In The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), Daniel Defoe gave the “Yamour” only a shrugging mention. Even now, it’s the least known (in the West) of all the great Eurasian rivers. Defoe said, quite wrongly, that there was no trade along it, and that “no Body, that ever I heard of,” had gone down to its mouth or upstream in ships. That was only half-true. Small boats have always made their way down this west–east waterway connecting Central Asia to the Pacific at the Sea of Okhotsk. The problem, even when the winter ice melts, is in the last reaches of the Amur, where ever-changing sandbanks and shallows make the estuary unreliable for big cargo vessels or warships. Fantasies of inexhaustible wealth or oceanic dominion arise, only to dissolve again in chilly mists. Colin Thubron, after spending the best part of two years traveling the Amur from source to sea, reaches the same conclusion:
The enormous silence of the river, its shrinking human populace and its virgin forest, give the illusion of return to some primeval Arcadia, of recoil from a stricken present. But to its inhabitants it means desolation. For almost four centuries the Amur has been the stuff of dreams, but also of promise forever delayed.
The Amur is 2,826 miles long, according to many people (there is a vagueness about the measurement). It seems to spill out of the marshlands of northern Mongolia, where water trickles from a swamp in a yard-wide, peat-tinted streamlet. This soon becomes the Onon, a small river sacred to the Mongolians. It flows across the “Khenti Strictly Protected Area” where Genghis Khan grew up—and where, in some still-undiscovered mountain tomb, he is said to be buried—reaches the Trans-Siberian Railway, and crosses the Russian frontier. There the river’s name changes to the Shilka, becoming officially the Amur only after joining its Argun tributary several hundred miles to the east. From that point onward the river—grown vast—marks the present Russian–Chinese border, passing below the two Siberian cities of Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk. After Khabarovsk, the Amur leaves the border and takes a slow, gigantic bow to the north through Russia, flowing through taiga forests and past frozen mountain ranges to reach the Pacific at Nikolaevsk, opposite the northern tip of Sakhalin Island.
Russian and Cossack explorers and traders had reached the Amur and even its mouth by the mid-seventeenth century. Sable furs and fabulous seams of gold and silver drew them on. The buccaneer Yerofei Khabarov led a gang that slaughtered and raped its way through the Siberian native villages along the river, setting up Russian settlements in their gory wake. But the whole of this region lay under its “nominal suzerain,” China, and the Manchu dynasty, descended from the indigenous Jurchen people around the Amur basin, finally intervened after decades in which, Thubron writes, “a flood of Russian peasants, Cossacks and criminals, beyond government control,” poured in.
The Chinese counteroffensive ended in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, then a stockaded river fort, where the ambassadors of Peter the Great and the emperor Kangxi met in competitive magnificence. Neither side spoke the other’s language, “so the negotiations were conducted in Latin by two Jesuits attached to the Chinese court, and by an erudite Pole for the Russians.” Nerchinsk was the first check to Russia’s imperial expansion. The Russians, far outnumbered, kept trading rights but were forced to recognize Chinese sovereignty over the entire Far East, both north and south of the Amur.
In the nineteenth century, the Chinese empire, weakening and penetrated by Western imperialists, lost control of the Amur and the immense territories north of it. The treaties of Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860) confirmed the restoration of Russian power and established the Amur as the new Russian–Chinese border. But they also opened a fresh, dazzling, and ultimately delusive vision of Russia’s destiny. For centuries, the tsarist empire had fought to expand west and south, into Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman domains. Now, as the new and apparently imaginative Tsar Alexander II took the throne, and as the Crimean War (1853–1856) left Russia almost friendless in Europe, the idea of a strategic turn took hold. Look east! A Eurasian destiny for Russia as a Far Eastern great power, a partner to the developing might of the United States just across the northern Pacific? The Amur as another Mississippi?
