.

Karoly Gubanyi (1867-1935) studied at the Budapest University of Technology and started his career as a railway engineer in Hungary. In 1897 he moved to Vladivostok and tried to show his talents to the Russian chief engineer responsible for the gigantic railway project. The young Hungarian began his work the following year at the border of Russia and Manchuria, where he was responsible for plotting the course of the new railway.

At first, the workers were Russian soldiers and neglected Russian exiles. After construction began, a large number of Korean and Chinese workers came to the sites to seek employment opportunities. At that time, thousands of Korean immigrants were already living in the Russian Far East, where they left the Korean Peninsula in the hope of better living conditions.

According to the Hungarian engineer, Koreans were responsible for cutting timber on construction sites and worked in groups of 12 under the direction of a Russian-speaking foreman. Koreans spent the night in their small wooden houses deep in the forests, but some of them used tents.

Korean workers on the construction of the railway somewhere on the Russo-Manchu border. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Korean workers on the construction of the railway somewhere on the Russo-Manchu border. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Korean workers in their tent at the railway construction site. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Korean workers in their tent at the railway construction site. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Koreans in Vladivostok in 1916. The photo was taken by a Hungarian POW who was deported to the Russian Far East. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Koreans in Vladivostok in 1916. The photo was taken by a Hungarian POW who was deported to the Russian Far East. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Hungarian railway engineer Karoly Gubanyi (1867-1935), in a later photo. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Hungarian railway engineer Karoly Gubanyi (1867-1935), in a later photo. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

A Korean village near Ussuriysk

The Hungarian engineer described in his book that Russian settlers, referred to as Cossacks, received their land from the state for their military service. All the men in Russian villages were soldiers. They had guns and swords in their homes. Cossacks generally did not cultivate their land on their own, as Korean migrants in Russian and Manchu territories rented their land and cultivated very diligently with their traditional Korean tools. Half of the harvest was the rental price, which was paid to Cossack owners every fall.

On the way to Nikolsk, now Ussuriysk, the Hungarian engineer observed a Korean village where his car had passed. Around town he once saw two-wheeled bull-drawn cars. On the back of a bull rode a young Korean holding in his hand a rope connected to the ring in the nose of the bull. Arriving at the village, Karoly Gubanyi had the opportunity to observe the small traditional houses, or chogajib. They were made of branches and mud. From the front of the houses, he saw smoking chimneys made of sculpted tree trunks. The engineer mentioned that the smoke from the kitchens passed under the rooms of the house and escaped through the chimneys, which is the traditional Korean heating method, called ondol.

A shy girl in a green hanbok

Karoly Gubanyi observed a large number of men and children in the Korean village, but he saw only a few women because they were hiding from the eyes of strangers. This kind of shyness had already been felt once by the Hungarian engineer when his car approached a Korean city. At first glance, he has just observed two people in the distance on the road. The young man was wearing white cloth and the girl was bright green hanbok, or traditional dress. As the engineer’s car approached them, the couple suddenly sat on the side of the road. The man nodded to greet the strangers who were arriving as the girl hid behind the man and simply looked towards the meadows.

According to Gubanyi, the girl was pretty, but she was so shy that she only faced their car when she was already away from the couple. The engineer wrote that he and his comrades were in awe of the way the Korean man tried to cover his lover from the eyes of strangers with his shoulders.

In his book, Gubanyi described in detail the dress of the Korean people. He pointed out that both male and female clothes were white, but only girls wore colorful skirts. He also wrote the jeogori (upper part of the hanbok) of women who had children was so short that their breasts were visible. Gubanyi also noted that single men had a long ponytail, but married men put their hair in a top knot, called sangtu. It is worth mentioning that two years before engineering began in East Asia, in 1895, the Korean government announced a law for compulsory haircuts for Korean men.

The settlement, called danbalryong in Korean, was very unpopular due to Confucian thought that emphasized that all parts of the human body, including hair, were donated by ancestors and therefore could not be cut.

Railway from Korea to Europe

Karoly Gubanyi completed his work in East Asia in 1903. However, he had the opportunity to briefly observe Korea: When he left Vladivostok by the Japanese steamer Kobe Maru, the ship docked at the ports of Wonsan and Busan. The engineer could look around towns for a short time. In the following years, the rail link between Korea and the newly constructed Trans-Siberian Railway was established.

When the famous Hungarian missionary, Count Peter Vay (1863-1948) arrived from Shimonoseki to Busan in 1914, he observed the sleeping cars at the station coming from Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg. The missionary returned to Europe on the Trans-Siberian Railway via Seoul, Pyongyang and Changchun, which at the time was the border station between the Japanese and Russian spheres of interest. According to his recollection, on one side of the station building the Tsarist Russian flag was fluttering while on the other side the Japanese flag was. Beyond Changchun, the missionary observed thousands of Cossack soldiers all around the railroad.

However, the outbreak of World War I had interrupted international traffic on the Trans-Siberian Railway for a long time. It is sad that the war offered thousands of Hungarians the unexpected opportunity to observe the territories of the Russian Far East, as many Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war were transported to the camps around Habarovsk and Vladivostok . In the memories of the prisoners, one can find interesting episodes related to Korea.

Escape from prisoners of war

In January 1915, a Hungarian soldier, Lajos W. and his comrades escaped their camp in Habarovsk in a snowstorm of minus 42 degrees Celsius (minus 44 degrees Fahrenheit) in the cold. They asked two Chinese men to guide them towards the direction of the Chinese border and tried to walk as fast as possible. However, on the second night of the escape, two of the prisoners froze to death, and two more prisoners soon followed. On the morning of the seventh day, the group’s survivors reached a Korean house on the border. According to Lajos W., the warmth of the Korean house saved their lives. They cut their feet off their frozen boots with knives, and the Koreans gave them leather to cover their legs. The prisoners eventually reached China safely where the Austro-Hungarian consulate assisted them in the repatriation, which was resolved via America.

Another Hungarian prisoner, Ferenc Barits, also mentioned the Koreans in his recollection. The Hungarian visited the Korean city in the suburb of Vladivostok which was located on a hill, where Korean residents lived separately. Many Korean men worked in local factories and at the port of Vladivostok. In Barits’ words, the seaport was in particular need of workers who moved faster than the Russians and who were more reliable than Chinese workers. The Hungarian visitor pointed out that the children’s little hanbok dresses were very colorful from bright green to pink and red like “the feather of a parrot”.

Mózes Csoma
Hungarian Ambassador to Korea


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About Guillermo Russell

Guillermo Russell

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