30 Oct 2021

Divided river: Colin Thubron travels the Amur River which divides Russia and China

2:29 pm on 2 November 2021

The Amur River is the tenth longest river in the world. It rises in the mountains of Mongolia, near Genghis Khan’s birthplace, flows into Siberia before meandering south-east towards the Pacific, forming the border between Russia and China, then twists northward forming a delta of river channels as it empties into the Sea of Okhotsk.

The Amur River, between Russia and China

The Amur River, between Russia and China Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is a difficult trek with mountains, swamps and tetchy border guards. Until recently, the Amur has hardly been a travel writer’s destination. But five years ago, Dominic Ziegler, the Economist’s Asia Editor, made the journey and wrote the fascinating Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River between Russia and China after he was captivated by the silver flash of the river on a flight to Tokyo. Now it is the turn of Colin Thubron, the redoubtable lyrical travel writer who trekked the Amur’s 4000 kilometre length at nearly 80.

As he recounts in his fine new book, The Amur River; Between Russia and China, he had doubts he could make it. At the outset, he falls from his horse in the mountains of Mongolia and is dragged with his foot caught in the stirrup. He goes on. Thubron has always been stoic and undaunted by vast distances. (The travel writer Pico Iyer tells of declining an exhausting itinerary of flying around the world to speak at various functions for the British government. Don’t worry, he was told archly, Colin Thubron will do it.)

Colin Thubron

Colin Thubron Photo: Supplied

Thubron began his travel writing career with trips to Damascus and Lebanon but found his subject in the vast reaches of the Eurasian continent. Among the Russians, a journey through Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, was followed by Behind the Wall: A Journey through China and In Siberia. He travelled the Silk Roads years before Peter Frankopan and Kate Harris reminded readers of their history. A television adaptation, which featured Thubron, handsome but distracted-looking, dressed in beige and khakis like an actor from Murder on the Nile, and walking out of China in a heat haze towards central Asia, launched a thousand dreams of travel in the 1980s.

Thubron’s Amur river is a mix of spirituality and hard geo-political edges. Mongolians living on its bank thought of it as Queen Mother; indigenous groups in Russia’s Far East believed it was a spirit and provider. It became the border of the two sprawling empires of Tsarist Russia and Qing China at the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689; the Russians claimed all the land to the Pacific, the Chinese that they had inhabited vast swathes of the Far East. Neither could understand the other, so Jesuit priests were summoned to write it in Latin. The Amur was the compromise. Officially, China and Russia are the best of friends. On the ground Thubron finds distrust and fear.

The energetic Chinese think of the Russians as indolent; the Russians that the Chinese are grasping. The Russian conquest of the Far East seems equivocal with the growth of China. Russians complain to Thubron that Chinese-owned forestry firms are decimating the taiga. Inconvenient history is hidden. A painting celebrating a massacre of “invading” Chinese by Cossacks hangs in pride of place at a local museum; an eye witness at the time claimed you could walk across the Amur River on the backs of the dead. Chinese tour groups are shooed past it. Finds of ancient cultures with clear Chinese characteristics in Siberia are hidden away by the Russians. 

Thubron muses about this border river; “I stare out on a leaden sea, remembering others of the earth’s great rivers that carry no such tensions; the Nile, the Yangtse, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Indus. However threatened, they flow like lifeblood through their nation’s heart. Only the Amur divides.”

Memory seems to falter throughout Thubron’s Far East. He encounters Mongolians who have lost touch with their history obliterated by decades of Communist teaching which gave it no mind. Half of Siberia seems to have been the place of an historic massacre, the site now overgrown with weeds. Among the Ulchi people he hears of elders trying to revive a long lost ceremony of warriors securing the courage and strength of a bear by chaining one then shooting it with a bow and arrow. A young man misunderstands and shoots it with an Ak-47. It is a very Thubron story.

Among the Russians

Thubron is at his best among the Russians. He likes their stoicism and is appalled at the brutality of their history. He is moved by their dreams of themselves. Last year at a virtual Auckland Writers Festival he told moderator Paula Morris that the future of travel writing lay in exploring not just a place’s present but how it collides with the stories people tell themselves about their lives. His Siberia is just that.

The Amur was meant to be Russia’s version of the America’s West; its “artery to the Pacific”. Explorers and settlers came looking for excitement, glory and wealth. Instead, they found an expanse of hardship, mosquitoes and cold. They forged a stubborn Siberian identity and disdain for authority but now people spend their time complaining about being abandoned by Putin, or the Chinese. Thubron visits Nikolaevsk, conceived as a massive trading port at the mouth of the Amur, but the waterways turned out to be hazardous, ships were few and the town’s buildings seem sad and ruined. 

Thubron’s subject matches his writing. It has always been lyrical; every noun is rewarded with an adjective. Readers and critics have pointed out his tone of elegy. Here his eye always seems to settle on Siberia’s down-at-heel villages, an abandoned monastery, a crumbling main street and cheerless town squares.

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Photo: Penguin Books

If this all seems rather grim, somehow it isn’t. Thubron has a lightness of touch and he always befriends extraordinary characters. Or, perhaps he muses at one point, maybe they are befriending an old man. He is patient in teasing out their story. There is Gleb, the Russian wide-boy fallen on hard times, who takes Thubron on a tour of his rusting ventures and then tries to recruit him to export fake Chinese antiques to London. Or Alexander his fisherman guide who is good Alexander in the wild and bad Alexander after a few drinks.

What is remarkable, though, is that this journey is being undertaken by a man of nearly 80. Thubron has often kept himself somewhat hidden in his books, though his character is revealed in his style and conversations. In a previous adventure, To a Mountain in Tibet, he revealed his grief at his mother’s death. And here, he shows glimpses of his bewilderment at ageing. Nearing the Chinese border, he is so tired that the languages of Russian and Mandarin merge in a kind of dementia, he says, until he is unsure what he is saying anymore. Later, in a bar to find a guide to take him on his final stages, he catches sight of himself in the mirror and sees himself as his Russian acquaintances might - a stubborn old pensioner from far away. “In a hotel mirror, I have seen with surprise an old man in his eightieth year, then forgotten him.”

It adds a hint of sadness that this could be Thubron’s last great journey. One hopes not. If it is, it is a remarkable odyssey.

 The Amur River; Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron is published by Penguin.

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