Published by Chatto & Windus
“Across the heart of Asia, at the ancient convergence of steppe and forest, the grasslands of Mongolia move towards Siberia in a grey-green sea. …
“Somewhere deep in this hinterland rises one of the most formidable rivers on earth. It drains a basin twice the size of Pakistan, and more than two hundred tributaries, some of them immense, pour into its floods in spring. For over a thousand miles it forms the border between Russia and China: a fault-line shrouded in old mistrust.”
The Amur river—known as the Heilongjiang or Black Dragon River in Chinese—runs between northeast China and eastern Russia, and is the tenth (or eighth, according to some) longest river in the world. It starts in Mongolia and flows east into the Pacific Ocean.
Colin Thubron follows the river—2,826 miles—from its source to its end. He starts from Mongolia and criss-crosses between Russia and China. It is an arduous journey for anyone— and Thubron is 80 years old.
The source of the river is in the Khenti Strictly Protected Area in Mongolia, where Genghis Khan is supposed to be buried, and that is where Thubron’s journey begins. He is camped in the silent, uninhabited grasslands. “I open my tent-flap on the cold dark, and catch my breath. My shadow falls black over the grass. The night above me blazes with stars, and across that immense Mongolian sky the Milky Way moves in an icy torrent of light.”
Before Thubron and his guides set off on horseback to find the source of the river, rangers come to warn them of floods because of heavy monsoons. When Thubron’s guides insist that they can cross the area, the rangers make them sign a paper absolving the rangers of any responsibility. “We should have listened to them, of course”, says Thubron.
But if he had listened to the rangers, then there would have been no book. Even though the rangers were right: the ground is sodden and hard to navigate. Thubron falls and hurts his ankle, but carries on nevertheless, dismissing it as a sprain. He later finds out it is a fracture, and that he has also fractured two ribs.
As he moves between Russia and China, you get a sense of how the relations between the two countries have played out over the centuries. The area around the Amur has moved back and forth between the two powers: the Chinese Manchu conquered it in the late 1600s, taking out the Cossack forts on the land. But in the mid-19th century, Russia reclaimed the land from a China weakened by Western powers.
Around the Amur, Russian towns are almost abandoned, while on the other side of the river, Chinese towns seem to be doing well. In the central market in Blagoveshchensk on the Russian side, shops sell mostly Chinese goods: the Russians deal with customers while the Chinese work at the back, stocktaking and unpacking. But “customers are few, and buying little. Whole lanes and alley-ways are empty of passers-by.” The streets of Heihe, across the river, on the other hand, are “dense with people”.
There was a time when the rouble was high and Russians flocked across the border to shop. The Chinese welcomed them by selling locally made vodka and clothes that were fashionable in Moscow, and put out municipal bins were shaped like matrioshka dolls. But that was a step too far. The Russians were outraged that one of their cultural icons was being used for rubbish, and the bins were swiftly withdrawn.
Thubron comes across another aspect of the relationship between Russia and China in Buryatia, Russia, where he hears explosions and notices a long line of military vehicles passing. It is only when he calls his wife in the UK that he learns that he is in the middle of a huge Russian-Chinese military exercise with 300,000 soldiers, probably the biggest such event in 40 years.
Thubron’s journey is made up of the people he meets, people who tell him their stories. (Thubron speaks Russian and some Mandarin.) He meets a Buddhist monk at the Tsugol Monastery in Buryatia, near the Mongolian border. The monk is the son of an official in the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, but had been drawn to Buddhism. “[I]t’s not reincarnation that drew me, or anything mysterious”, he tells Thubron. “It’s the moral principles: that these are values to trust.”
In Russia, Gleb, a Russian businessman, takes Thubron to his vodka-making factory, built by 500 Chinese workmen in a year and a half. But now the cladding is falling off and the machines are rusting. A new local official had asked for too high a bribe, so instead of paying him, Gleb stripped the machinery and sold it at a profit.
In China, Thubron travels with Liang, a guide from Heihe. Liang loves food, and the two men have huge meals every night at tiny restaurants. But Liang carries a sadness within him. His daughter—his only child, because of China’s one-child policy—is a dance teacher in Qingdao, a thousand miles away. Liang knows that there is no future for her in Heihe, and that she will never come home.
Some of this is territory that Thubron has covered before, in Among the Russians and In Siberia. What makes this book interesting is the contrast between the countries on either side of the Amur. Travelling with Thubron in this region makes it come alive.
If you are interested in travel books about this region, see my review of Erika Fatland’s The Border for Women on the Road, an account of her travels along countries bordering Russia.