Hard times on the Black Dragon River

Thubron shows an unyielding willingness to listen to those he meets and attempt to understand their worlds

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The River Amur: Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron (Chatto & Windus, £20)

Stretching for an estimated 2,826 miles from its Mongolian source to the Pacific Ocean on Russia’s east coast — acting as the border between Russia and China for more than 1,000 miles — the Amur River is believed to be the tenth longest on the planet, or possibly the eighth. No-one is quite certain, owing to its many meanderings.

The River Amur: Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron (Chatto & Windus, £20)

Within a few miles from the source, however, having crossed a remote swampland on a 12-year-old stallion, the veteran travel writer Colin Thubron finds himself in a spot of bother. He has fallen during a “furious trot” fracturing two ribs and breaking an ankle. He is in his 80s and in serious pain, bedding down in a tent and wondering whether his insides are “punctured”. The experienced riders guiding him admit they have never covered this terrain before. It is, they say — as wolves howl beyond their campfire — the worst they have ever known.

Thubron is the author of ten previous travel books covering the globe from the Middle East to Tibet, the Silk Road and parts of Russia lying ahead described in Among the Russians (1983) and In Siberia (1999). Jan Morris, once said: “There is no travel writer working today in English who possesses such a remarkable combination of the observant and the lyric gifts.”

Indeed, he has ticked off tens of thousands of miles with notebook in hand. And he is, evidently, not one to let a few broken bones get in the way, especially after such a dramatic start to his adventure. So, he pushes on stoically to the Russian border, despite stabs of pain. He is on a mission, come what may, to explore this edgeland where two great powers meet and few venture.

From this compelling beginning, the stage is set for an epic journey told as a travelogue that touches upon much regional history, particularly Stalin’s devastating consequences for local populations, still felt today, and the longstanding tussle between Russia and China for territory. Along the way, there are pressing current matters such as grinding poverty and chronic alcoholism in some of the more isolated outposts that he passes. Hard liquor consumption is widespread and soon becomes a theme; Thubron regularly meets glazed-eyed river dwellers (and has shot glasses thrust his way).

Add to this, acute border tensions with the “old phantom of Yellow Peril” on one side and mistrust of “Hairy Ones”, the Russians, on the other. Throw in corrupt and overbearing police, with whom Thubron, being a Westerner passing through geopolitically sensitive territory, has many a run-in. Combine with disappearing ethnic cultural traditions, deep worries about river pollution, and increasing concerns about illegal logging and climate change-related flooding. It’s a heady mix.

Thubron’s style is to let the stories of those he meets speak for themselves, offering insight into Amur River life as he slowly progresses eastwards on buses, trains, boats and taxis. At the beginning in Mongolia, where the river is known as the Onon, memories of the Gulags and the 1930s Terror among the Buryat people within Russia remain fresh.

“We lost our inheritance,” says one Buryat civil servant Thubron encounters in Ulaanbaatar. The man’s grandparents had fled the Bolshevik Revolution to Mongolia, although his grandfather, betrayed by a “friend”, nevertheless ended up in a Gulag. He was only released on Stalin’s death in 1953.

Thubron’s style is to let the stories of those he meets speak for themselves, offering insight into Amur River life

Into Russia across dense forest populated by bears, Thubron shares rides with an Arsenal-supporting monk and a Muscovite businessman who, like so many characters on his travels, quickly open-up with life stories: love mishaps, business ups-and-downs. They part and soon afterwards Thubron strays unwittingly into the middle of a Russian-Chinese military exercise, only realising when he calls his wife who tells him that the manoeuvres are all over the news. This does not seem to faze him much, despite the sound of explosions.

His main concern is his injuries, which continue to dog him. “I sit balefully on my bed, planning how to stand up,” he writes. “But a foolish pride remains.” And he keeps going yet again, not long afterwards being arrested in Sretensk, detained and threatened with deportation. “Suddenly,” he writes, “it seems utopian to have conceived this journey at all. Of course it could not work.”

Yet by a stroke of luck, he is released and onwards he continues, recounting stories of how the Cossacks conceded territory to the Chinese in these parts in 1689 before Count Muraviev-Amursky reclaimed almost 400,000 square miles of land for Russia north of the Amur in 1858. At a stroke the Count became a national hero.

In China, the Amur is known as the Heilongjiang, or the Black Dragon River. Admirably, Thubron speaks both a little Russian and Mandarin — enough to get by. His crossing into China at Heihe begins a new phase of shiny skyscrapers and clean boulevards in contrast to shabbier Russian border settlements. A guide partial to sweet-and-sour pork dinners and smoking cigarettes (who refers to Thubron as “Mr Toobelong”) is hired. Despite the more modern look, however, economic times are clearly hard. “There’s no work and the young people are leaving,” laments his new companion. “Those who go away to university never come back.”

The days when Manchuria was an industrial powerhouse with a network of collective farms under Chairman Mao are of course over, although plenty of effluent from out-of-date factories remains. “When I thrust my hand into the current [of the river], it disappears beneath my wrist into water thick with silt and pollution,” says Thubron. The illegal trade of Siberian timber is rife in this region, too. It is said an area of forest the size of Belgium disappears every year.

When Thubron returns to Russia for the Amur’s final few hundred miles, there is a wonderful section in which he describes joining guides who turn out to be sturgeon poachers. Many a vodka-night ensues, including one in a remote riverside police tent with poachers and officers happily having a party.

There is a wonderful section in which he describes joining guides who turn out to be sturgeon poachers

Here, unsettling stories soon arise. It is around this part of the river that recent floods have destroyed villages, climate change clearly the cause. It is also here, at the drab city of Nikolaevsk (by the river’s mouth to the Pacific) that mid-nineteenth-century dreamers imagined great wealth accumulating from what they hoped would become Russia’s version of the Mississippi. Alas, the Amur was too silted for commercial shipping and by the time playwright Anton Chekhov arrived in 1890 the optimism that had witnessed speculators smoking Havana cigars was long gone.

Snipers suggest that an Old Etonian such as Thubron may not be the right person for such a travelogue, that cultural sensitivities may somehow be missed because of this privileged background. Yet in The Amur River, Thubron shows an unyielding willingness to listen to those he meets and attempt to understand their worlds. The result is a captivating tale, told with remarkable grit and resourcefulness, down by a very big, half-forgotten river.

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