At the end of the Second World War, about 600,000 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner after the Soviet Union swept through Manchuria in the very final days of the war. Instead of returning them to Japan, the Soviet Union held them in prison camps in the Russian Far East for over a decade. The last group was released in 1956, eleven years after the Japanese surrender.

The border between Russia and China is one of the world’s longest, spanning thousands of miles. It’s one of the few extended land borders between two great powers, subject to years of history, conflict and cooperation. Yet for such an important division, there are surprisingly few crossings, with not one passenger bridge in operation.

On 9 August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki and three Soviet armies invaded imperial Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo. Six days later, Emperor Hirohito’s recorded broadcast to the Japanese people told them that the end of the war had arrived. Most Japanese troops in Manchukuo surrendered or withdrew by August 19. The fate of 2.7 million Japanese soldiers and citizens in the former Manchurian colony would be determined by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. 

Back in the early 1990s, when I was trying to pitch the idea of including Vladivostok-listed stocks in Asian emerging markets funds, I was told by one Hong Kong fund manager that “Asia stops at the Amur River.” Three decades or so on, that aphorism might still serve to summarize the findings contained in Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey’s On the Edge: Life along the Russia-China Border.

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.