There are, in a very general sense, two kinds of travel memoir. In the first, writers take you on a journey somewhere they know very well. They share with you their deep understanding of the place—its people, its history and its geography. The authors’ physical journey is for the most part a literary scaffold upon which they hang their knowledge and expertise. In the second kind of travel memoir, the author is a direct proxy for the reader: as clueless and naïve as you—though perhaps a little braver—embarking together on the journey from the same starting point. You see new experiences and sights through the author’s eyes, and slowly develop the ability to interpret and understand these new surroundings.
The Amur River by Colin Thubron is an interesting mix of these two. The book records Thubron’s travels east to west following the course of the Amur River that for centuries marked the border between northern China and Russian Siberia. Thubron has a strong familiarity with Russia and its people. He speaks conversational Russian and appreciates the changing fortunes of the country and its people, having returned to the country often over several decades. However, although he has spent some time in China in the past, for him China is still a foreign place. Thubron’s interactions with China and its people share the same quizzical attitude to the country as those of the Russians he encounters.
Travel books which rely too heavily on one conceit (the “Bombay to Beijing on a bicycle” model) often lack depth, but Thubron’s decision to follow the trail of the Amur is no mere gimmick. The book is more the story of the river and its people, with the author’s travels woven into the story, rather than a justification for the writer’s travels. The fact that the Amur has long served as a boundary between Russia and China provides a unique lens through which to explore their relationship. As Thubron notes early in the book,
The Nile, the Yangtse, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Indus … flow like lifeblood through their nation’s heart. Only the Amur divides.
Most of the book is dedicated to Thubron’s travels through the Russia side of the Amur River, with small segments dedicated to his initial journey on horseback to the river’s source in Mongolia, with what he later discovers to be a fractured rib and ankle, and a short trip south of the river to Northeast China. And yet, while comprising only a sliver of his journey, the spectre of China looms large over the entire book—as it has over this region of Russia for centuries.
The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk which set the Amur River as the border between Imperial Russia and China’s Qing Dynasty was the first of its kind between the two nations. In fact, so unfamiliar with each other were the two parties that negotiations were conducted in Latin between two Jesuits attached to the Chinese court and a Pole for the Russians. Subsequent treaties and conventions in the 19th century took advantage of the weakened position of the Qing, pushing Russian territorial boundaries south of the eastern stretches of the Amur from what is now Khabarovsk to the sea. Ever since, the river and its surrounding area have been a touchpoint for nationalists on both sides.
For the Russians, China’s booming economy and swelling population are a source of great fear. While to the north of the river the Russian population ebbs away and its cities and towns slowly die, China grows and expands. Ironically, in the late 19th Century it was the Russian side of the Amur which was ascendant, with new military forts and commercial settlements springing up constantly. The Chinese side meanwhile was until the dying decades of the Qing Dynasty largely undeveloped wilderness populated by poor minority peoples. The situation has now reversed, a reflection of larger shifts in Russian and Chinese fortunes. Border trade between the nations increased in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, but most of the opportunities presented by the moment have now faded. What border trade is done is mainly by the Chinese, a fact that meets with almost universal resentment. Thubron notes too that the three Chinese provinces that line the Amur’s southern banks are now home to 110 million people, dwarfing the mere two million on the three Russian provinces on the northern side. The threat of invasion—whether it by economic, immigration or military means—is a frequently voiced concern by the Russians Thubron meets, despairing that “Moscow is far away, and has abandoned them.”
This melancholic atmosphere permeates the entire book, which is dominated by themes of loss and decay—both physical and cultural. Russia’s Far East, where most of the author’s travels take place, was in the late 19th century envisaged as the world’s next great commercial thoroughfare, with Amur acting as the entry-point for goods and commerce. This early hope led to the opening up of numerous trading posts and some degree of commercial success for budding industrialists looking to open the region to economic exploitation. They in turn funded the building of the libraries, ballrooms and civic institutions that they saw as the next necessary step in turning this remote backwater into an outpost of western civilisation.
However, in just a few decades the expansion of the Trans-Siberan railway eastward opened the area up to poorer migrants and use by the government as a site for prisons and military barracks. The expected economic boom never arrived, leaving the ballrooms empty and the libraries to slowly rot. The contemporary account of the region provided by Thubron is a depressing one. Decrepit statues of Lenin look down over crumbling towns with dwindling populations.
However, just as disheartening as the physical decline of the locations visited in the book is the sense of cultural and spiritual loss experienced by the region’s inhabitants. As is often the case with borderlands, the banks of the Amur River are home to a diverse range of peoples—the Buryats of Mongolia, Russian Cossacks, Nanai and Ulchi, Han and Manchurian Chinese. For them, the diminishing relevance of the region has mirrored their own loss of cultural identity. As one local Buryat man in Mongolia explains his people’s attempt to maintain their culture under Soviet rule,
They kept secret images and remembered prayers. But when freedom came they found their children couldn’t understand their funny chanting and weird prostrations.
In contrast to the downbeat mood of the book’s Russian and Mongolian segments, the Thubron’s brief detour across the southern banks of the Amur to China provides the book’s emotional high-water mark. Youthful, lively and glittering, the Chinese border city of Heihe gleams like the Emerald City of Oz set against the creaky, mildewed decay of the Russian settlements that line the Amur. Although Thubron hints that all may not be as it seems once you scratch the surface, his depiction of Chinese optimism and ambition are arresting. I would have liked to hear more about the Chinese side of the Amur River, but Thubron’s travels were limited by the facts of geography so perhaps we have only the 1858 Treaty of Aigun to blame for that.
While Thubron’s own differing levels of familiarity with Russia and China shape the book, Thubron himself is largely absent as a personality. We hear of his physical aches and pains, and his wife appears intermittently as a distant, almost ghost-like, character on the faraway end of the telephone line. However, his internal life is closed off to the reader. Instead, we see Thubron primarily through his relationships with others. Frequently these relationships are with the men of the region—translators, guides and travel companions. With them Thubron forges temporary friendships out of shared hardship, alcohol and mutual disappointment. His depiction of the gentleness of male friendship in the hyper-masculine rough environments of Siberia is subtle and touching.
Ultimately, The Amur River is a book clouded by nostalgia and memory—both Thubron’s and those of the Russian people, which he describes as longing for,
a lost Russian greatness which still throbs in the national psyche with something like homesickness.
The present, by contrast, offers little to inspire or entertain. Thubron’s own journey contains few dramatic sights, hair-raising escapades or cultural spectacle: just dampness, decay and disappointment. As a result, those looking for armchair adventure may come away from The Amur River underwhelmed. The journey he relates is monotonous and largely uneventful. And yet, for those willing to endure the uncomfortable journey there remains an artful and nuanced depiction of Siberia and the diverse peoples who remain proud to call the region their home.