In 1689 envoys from Russia and China met in meadows by the River Amur to make peace. These empires had clashed at this distant frontier for decades but were still profoundly alien to one another. The emissaries of imperial Russia were clad in furs and silks and accompanied by 2,000 men. Those from Peking arrived with an entourage of 10,000 and a fleet of junks loaded with cannon. Their aim was to end Russia’s expansion, headed by anarchic frontiersmen whom they thought of as hirsute cannibal demons.
They shared no language, so the negotiations, which opened after a ceremonial frisking for weapons, were conducted in Latin by two Jesuits and a Pole. The upshot was that Moscow was pushed back and its advances held in check for another 150 years before Russians began sailing down the river once again with a convoy of military craft and a mission to establish settlements.
The saga highlights the epic life of the Amur, still little known to Westerners. Running 2,826 miles from its source in Mongolia to the Pacific, it is the world’s ninth longest river, with more than a third of its length forming the heavily guarded Chinese-Russian border. To some degree the mutual mistrust that prevailed between the two sides at the 17th-century Treaty of Nerchinsk persists today. Except it is the growth of China that now disquiets.
This historical tension is the main current explored by Colin Thubron in his journey along the Amur. The task he sets himself is a tough one. Travelers are few along much of the river’s course; police are suspicious of outsiders; long stretches of the river, which has few crossing points, are off-limits.
Perhaps there is no man better for the job. Thubron, lauded by his peers as the best living travel writer, has written, in his five decades as an author, a handful of acclaimed books on China and Russia. They include Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China (1987) and Among the Russians (1983). Nevertheless, although an admirer of his works, I embarked on this one harboring the dabbler’s secret fear of being awed but not entertained.
My concern was unfounded. Thubron has produced a fascinating read packed with curiosities and incident, and, traveling in his 80th year, sheds a little of his customary emotional reticence, offering glimpses of the rare bird that is himself.
Travelers are few along much of the river’s course; police are suspicious of outsiders; long stretches of the river, which has few crossing points, are off-limits.
Starting off in search of the Amur’s source in Mongolia on a horse that trots at a “jarring bustle”, he soon encounters seemingly impassable peat bogs and forest. It quickly becomes evident that he is in fine literary nick. Evoking the landscape, where charred trees resemble “blackened gibbets” and the progress of his party, which produces the “scent of flowers crushed under hoofs” and is plagued by its bolting packhorses, he conjures up the “old excitement” of a new journey.
In his previous travel book, To a Mountain in Tibet (2011), Thubron makes no mention of his age. But in his description of his Amur travels it becomes a poignant theme that crashes onto the page early on when after lying down in the grass after a hard ride he faints when trying to stand up, collapsing and injuring his ankle.
Soon his horse throws him off mid-stream and after luckily escaping — his cheap trainers allow him to extract his feet from the stirrups — he falls yet again. Months later he discovers that he has broken a fibula near the ankle and cracked two ribs. But he braves on, despite noting when first sighting the young Amur that “in this river’s infancy I suddenly feel old”. He imagines a “foolish tenderness for it, as if for a child who does not know what will happen”.
Thubron’s age, which bemuses him, turns out to be a gateway to intimacy with the companions he has a knack of finding. They include a Buddhist monk, whose life’s work is regathering sacred texts cast to the winds during the Soviet era, and a bipolar Siberian backwoodsman, who both succumb to his courteous probing.
In the course of “the river’s long unravelling”, he unearths its long forgotten history, such as the fate of Cossack deserters, who became the core of a unit in Peking’s imperial guard and were given female criminals to marry. They had a Russian priest and consecrated their own church, once a Lamaist temple, which they furnished with salvaged icons. With time and intermarriage, they lost their Russian looks and language.
Thubron finds photographs of their descendants who had recently visited the scene in Russia where their ancestors deserted to satisfy a “yearning for some long-past belonging”.
Other uncovered treasure includes Chekhov’s description of his encounters with a Japanese prostitute. Speaking little Russian, she touched and pointed to things instead, while all the time laughing and making little tsu noises. “She is amazingly skilled at her job,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “so that you feel that you are not having intercourse, but taking part in a top-level equitation class.”
As the narrative chugs along, up bob frontier cities little heard of, such as the fadedly grand Blagoveshchensk. It was there in 1900, after a bombardment from China, that a force of Cossacks and newly raised recruits marched some 5,000 of the city’s Chinese population, men, women and children, to the Amur. They axed and shot those who faltered, finally launching a fixed bayonet charge to force the remainder to plunge into the Amur, causing all but 100 to drown.
Unlike the booming Chinese city of Heihe, whose bright lights are visible on the opposite shore, stagnating Blagoveshchensk is where Thubron homes in on increasing Russian resentment of Chinese traders and wealth. Their success has spawned xenophobia and paranoia about China’s influence in the region.
He follows this line of thought, crossing into China and back, in his assiduously thorough way. In one of several scrapes with police on the border, this time in Russia, an officer seems baffled by “the enigma of an old man who perhaps is only pretending to limp and speak poor Russian, but who is not equipped for spying — no hidden camera, no parabolic microphone (they have surely searched my room by now) — and who is travelling like a gypsy”.
Bearding everyone he meets, from fishermen to a soi-disant shaman, about their beliefs and dreams, he traces the river until reaching its mouth at the Sea of Okhotsk. “The solitude of its end,” he writes, “reminds me of no river I have seen.”
Isambard Wilkinson is the Spain correspondent for The Times of London