Settlers rushed in, accompanied by trudging hordes of criminal or political convicts, to populate the river settlements and forest labor camps. The governor, Count Nikolai Muraviev (Muraviev-Amursky, as he was styled), brought in entrepreneurs and oligarchs who founded freeholder villages, raised cities of European splendor, and made fortunes. There was a gold rush in 1883, although the vein was on the Chinese side of the river. (When the decrepit Beijing authorities woke up to it, they executed the Chinese miners as traitors.)
As Thubron makes plain, two things betrayed the promise of the Amur. One was Japan. Like the rest of the world, the Russians couldn’t at first take seriously the incredible Meiji leap from feudalism into aggressive industrial and naval modernity. But the Japanese fleet annihilated Russia’s warships at Tsushima in 1905, and in the 1930s Japanese armies invaded Manchuria and occupied much of Russia’s Far East region. The other impediment was physical. It was not just that winter temperatures fall below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit as the Amur freezes; Siberian cities like Irkutsk know how to survive and even prosper in that climate. It was the great river itself. At first, Nikolaevsk, the new ocean port built in the 1850s at the Amur’s mouth, unsteadily flourished. German and American firms opened offices;
a library of over four thousand books was assembled, with recent Paris and St. Petersburg newspapers…. The Nikolaevsk stores were selling Havana cigars, French pâté and cognac, port and fine Japanese and Chinese furniture.
Then it all deflated: “Far from being a riverine highway, the Amur was revealed as a labyrinth of shoals, shallows and dead ends, and for seven months of the year was sealed in ice or adrift with dangerous floes.” For hundreds of miles the Amur shores “were peopled only by a sprinkling of Cossacks, natives and subsistence farmers.” In other words, there was almost nobody to trade with. Instead, the ice-free port of Vladivostok, far to the south, became Russia’s Pacific base and the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, while Nikolaevsk withered. When Anton Chekhov arrived there in the 1890s, he found that “half its houses were ruined and gaping like skulls,” and the inhabitants were—in Thubron’s words—“surviving in drunken lethargy, semi-starved…preying on the natives and selling stag antlers as a Chinese aphrodisiac.”
The twentieth century poured human blood into the Amur. During the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), Chinese guns bombarded the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk; local Cossacks responded by herding the town’s five thousand Chinese civilians into the river at bayonet point until the Amur was a moving tide of corpses. As the Russian civil war ended, the Bolsheviks pursued their White enemies across the continent to a last doomed stand at Nikolaevsk. In 1945 the Japanese invaders of Manchuria, south of the Amur, were driven out and some 600,000 Japanese prisoners were sent to Soviet labor camps. Stalin, in his purges, “liquidated” 4,302 citizens of the Amur city of Khabarovsk and authorized the shooting of some 12,000 other men and women in the region (“killed in the years of Stalin’s anarchy” reads their memorial in a forest cemetery).
Russia and China came to the edge of nuclear war in 1969 as their soldiers fought over an island border in the Amur’s Ussuri tributary; mutual hate and fear broke through when China denounced the “unequal” Aigun and Peking treaties while Russia deplored the older Nerchinsk agreement, which had given Manchu China sovereignty over the entire Amur basin. That crisis was gradually smoothed over. But this year’s ostensibly hearty meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, on the eve of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, was misleading. During Thubron’s journey down the Russian and Chinese shores of the river, almost everybody he met still detested and despised the other nation, feared imminent war, and argued that the current “unjust” frontiers should be overthrown.
It was a journey he was lucky to complete. Thubron is today Britain’s most accomplished and admired travel writer. He is also brave. He was in his eightieth year when he met his escorts for the first lap: a thoughtful Buryat from Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, and two weather-beaten Mongol herders. They saddled up and set off, the horses stumbling in the treacherous marshland, and almost at once things went wrong. Thubron twisted his ankle and then, days later, lost his balance and fell heavily on his side. Next his horse bolted, unseating him and dragging him by one leg: providentially he was wearing a sodden old sneaker that flew off and released him. At seventy-nine, such injuries are no joke. He broke an ankle bone and two ribs and suffered sometimes agonizing pain for the rest of his journey. But after some hesitation, he decided not to turn back. This was the nadir of his expedition: “I knew I was weakening…. Sometimes I caught the horsemen looking at me and I thought I could read their minds: How long can he last?”
