Russian ice swimmers emerge from the Amur River / Screenshot EuroNews

The Amur River: Between Russia and China
By Colin Thubron. Chatto & Windus. 2021
. 304 pages

There are many travel books on the market today. Everywhere has become accessible; jumping onto a camel or into a canoe has never been easier. But, as with every form of writing, it is always the authorial hinterland, that palimpsest of experience and reflection behind the prose, that separates a classic account of travels from mere striving after originality.

Colin Thubron, now in his 80th year (and consequently looking somewhat older in the blurb photo than when his book Among the Russians was published in 1983) possesses something of this hinterland in his account of exploring the Amur River from its source in Mongolia, to its mouth close to the Okhotsk Sea.

This river, 2,826 miles long and sharing a 1,100 miles border between Russian and China, seems to be little known in the West. Indeed, when I once mentioned it to a much-travelled acquaintance who has been to many obscure places on the map, he looked baffled. Yet it is of great strategic and historic importance, separating as it does two large and powerful countries that are of global importance.

Thubron, facing this – possibly – final adventure of his travel writing career, remembers at the start of his journey, when he and his guides are travelling by horseback, “an old excitement at entering another country.”

This excitement is tempered by all the usual setbacks or obstacles to such a challenge: falling off a horse and fracturing two ribs; random police interrogations in places where Western travellers are always viewed with suspicion; having to wait longer for bus or boat connections, because this is the Russian Far East, where punctuality is not a primary concern. But despite all reverses Thubron, like the indomitable traveller he is, merely writes, “You wonder if you should return home, but know you will not.”

His long trek seems comprised of two halves: the first, early on while still in Mongolia, encompasses an “unpeopled solitude” where the campfire “is the sole human light, seen only by wolves or woken bears” and where he experiences that “cold wonder of travelling a land empty of the memory or scars of human history”.

The second half, hundreds of miles further east along the river, touches on the inevitable human suffering occasioned by Stalin’s murderous, arbitrary purges, such as Thubron’s allusion to “A century ago [when] the Buryat lands of the young Soviet Union held 47 monasteries with 15,000 lamas. But … Stalin’s terror saw the monks sent to death or the Gulag and their monasteries levelled.”

The author also often alludes to another pressing matter: the slow decline in population on the Russian side of the Amur, with its consequent decayed and abandoned villages and towns, making one think that Stalin’s fear (of a Chinese invasion) which “survives in the longest fortified frontier on earth: 1,100 miles of barbed wire and raked soil” will, sooner or later, give way to a new reality: an overwhelming de facto Chinese presence and influence.

It is already there, in trade and commerce, with Russian frustration and hostility voiced in a dislike of the Chinese merchants who “cannot be trusted. They are aggressive and sly. They work hard but they have closed hearts.”

Thubron points out that such tensions are inevitable: “The three Russian provinces along the Amur have a declining population of barely two million. The three Chinese provinces opposite hold almost 110 million.” The figures speak for themselves.

Everywhere he goes, moving from one side of the Amur to the other, Thubron notices Chinese energy, enterprise and its formidable work force, with their fields of maize and their towns that “have sprung up yesterday”, in contrast to the “straggling homesteads and vegetable patches of the Russian shore.” In Tongjiang, wandering around the Sino-Russian Culture Park, he notes: “The whole complex, built at a time of promised Russian-Chinese commerce, has shrunk to an empty embrace, an invitation to people who have left, or never came.”

We have glimpses of the author’s humane and sympathetic responses to the people he meets, in his relationships with his two main guides: early on, Batmonkh, half-African, half-Mongolian, raised by his grandfather who has recently died and who “voiced the old lament of the bereaved: “I never told him how much I loved him”; and later on Liang, his Chinese guide, with whom he communicates in a mixture of elementary Mandarin and basic Russian, who is a “little down at heel” like the author, and with whom, when they finally part, Thubron feels “a lurch of sadness and wonder at this affection across the borders of space and years and broken language.”

Liang, like Batmonkh, carries his own emotional wounds, unable to erase from his childhood memory the spectacle of his father’s disgrace during the deliberately provoked Red Guard insanity of Chairman’s Mao’s rule, when he had watched him sitting in a dunce’s hat, taunted and insulted for hours.

At Khabarovsk – “old and touched with melancholy” where, as with every Siberian region, there is the bitter shadow of past deportations, death and exile, the author has an improbable encounter with a tiny evangelical fellowship, The House of Life. Its members ask him if they can pray for him and he writes, “I feel a confused warmth for them, and a sadness I cannot explain.” Perhaps this sadness arises because Thubron, generally at ease in odd or exotic situations, recognises something profound but for which he has no words, because it is beyond his scope and comprehension.

The conclusion to his journey, arriving at the mouth of the River Amur, the town of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, brings its own ironic commentary on the folly of human enterprises, for “almost no-one is to be seen. In half a century the population has halved”. Once designed to become the most significant port in the Russian Far East, it had quickly become apparent that it was a “labyrinth of shoals, shallows and dead ends and for seven months of the year was sealed in ice.”

The author, in his carefully woven narrative, made up of historical background, citation of classic texts of earlier travellers such as Chekhov, human encounters, personal admission and droll events, has written a memorable work for all those armchair travellers like myself, who can only visit his haunting, evocative locations in their imaginations.