Thubron’s latest âThe Amur River: Between Russia and Chinaâ is therefore not entirely new territory for him. Although the Amur, known in Chinese as Heilongjiang, is longer than the Indus and just as politically momentous as the Rio Grande, it remains largely unknown in the West. It begins about 500 miles east of Russia’s Baikal Lake and almost that far from any significant human settlement, and flows into the Pacific just beyond the gloomy Russian port city of Nikolaevsk, Thubron’s terminus. Since it forms the border between Russia and China for more than 1,000 miles, much of its length is closed to even travelers like Thubron. Perhaps to compensate for this, he begins his journey at the source of the source: the wetlands of northern Mongolia, where another river, the Onon, rises in a trickle that, when it flows into Russia, leads to the Shilka and finally to the Amur. will .
Even where it is not a highly militarized border zone, this is a forbidden country. In Mongolia, Thubron crosses the strictly protected Khenti area, a huge reserve of mountains, swamps and steppes that includes the birthplace and legendary burial site of Genghis Khan. There are no roads so he travels on horseback with local guides and breaks an ankle and two ribs for the exertion. In Russia, the climate is gloomy and the isolation is deep. Even sparse populations are rapidly disappearing. Only on the Chinese side, where Thubron spends relatively little time, is there a lot of infrastructure or social vitality. Cities sprout there almost overnight, forests give way to factories and farms.
Thubron hires guides, hitchhikes, gets on a train if need be, and chats with whoever he can. It turns out that the Russians fear and resent the Chinese. The Chinese feel the same way about the Russians, albeit with less fear than contempt. Their story together is not a nice one. In 1689, after Manchu armies uprooted Cossacks from fortresses they had built across the region, the Tsar ceded the Amur Basin and much of Siberia to Beijing. In the mid-19th century, China was constrained by predatory European powers, including, and particularly, Great Britain. In 1858 Russia recaptured all the countries north of the Amur. It was hardly worth it. The Amur, difficult to navigate even when not frozen, made a poor highway to the Pacific. The cities that Thubron visits on the Russian side are sullen, alcoholic, almost deserted. On the Chinese side, ânew cities shine with the futureâ. The pace of change there is so rapid that the past is as good as lost.