A week later they emerged from “the sopping underworld” into grassy steppe and human habitation. The horses and their riders set off home, and an off-road UAZ wagon drove Thubron up to the Russian border. The track crossed lands settled by Buryat Mongols fleeing the Russian Revolution. But Stalin and his dreadful Mongol henchman Choibalsan soon caught up with them, and Thubron describes the mass murder and the attempt to eradicate Buryat religion and identity that followed. And yet he is astonished to discover that it is not the Russians but the Chinese whom the Buryats hate, “with visceral loathing and distrust.”
Thubron’s next ride is an old Toyota driven by “a teacher of Buddhist physics” who keeps a prayer wheel on the dash. His fellow passengers are Slava, a trader from Moscow, and his friend, Dimitri, a Russian convert to monastic Buddhism. They find their road impeded by enormous Russian–Chinese joint military maneuvers—gunfire echoing from the mountains—and visit a monastery where the last surviving monk giggles unnervingly over his meal of “stale biscuits, jellied sweets and slivers of discoloured meat.” At Mogoytuy, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Thubron leaves Slava and Dimitri, who have found him a new driver, young Vladik, who “drives as if he’s angry with the world” and rushes him “across a sunlit country, where the grasslands are yellowing into autumn.” Vladik’s parting remark, as he dumps Thubron by the river here known as the Shilka, is: “I don’t think anywhere’s much good now, except maybe America…. But we all hate the Chinese!”
In moribund Nerchinsk, town of the treaty that Russians want to forget, Thubron visits the half-ruined palace of the millionaire Butin brothers, who endowed both the mansion and the town with every civilized magnificence before going bust. The ballroom still houses “four prodigious mirrors” bought by the Butins at the 1878 Paris Exposition and shipped halfway around the world: the biggest of them—twenty-five feet high—was “the world’s largest pier-glass in its day.” Later in the nineteenth century, George Kennan (cousin of the cold war diplomat’s grandfather) visited Nerchinsk while researching his book Siberia and the Exile System and found the town already squalid, with “the most disgusting hotel in his ample experience.”
At Sretensk, which used to be the port where land travelers coming from the west transferred to a fleet of river steamers, Thubron meets serious trouble. He is still in grim pain, hardly able to walk, and has been waiting for a boat for five days when the police pull him in. Who do you know here? Why are you here anyway? You have misused your visa. Arrest and expulsion threaten. But then, after many hours and telephone calls to the provincial capital, an inexplicable smile breaks out on the face of his “Medusa” lady interrogator, and he is released. A boat eventually arrives and carries him downstream.
This stretch was once mining country worked by convict labor, but “now the deserted shores and ghost villages, dotting the waterway to a forbidden China, exist at the wrong end of history.” From one of those ghost villages, another car takes him back to the rail line, and he boards a familiar, evocative Russian train:
Now the train settles to a hollow, rhythmic panting. Cantilever bridges carry us over the floods of new rain. In the September dusk the taiga drifts unchanging past our window at a slumbersome thirty miles per hour.
Here it’s worth digressing, using those three handsome, onomatopoeic sentences to appreciate Thubron’s subtle Englishness. It’s not just his mode of travel: no “first man to cross Antarctica on a tricycle” pizzazz but battered taxis, unheated buses, slow and crowded trains. It’s not only his usually self-effacing narrative, which somehow still conveys the depth of his knowledge and sensitivity (a very English skill). It’s the sentences themselves, put together with a poet’s feeling for sonic allusion. But repeat them aloud, and you will often feel the pulse of Latin verse as taught in England’s more exclusive schools: dactyl and then the memorable two-beat spondee: “new rain.”
