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Published on: 08/23/23 5:38 AM

Book review: The Amur River by Colin Thubron

The Amur River by Colin Thubron.  Penguin Random House Books.


Yet another wonderful travelogue by veteran travel writer Colin Thubron, the wow factor in this work is two-pronged. One of course, is his travel trajectory,  the long and winding River Amur that flows between China and Russia. The other is the jaw-dropping fact that he attempted this project in his 79th year, had a bad fall from his horse, sprained an ankle  and broke several ribs,  but still continued with the journey.

The Amur runs 2,826 miles from southeast Siberia to China and eventually empties into the Pacific. For many of those miles it acts as a watery border between the two countries and Thubron shows us that history has created a hostile wedge between them that lasts in some form or the other to this day. There have been some Treaties that treated the Amur as the border and gave the Russians a huge chunk of Manchuria. Today though the isolated,  hardscrabble life of the Russians who live on the Amu`s banks stand in  in sharp contrast to new Chinese cities springing up on the banks of the river.

For seven months of the year the river which starts off as the Onon in Mongolia, turns to ice. The Chinese call it Black Dragon and the word `amur` survives from the speech of the indigenous people who inhabited the river banks on the Russian side. Chinese tributaries greatly swell the river  and their industrial resurgence on these banks have `defiled ` it according to the Russians. Russia`s artery to the pacific turned out to be a tough waterbody to navigate, with no one to trade with on its banks, and nothing to trade either.

A marvellous journey

Along with Thubron,  we set off on this marvellous but arduous journey, looking at the mysterious deerstones (figures of standing men carved with flying deer, and the steppeland villages which seem the lightest presence in an ancient land; we read of Genghis and Kublai Khan`s great and grand land of Mongolia before China occupied it; we peer into the ruins of churches built by the `Peking Albazinians; ` watch bemused as a group of Chinese gather for a photo under an old Cyrillic inscription that ironically reads: The Amur was, is, and will always be Russian; we flinch at the savage violence wreaked on the  riverbank town of Verkhne-Blagoveschenskoe,  of which no memorial remains; we meet the Jurchen tribes with their Manchu origins; we learn of the last days of the last emperor Pu Yi and how he was kept a prisoner of the Russians in a remote hamlet near the Amur for five years; ; we hear of the beautiful, near-extinct Amur leopard of which there are perhaps 450 now; we examine the petroglyphs believed to be of Neolithic antiquity near a village populated by the half- Russian half- indigenous Nanai who treat the Amur as a spirit deity village; wonder with the author if he will come upon one of the savage Eurasian brown bears; meet the Ulchi tribals who speak to the river which listens; marvel at the lost glory of the M, and pass the tasselled poles thrust into the Amur to petition the water spirits.

The geopolitics of the location tends to overpower the travel-writing in this book that traces the rise and fall of a great river, from starting out as a river of hope to ending up a river of desolation. You get a sense of a great swathe of water that coils , loops back, straightens out and flows powerfully dividing two great countries, setting them at odds with each other.

There are memorable  portraits of the people Thubron travels with and those he meets, like a monk in the Dashi Choypelling monastery who studied Buddhist philosophy for four years in Karnataka but never finished because `India is so hot…`; the dashing Amur Cossacks; Gleb, who has put his business confidence in the Chinese even though he distrusts and dislikes them;  Liang, who hates the Russians and calls them the Hairy Ones; Alexander, who has a `weird` side and an `okay` side to him; Medusa,  the Russian policewoman who gives Thubron a hard time in Stretensk.

And yes, Thubron  answers a question most readers would have when they realise he`s tracking the Amur in Siberia: what appearance does the land of the gulags take today? The author says it is dreary, bloody cold, isolated, neglected by the government in Moscow…a decaying place that means nothing to younger Russians.

As record-keeper of geopolitical change across the world, few writers can beat Thubron. With The Amur River, he pulls off another triumph.

Related Links:

Book review: Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron

Book review: Journey into Cyprus by Colin Thubron


Colin Thubrongeopolitcal travel writeron the Russia-China borderPenguin Random House BooksThe Amur Rivertravelogue

Sheila Kumar • August 23, 2023

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