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Travel Books - The Amur River

In his eightieth year, Colin Thubron decides to travel the length of the Amur River, from its source in the swampy uplands of Mongolia to its mouth in the Pacific Ocean. It’s a river that no one knows much about. Even its name is unstable. In Mongolia, the river is called the Onan (“Holy Mother”), in Russia, the Shilka (“Little Father”), in China, the Heilongjiang (“Black Dragon”), and finally, the Amur (an indigenous word meaning “Big River” or possibly “Kind Peace”). Even its length is up for debate. Some sources claim it is the tenth longest river in the world, others, the eighth. Its obscurity lies in the fact that it has always been a disputed border between China and Russia, so visitors are not encouraged. Thubron has written tangentially about the region before: he wrote about Russia in Among the Russians and In Siberia, and about China in Behind the Wall and Shadow of the Silk Road, but never about the Amur River corridor. It’s a grueling journey, especially at the age of 80, and he must brush up on his Russian and Mandarin, but the result is a very readable and sympathetic account, and as a reader, I’m very glad he took up the challenge.

He begins on horseback in the Khenti Mountains of Mongolia, in a restricted area close to the Russian border, the birthplace of Ghengis Khan. Rangers, who peruse his permits, warn him that the country ahead is dangerous, almost impassible, but stamp the documents and grudgingly allow him to proceed. “We should have listened to them, of course,” remarks Thubron sardonically. With a small, mounted party, he pushes through dense forest, clouds of mosquitoes and swamp to find the source of the Amur. Thubron is thrown from his horse and dragged with one foot caught in the stirrup. He also stumbles and has a bad fall in rustic hot spring. Later, he learns that he has a broken bone in his ankle and two broken ribs. Nevertheless, he decides to carry on, but his troubles are far from over. Leaving Mongolia behind, he crosses over to Russia and is arrested in the river town of Sretensk while waiting for a boat that seems interminably delayed. Released for reasons that are as mysterious as those for his arrest, he sent on his way with the admonition, “Of course you may write about Sretensk, our history, our scenery. Everyone is honoured that somebody has come to our little town all the way from London.”

And so Thubron carries on by car, train and riverboat, travelling with monks, traders, and poachers, while crossing borders and observing the contrasts between Russia in decline and China in the ascendent, and noting an animosity between the two nations which goes back at least until 1686 when a Chinese army crossed the Amur and defeated the Cossack defenders at Albazin. The Russians were forced to sign the Treaty of Nerchinsk, ceding much of Siberia north of the river to China. Then in 1854, with the Chinese empire in decline, Nikolai Muraviev, the governor-general of East Siberia descended the Amur to reclaim the lost territory, forcing the weakened Chinese to sign the Treaty of Aigun returning the lost lands, something that still sticks in the craw of the Chinese. The real losers though were the indigenous peoples of Siberia, whose way of life was disrupted by both Chinese and Russian occupation. Muraviev had a vision of Siberia as the key to the future prosperity of Mother Russia, with the Amur serving as the great artery of trade to markets in the Pacific, a vision that never was realized. The Amur, with its numerous channels and shifting sandbanks proved difficult to navigate and it remained frozen for half the year. Eventually the Trans-Siberian Railway was pushed through to Vladivostok, and the river ports of the Amur went into terminal decline. Now the Russians watch in bitterness as barges and barges full of Siberian timber are conveyed to the Chinese cities flourishing south of the river.

Thubron also notes the environmental crisis on the Amur, the corruption that allows for unregulated resource extraction, the pollution from Chinese factories and the poaching that threatens the extinction of both the salmon and sturgeon for which the Amur is noted. It is a fascinating journey, if not exactly uplifting, but Thubron manages to paint a balanced and sympathetic portrait of those who live along the banks of the Amur. Read The Amur River, you won't be disappointed, and if you won’t take my endorsement, take that of the judges for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards who voted it the 2021 Travel Book of the Year this past March.


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