He has been to the region before, but thirty years ago, and the changes on the Russian side of the river frontier are unhappy. Albazin, once a fortress overlooking the Chinese bank, is Russia’s Alamo; here a Cossack garrison held out against the Manchu armies three centuries ago, and here Thubron finds boastful Cossack ultranationalism still smoldering: “The Cossacks are coming back!” “We’ll be patrolling our borders again!” “Russia needs us!”
The reality is that Amurian Russia is wasting away. The two big Russian cities, Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk, had become thriving markets for Chinese products—clothing, shoes, manufactured goods—shipped or smuggled daily across the river by Russian porters, known as “camel” women. But the ruble collapsed in the 1990s, and the trade shriveled. Many surviving enterprises on the Russian shore are now owned or financed by the Chinese.
Thubron befriends Gleb, a shady but engaging businessman who shows him silent, rusting factories. He meets Svetlana, a patriotic schoolteacher furious that her class is giving him a lackluster view of their prospects: “Our Russian Far East is rich! Our people are returning here.” Why then, asks Thubron, does the census show that about a quarter of the region’s population has left in less than twenty-five years? Svetlana won’t have it: “Our Far East is repopulating. President Putin…” He writes: “Her voice shakes. Her certainties echo in my head from forty years ago: the blindness of national desire, the dawn that the Soviet Union promised, with fading light. I cannot meet the students’ eyes.” Everywhere Thubron was subjected to the same relentless snarling against China and the Chinese, “but it was Putin, soon after his inauguration as president in 2000, who warned that within a few decades, if nothing was done, the Russian inhabitants of the country’s Far East would be Asian-speaking.”
At this point in his journey, Thubron leaves Russia for a while, crossing the river to travel down the Chinese shore of the Amur (the Heilongjiang in Mandarin). He starts at Heihe, the city facing Blagoveshchensk: “Thirty years ago Heihe was a small village. Today its population has overtaken Blagoveshchensk’s 200,000,” and its wide, clean boulevards, its shopping streets where “the din of commerce rises to a furious cacophony,” contrast with the elderly “quietude” of the Russian city across the water.
Brushing up his fragmentary Mandarin, Thubron takes on the melancholy but likable Mr. Liang as guide. (“His talk fills with an outlandish Russian, while I reply in faulty Chinese.”) At Aigun, site of the unequal treaty that “usurped” (Thubron’s word) such immense Chinese territories, they find a son et lumière cyclorama that reenacts the Cossack massacre of Chinese civilians in 1900: “The scene turns dark, then a wan spotlight illumines lone atrocities. There are disembodied screams.” Nobody meets Thubron’s eyes as he leaves. The audience assume he is Russian. But a huge local family—friends of Liang’s—soon comfort him with food, roars of laughter, and fascinated questions about life in London.
Day after day, local buses carry them eastward down the Chinese shore. “The towns where we pass the nights have sprung up yesterday,” he writes, and all look the same. In Dawujiazi, an old man is persuaded to speak for Thubron in the vanishing Manchu language: “A whispering stream, full of short vowels and blurred gutturals.” Jiayin, site of fossil discoveries, is at least distinguished by dinosaur statues. At Suibin, the police pounce on him, as the Russians did: What purpose can a foreigner have in Suibin? Why is he traveling with only a rucksack?
Out on the river, gigantic barges stacked with Russian timber—much of it illegally traded—head for Chinese cities. And Mr. Liang, as he prepares to leave Thubron and head home, reveals more of himself: the wound left by watching his father publicly abused and shamed during the Cultural Revolution, or his loathing of the “Hairy Ones” (Russians) who “took our land,” or his pocket pedometer (“he has kept this secret until now”), which reassures him that he has taken nine thousand healthy steps so far that day.
At Fuyuan, in China’s northeastern corner, Thubron is befriended by a sweet-natured young married couple, bright with optimism about peace and respect for international law. They drive him to the viewing platform above the confluence of the Ussuri and the Amur. From there he takes a hydrofoil for Khabarovsk, crowded with Russian camel women bringing “their bundles of massed clothes and footwear…. Then, as our channel clears, the Amur’s immensity breaks in. Swollen by the great tributaries of China, it stretches over a mile across.” The water near the Russian bank, flowing from lands of industrial poverty, is relatively pure, while the Chinese side is dark with polluted mud:
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.
