Thubron’s latest, “The Amur River: Between Russia and China,” is therefore not entirely new territory for him. Although the Amur, called Heilongjiang in Chinese, is taller than the Indus and politically as consequential as the Rio Grande, it is largely unknown in the West. About 500 miles east of Russia’s Lake Baikal and almost so far away from any significant human settlement, it flows into the Pacific just past the Russian port city of Nikolaevsk, the last stop of Thubron. Because it forms the border between Russia and China for over 1,000 miles, most of its length is off limits even for travelers determined as Thubron. Perhaps for this, he begins his journey at the source: the marshlands of northern Mongolia where another river, the Onon, originates in a trickle, when it crosses into Russia, becoming the Shilka and eventually the Amur. Is .
Even where it is not a highly militarized border area, it is still a prohibited country. In Mongolia, Thubron passes through the Khanty Strictly Protected Area, a vast reserve of mountains, marshes and steppe that includes the birthplace of Genghis Khan and the legendary burial site. There are no roads, so he travels on horseback with local guides, and breaks an ankle and two ribs for his attempt. In Russia, the climate is foggy, the isolation is deep. The already sparse population is rapidly declining. Only on the Chinese side, where Thubron spends relatively little time, is there much infrastructure or social vitality. There, cities are growing almost overnight, forests giving way to factories and farms.
Thubron hires guides, rides, hops on a train when he has to, and chats with whomever he can. The Russians, it turns out, are afraid and annoyed by the Chinese. The Chinese feel much the same way about Russians, though perhaps with less fear of contempt. Their shared history isn’t pretty. In 1689, after Manchu armies overthrew the Cossacks from forts established throughout the region, the Czar ceded the Amur Basin and much of Siberia to Beijing. By the middle of the 19th century, China was fondled by greedy European powers, and in particular by Britain. In 1858, Russia took back all the land north of the Amur. It was hardly worth it. The Amur, difficult to navigate even when not frozen, formed a poor highway to the Pacific. The cities Thubron visits on the Russian side are dour, drunken, almost abandoned. On the Chinese side, the new cities “shine with the future.” There, the pace of change is so fierce, the past is all lost.