The Amur River: Between Russia and China

By Colin Thubron

HarperCollins, 2021; 304 pages; $27.99

When a river runs through a good book, a current of expectations irresistibly carries readers along.  That is the case in works of fiction, from Huckleberry Finn to Finnegan’s Wake, and it is certainly true of this travelogue by octogenarian and gifted narrator Colin Thubron. His prose meanders down the nearly 1,800 miles of a wild Siberian river that few Westerners have visited, or even know by name. On this subarctic odyssey, each bend of the Amur brings new sights, new characters, and new revelations.   
    Thubron’s journey is borne on dark undercurrents that merge dramatically like the tributaries that feed the Amur. It begins at the river’s headwaters, the “Khenti Strictly Protected Area” in northeast Mongolia, a wilderness of bog and forest, where the author is injured in a fall from a horse. He has trekked and driven through Siberia as a younger man, but is he foolish to travel such harsh country at his advanced age? Continuing threats of arrest by provincial police shadow his progress, and everywhere he is dogged by dark ghosts of history—monuments to war dead, mass graves of gulag exiles, derelict housing blocks, and abandoned mines and factories from the red-starry-eyed era of Soviet industrialism.
    For over a thousand miles, the Amur marks the boundary between two nations, and it is there, crisscrossing the border, that Thubron sees the contrast between an empire in decline and one on the rise. A half mile of river separates Blagoveschensk, an aging Siberian city, from the new Chinese city of Heihe, whose modern skyline, “shining like a mirage or a torment,” epitomizes the current industrial imbalance between the two nations. Chinese goods dominate the markets on both shores, and though the Russian city is almost two centuries old, Heihe, only a village a few decades ago, is now the more populous, and growing.         
    Traveling by train, riverboat, bus, and hired car, conversing in Russian and Mandarin with rural and urban dwellers along the way, Thubron acts as father-confessor to river dwellers, hearing gripes about distant bureaucrats and distrusted neighbors. Other great rivers, such as the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Ganges, he notes, “flow like lifeblood through their nation’s heart. Only the Amur divides.” To the Chinese, the Amur is an outpost of development, bordered on the north by near-barbarians who stole the lands beyond from them. To the Russians, the Amur is, like the rivers of the American West, a connection to a rich frontier bounded by the Pacific. But there is no California today in the Russian Far East, and though the Amur was once “the stuff of dreams,” it remains a “promise forever delayed.”
    Near the end of its course, the Amur bears northward, through largely uninhabited wilderness once again, before entering the Pacific just south of the Okhotsk Sea. Thubron travels these last hundreds of miles by boat and Land Rover® with two locals, Alexander and Igor, who embody the weariness of what was to have been a golden land. They spend these closing days fishing and drinking, savoring the broadening span of river and the silence of virgin forest. Then, memories of his extraordinary voyage uniting in a final melancholic reverie, the author stands on a headland looking east toward the estuary “where the Amur pours out its dark fusion of waters to the ocean.”

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