An elegant history of the forgotten river between China and Russia

This is a beautiful piece of writing about an author unknown to me altho Jan Morris (to whom he’s compared) is a favorite.

‘The Amur River’ Review: Where Empires Divide and Rivalries Begin

An enchanting waterway separates China and Russia. Its history is filled with dread.

A view of the Chinese shore of the Amur, ca. 2018.PHOTO: COLIN THUBRON

By Tunku Varadarajan

Oct. 1, 2021 5:32 pm ETSAVEPRINTTEXT

Improbably, perhaps, for a man of his sumptuous literary gifts, Colin Thubron is one hardy hombre. The most eloquent travel writer in Britain—there can be no argument after the death last year of Jan Morris—he set out at the age of nearly 80 to traverse a river 2,826 miles long.

The Amur River: Between Russia and China By Colin Thubron

The result is “The Amur River,” whose subject, the world’s 10th longest river, forms the border between Russia and China—“a fault-line,” Mr. Thubron writes, “shrouded in old mistrust.” With ruminative gracefulness, he describes his eastward journey from the Amur’s “sacred” source in Mongolia to the near-dead port of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur on Russia’s Eastern Coast. It is here that the river decants into the Sea of Okhotsk with a “sense of thwarted purpose”—as if “all human life dwindled away at its colossal estuary.”

Mr. Thubron traveled for the most part in great pain, having broken an ankle and fractured two ribs within days of starting his journey in Mongolia. His horse had lost its footing in swampland and “tilted sideways in that rotting earth,” pinning Mr. Thubron under its body. One foot still in the stirrups, the doughty Englishman was saved by a loose-fitting shoe from being dragged to death. It came off his foot as the horse began to bolt. “I lay in the marsh,” he writes, “oddly at peace.”

His tranquility was based, in part, on a misconception: He didn’t realize that his ankle was broken and ribs cracked until months later, having assumed that they were merely bruised. His physical pain also found a psychic salve in the Amur, whose rugged beauty enchants him even as its history fills him with dread.

No detail escapes Mr. Thubron, whether botanical, atmospheric or homicidal. “To walk here,” he writes of a Mongolian hillside, “is to wade through a tide of wildflowers: multicolored asters, gentians, butter-coloured potentilla, peacock-blue columbines.” In an eastern Russian town, his lodging is “a gaunt room, asthmatic with dust.” But his explorer’s eye fastens just as swiftly on the ugliness of the Amur’s human past.

He laments, for instance, the fate of the Buryat Mongols, whose history is “dark with flight and persecution.” An ethnic sub-group, they fought alongside the White Russians against the Reds in 1917. Stalin exacted his revenge by banishing thousands to gulags in the eastern reaches of the Amur. Many Buryats hid their genealogies, “erasing their own past in a severance that is even now unhealed.”

Mr. Thubron is unsparing in his account of a massacre in the Russian town of Blagoveshchensk in 1900. Maverick insurgents of the Boxer Rebellion had shelled the Russian shore from across the Amur, and the townsfolk panicked. Overnight, writes Mr. Thubron, their fear transformed the town’s Chinese residents, “trusted and peaceful until now,” into an “imminent peril.” Cossacks marched 5,000 Chinese men, women and children into the Amur River: Most couldn’t swim and were axed, shot and bayoneted to death. In Blagoveshchensk, notes Mr. Thubron, “all knowledge of this slaughter has thinned into oblivion.” The local museum makes no note of it.

The Amur was Chinese for many years. By the Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689—the first treaty that China concluded with a European power—“the parvenu Russian and the ancient Chinese” empires agreed that the river would belong to China. So, too, would all land north of the Amur up to the Stanovoy Mountains many hundreds of miles away.

Russia would reverse this humiliation in 1858, when it recovered all the lands ceded to China nearly two centuries before by a treaty that the Chinese still regard as “unequal.” In his travels, Mr. Thubron constantly notes the hatred that many Russians have for the Chinese. Some of it is the product of xenophobia, but its root lies in this history of competition for land. Intermarriage, Mr. Thubron tells us, is rare, “although some Russian women declare a preference for Chinese men, more diligent and sober than their own.”

The Chinese now dominate commerce in Russia’s Amur-bank towns, adding to local concern for the future. The Russian provinces along the Amur are home to barely two million. The Chinese provinces opposite hold 110 million. “The old phantom of a Yellow Peril,” writes Mr. Thubron, “has returned.”

While more at home in the company of Russians, whose language he speaks, Mr. Thubron is elegantly neutral on these demographic questions. Where he does show a bias—bordering on rapture—is in his love for the river. As he basks in the vast emptiness of the lands that are its cradle, you can’t help thinking that the world of the Amur is the perfect country for old men.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at NYU Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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