Here the book’s narrative itself divides, as an almost invisible seam crosses the page. Thubron goes to Britain for six months. He abandons freezing Khabarovsk and its ice-blocked river to their winter lockdown and returns in the spring. “By May, the last ice-floes have drifted downriver with unearthly groaning and cracking,” and Khabarovsk, which had struck him as old and melancholy when he emerged from China, is returning to vigorous life. “I eat in bars that fill with revelry by early evening”; at night he climbs to the high bluff where the war memorial carries more than 30,000 names: the dead from the Great Patriotic War, the battles in Angola, Armenia, Tajikistan, the Ussuri fighting, Afghanistan. “I wonder bleakly if these scrupulous slabs will one day confess to casualties in Ukraine.”
Here was the villa where Pu Yi, the timid last emperor of China, lived for five years as Stalin’s prisoner. And here is the huge stone tortoise made for a Jurchen prince nine centuries ago, smashed and then crudely repaired by the KGB at the height of the Sino–Soviet conflict, as part of Russia’s campaign to obliterate any trace of China’s presence in the Amur region. Thubron visits one of the disputed islands in the Ussuri, now partitioned: he finds the Russian side ruined and heaped with trash, the Chinese section converted to a busy, prosperous nature reserve.
Then he sets off on the last seven hundred miles to the sea, escorted by Alexander (“a powerfully built man in army fatigues, strapped with a hunting knife and sprouting a chestnut beard”) and his friend Igor, who drives a Land Cruiser. From here to the ocean, as Thubron discovers, they are crossing a basically lawless continent—far from the lights and restrictions of the Siberian cities—where caviar poachers, mafia smugglers, and illegal fishing crews live as cheerful neighbors with the river police. Only strangers from the west—“Putin’s men”—get arrested and beaten up. But these frontiersmen live alongside a chain of riverside villages sheltering the remains of the ancient indigenous hunter-gatherer population: Nanai, Ulchi, Nivkhi. They have escaped from their “inflicted identity” as “Homo Sovieticus,” but their culture and languages are growing as rare as the huge Amur tiger, “this superb creature…the most formidable on earth.”
There are many more vivid encounters—involving an Ulchi bear cult, a dying eight-foot sturgeon, a monstrous shaft plunging down to an unfinished undersea tunnel meant to connect Sakhalin to the mainland—before Thubron reaches the Amur’s terminus at Nikolaevsk. Here the American entrepreneur Perry Collins promised investors Amur trading fleets “richer and more powerful than those of Tarshish” and “a vast city, wherein shall congregate the merchant princes of the earth.” But nothing came of Nikolaevsk’s dream, and in 1920 a freelance Bolshevik commander burned the town to ashes, after killing four thousand inhabitants and all the Japanese women and children he could find. Today it’s a small, quiet town, living off salmon fishing and ship repairs.
In this irresistibly wise and well-written book, Thubron at moments examines himself as well as the people and places he meets. Fishing the river with him, his smuggler friend Igor gently steadies Thubron’s line: “I feel touched, but disconcerted…. Now I realize what Igor sees: a stubborn pensioner, frailer than him, trying to cast a line into a stagnant pool.” But this stubborn pensioner’s literary cast is still masterly, whether he is reflecting on “a lost Russian greatness which still throbs in the national psyche with something like homesickness” or on the tremendous places he is crossing.
In the last pages of his book, Thubron repeats his recessional for a slow, colossal human disappointment: “Long-disused cranes are dipped into nothing. The tarmac turns to earth underfoot.” But then he looks toward the river. “Beyond me, in sunlight still, the Amur mouth yawns three miles wide, running at five knots in waves of silvered mud. The solitude of its end reminds me of no river I have seen.”