In the smoky, raucous dining car of this historic train to the Sino-Soviet border, burly Mongolian peasants observe one of the few lasting Russian rituals in northeast China -- vodka at breakfast, vodka at lunch and vodka at dinner.

Stuffed into bulky padded coats and dog fur hats, they hunch over small tables steamy with hot soup and gulp down glassfuls of this final trace of the hated Russian bosses who ran the railway for much of this century.

Thirty-five years ago few Chinese traveled by train across this old belt of Russian influence, 1,000 miles of rich mineral and timber land in north Manchuria through which the czar pushed his Trans-Siberian railway all the way to Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East.

Today they ride hundreds of miles for a tiny fare, grimy peasants bobbing up and down in the economy class "hard-seat," shopkeepers stacked in the crowded "hard-sleep" car and well-heeled factory managers reclining in the modest "soft-sleep" cabins.

The snow-covered villages they pass give little hint of what life was like in days of the "railway zone" when Russian overlords and stick-wielding guards ran the tiny communities along the way like colonies.

Instead, this rumbling train powered by an aged iron horse offers a window-seat view of a world in suspended animation, an almost perfectly still, frozen plain studded with frosted trees set like ice sculptures and occasional clusters of squat mud houses.

Only when the train door jolts open for a short depot stop does human activity emerge: a pony cart hauling a shipment of brooms here, a soldier carrying a squealing pig there; young Mongols pulling a side of raw beef on a wooden sled a fraction of the size needed.

When the door springs shut again all life seems sucked out of the deep freeze outside and poured back into this boisterous, old-fashioned train chugging toward the small Inner Mongolian town of Manhouli, nestled in the corner where China, the Soviet Union and Mongola meet.

Traveling 21 hours from the northeast provincial capital of Harbin on what now is simply called the Harbin-Manzhouli line provides a fascinating introduction to the colorful ethnic Koreans, Mongolian herdsmen and Manchu farmers who populate the road to the Soviet Union on China's fringes.

Traipsing through this train is like visiting a new city, each car opening up a different neighborhood full of its own sights and sounds and smells -- a full-time adventure for two American journalists making their first trip north.

In the working-class quarter that consumes most of the final cars of the train, the "hard-seat" travelers pay a pittance to jam into straight back wooden benches, jostling back and forth during the uneven ride, occasionally landing on the cold floor, bottoms first, when the track bed fails badly.

Here, in the bleacher section for the "old hundred names" -- the Chinese term for ordinary folk, or those bearing one of the hundred most common surnames -- you can travel all 600 miles from Harbin to the border for a mere $14 -- that is, if you can survive the clatter and chill of the unheated car.

Apart from a fast game of Chinese cards and incessant chatter, the most common activity of the "hard-seaters" is chewing first a mouthful of hardcrust bread, then a fistful of sunflower seeds, shelled in the teeth and unceremoniously spit all over the floor.

Amid this human whirl and the detonations of constantly slamming doors sits Zhang Renkun, 69, a toothless grandmother on her way to visit relatives 200 miles away who used to make the same trip by sled when the Soviets ruled the rails.

"It took 10 days to get there," she recalled. "It was very bitter and you'd always have to watch out for the foreigners [Russians]. They'd beat you and spit at you if you got in their way.

"This [train ride] is much easier for an old lady with 19 grandchildren to visit," she said, jabbing her thumb toward the ceiling as a sign of approval.

A few cars beyond the chewers and spitters lies the broad middle class of train travel in China -- the "hard-bed" cars with rows and rows of three-tire, open wooden shelves, each covered with a sheet of green vinyl and a thin layer of bedding.

The chief benefit of this $21 ride from Harbin is that it can be done horizontally, albeit without much comfort. When free of sleepers, the flat racks serve as tables for Chinese chess games or knitting stands for homebodies making wooden undergarments.

Among the government office workers and shopkeepers who populate this crowded dormitory are three young women department store employes returning from a business trip in Harbin. Too young to remember the history of this train or its original name, they still recoil at the name of the polar bear up north.

"If they [Soviet soldiers] come in," said Li Zecun, an ethnic Korean, "we'll launch a counteroffensive. We'd go to the front with our husbands."

"We'll send our children to the rear and fight to the end," chimed in her Manchu companion, Na Renao.

For the influential cadres and factory directors who can afford the $37 fare, the Harbin-Manzhouli line has its ritzier quarters -- enclosed, cramped cabins called "soft-sleep," which offer the limited luxury of a meager mattress, quilt and straw pillows tossed into a pair of bunk beds.

This usually is home as well for the precious few foreigners who ride the line for the privelege of paying almost double the fare, a bit of economic discrimination the Chinese laugh off as justified revenge against the Russians who dominated the railway for so long.

Along with the privacy of the drafty, wood-paneled compartments come the rather erratic services of "Mr. Li," a railway attendant assigned to ease the travel burdens of VIP guests by keeping their thermos bottles filled with hot water, taking lunch orders and opening the locked latrine.

When a small reading light attached to the wall of our cabin flickered out halfway through the trip. Mr. Li studied the fixture for a solid minute and disappeared. Ten minutes later a repairman returned with a small hammer and banged the back of the wall one time.

"Fixed," he chirped triumphantly after the light, to everyone's surprise, turned on.

In an overnight trip, there is no escaping the train latrine, perhaps the most democratic yet despairing corner of the Harbin-Manzhouli line. Here both sexes make use of a gaping hole to the frigid earth, emitting a noxious steam that freezes on the slippery floor and makes for treacherous passage in the unlit closet.

For the bluff, square-jawed Mongolian and bearded Manchu passengers who subsist without television, newspapers and movies, coming eye to eye with an American journalist, especially one departing a latrine in the middle of the night, apparently ranks with the wonderment of spotting a UFO.

One middle-aged man standing in the latrine line with a youngster in tow actually lost his place as he watched, his mouth wide open.

In the dining car where a large red sign over the kitchen door proclaims, "To Serve the People," the arrival of foreigners is enough to set heads turning, fingers pointing and tongues fluttering for several minutes before the diners return to their rice bowls.

Moments after the foreigners arrive, the plastic table cloth is peeled back in favor of dirty white linen and special lacquered chopsticks are placed at each setting. Finally the piece de resistance -- the rare paper napkin -- is brought to the table inside a glass.

At our first breakfast, conforming to local custom, one reporter asked for a shot of vodka. The waitress ushered him to a glass-enclosed case displaying at least six different local brands.

"Any Russian vodka?" was the joking question.

She didn't even crack a smile. CAPTION: Picture 1, Passengers in "hard-seat" coach take long look at uncommon foreign company.; Pictures 2 and 3 Ethnic Korean rider Li Zecun, and the iron horse's conductor; Picture 4, no caption; Picture 5, With the temperature at -20 degrees, commuters at Harbin wait to board train bound for Manzhouli near the Soviet border. Fares for the 21-hour, 600-mile adventure start at $14.; Picture 6, Correspondent Michael Weisskopf rides Harbin-Manzhouli line with interpreter-guide.; Maps 1 through 3, Northeastern China, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post; Picture 7, Among carry-on luggage are wheels and slabs used as chopping blocks in the north. Photos by Howard Simons -- The Washington Post