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Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler

Bill Bryson has shown that you don’t have to walk much of the Appalachian Trail to write a pretty good book about it. Dominic Ziegler has performed the same feat with the Amur River (the Heilong Jiang to the Chinese).

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler
Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires, Dominic Ziegler (Penguin, November 2015)

Ziegler set out to follow the river from its source to its mouth, but politics got in the way. For much of its length the Amur today forms the border between Russia and China, and both banks are mined and trip-wired. Any foreigner attempting to follow the river will probably find himself taking the Trans-Siberian Railway most of the way, as Ziegler did.

So Black Dragon River can’t really be described as narrating a journey down the Amur as its subtitle claims. Travel narrative in the style of Dervla Murphy or Rob Lilwall appears only briefly in occasional chapters.

Instead, as Jeremy Seal did in his book on the Meander, the river serves as a theme tying together a series of historical essays. Ziegler starts at the headwaters and proceeds steadily downstream. He treats Genghis Khan and the battles of the 13th century around the headwaters, then moves through history until, as he nears the mouth, he is discussing life in the Russian Far East today.

 

Ziegler was formerly The Economist’s Banyan columnist, so his essays are erudite, well-informed and a pleasure to read. Many are not, however, very closely related to the Amur or even to the Far East. We learn a lot about the Buryats and the Jurchen, but also about the sack of Kiev by the Tartars, 19th-century Russian politics, Russians in Hawaii, and a great deal about fish, cranes and other wildlife.

China’s Jin, Yuan and Qing dynasties were based in Manchuria and Mongolia, and Ziegler explains how for centuries the Chinese were much more interested in the Far East’s resources than were the czars in far-off St. Petersburg. He explains in detail the importance of the 17th-century treaty of Nerchinsk which limited Russia’s influence in Mongolia and Manchuria for more than two centuries.

In that era the Amur didn’t form the border. Chinese territory was considered to extend hundreds of kilometers north of the river to the Stanovoy Mountains. It was only in 1858 with China torn apart by the Taiping rebellion and foreign invasion that Russia was able to reassert control of the Amur’s north bank.

 

Along the border today, Ziegler was able to approach the river only at a few major port cities (though even that was enough to get him arrested at one point). But he reports that in its present era of prosperity, China has again come to dominate commercial, if not political life in the Amur basin. Fish and logs are the main exports, much of it illegal. Russia completed the first paved highway linking its eastern and western borders only in 2005, but Zeigler reports that even today the meagre traffic is mostly transporting drugs and smuggled Chinese consumer goods.

Russia’s sovereignty is of course not in question in the Putin era, but valley residents today clearly recognize the greater prosperity on the Chinese bank. The well-educated emigrate to Shenzhen; the attractive to Macau.

Unless you have a PRC secondary education, Zeigler’s essays are likely to educate you on several topics of which you were not previously even aware. Black Dragon River as a whole could be described as a survey of world history from a Far East perspective. If you’re interested in historical detail, you’re sure to enjoy it.


Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People's Republic.