Review: Colin Thubron – “The Amur River: Between Russia and China”

by J.R. Patterson
Colin Thubron The Amur River

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China (HarperCollins 2021), Hardcover, pp 304

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

Can travel writers be said to have a late period? 

The genre is undeniably drawn to youth, to the adventurous and the familial — the prospect of a wild undertaking, and the relatability of family dynamics, being two good selling points. Travel books, while not explicitly aimed at any age group, nonetheless, rarely broach the topic of aging, or how a writer’s age may reflect their relationship to the world. But one need not be young to produce good copy. And, at a glance, old travelers aren’t entirely uncommon. Edith Wharton was sixty when she published In Morocco. Ted Simon was seventy when he retraced his round-the-world motorcycle journey for Dreaming of Jupiter. For On the Plain of Snakes, Paul Theroux drove circles through Mexico in his late seventies. Dervla Murphy went to Gaza at age eighty (A Month By the Sea), and, published when he was eighty-six, Cees Nooteboom’s Venice provided an updated look at the eponymous city.

And indeed, if one is able, why stop? A writer must write. A writer of travel books must travel. A travel writer needs only movement and people. 

Colin Thubron was eighty as he tramped through Mongolia, Russia, and China in a journey he sets down in The Amur River. The area is not well-trodden, or easily accessible, no matter the traveler’s age. Thubron, a veteran of Sino-Russo voyages, is on familiar territory here, largely able to communicate in local languages, and drawing on a deep well of knowledge. Still, Thubron recognizes that any traveler in this part of the world is remote enough to be “beyond help.” Here, he lets slip an inkling of his vulnerability, and indeed, within the first week, Thubron breaks his ankle, cracks his ribs, and is thrown from his wild Mongolian horse. He soldiers on, his soft demeanor obscuring the obvious pain he must be feeling. His is undeniably an iron constitution. Or, perhaps ironwood: strong but fellable, and, at such times, unable to hide the age rings. He handles such moments with admirable grace, and though his pain must have been at times immense, he admits only to a “gloomy circumspection.” Over the glow of the campfire, he believes he catches flashes of suspicion in his guides’ eyes. “How long can he last?” he imagines them thinking. Readers will wonder if these are simply projections of Thubron’s own thoughts.

While age is not a subject that Thubron self-interestedly dwells on, the subject is ever-present, like the spectral imagery which haunts the text. At one point, he wonders if he is nothing but a “stubborn pensioner…trying to cast a line into a stagnant pool.”

Stubborn, perhaps, but Thubron’s observations remain as razor-sharp as ever. As a border, the Amur draws attention to the stark differences that exist between Russia and China, and Thubron notes them well. Standing amidst the classical, gold-façaded, and pastel-colored mansions of the Russian town of Blagoveschensk (founded in 1856, with a modern-day population of 200,000), Thubron can’t help but comment on the dissonance of the “cubic forest” of Chinese Heihe (founded as a modern city in 1980, and now home to some 1.6 million), “whose fanciful spires and crenellations give a hint of hedonism.” In Russia, “all is mellowness and seeming age,” while China heaves with “an obsessed energy and impatience,” under an “apparition of prosperity.”

The Amur is not a particularly well understood river. Its length remains vaguely unknown — it’s either the world’s 8th or 10th longest river, with the best estimate placing it at just over 2,800 miles — the same length as Congo. 

The river rises in the Mongol heartland (though it has no one source, Thubron follows the Onon-Shilka route of origin), in the valley between the Onon and Kherlen rivers. Declared by Genghis Khan as a sanctuary for Mongol royalty, the area is sacred, and forbidden; all passers-through is resented. Along its Mongol banks, the removal of riverside shrubs and trees is forbidden, as is fishing and bathing. This pursuance of purity leaves the Amur “clear and soft-watered” as it leaves Mongolia, though, by the time it has flowed for 500 miles within Russia, its salmon stocks are depleted, and its waters are polluted by leaking gold mines, and chemical plants. As Thubron writes, “in 2005, a chemical plant exploded and sent down a fifty-mile-long slick of toxic benzene.” 

For over 1,000 miles, the Amur River forms the border between Russia and China, “the most densely fortified frontier on earth.” Far from its capitals of Moscow, Beijing, and Ulaanbaatar, the Amur has floated on largely undisturbed. One hundred and thirty years before, Anton Chekov found the river to be a bastion of freedom. “And what liberalism!” he wrote. “Oh, what liberalism.” As Thubron notes, so far from Moscow, the people were free because “there was no one to arrest them, and nowhere to be exiled, since they were already in Siberia.”

Throughout history, the river has exchanged hands, lying at times fully within either Russia or China, creating, at times, a bone of contention between the two nations. Today, Chinese businessmen are rumored to own or rent 20% of the arable land north of the river. The two populations rarely intertwine — the separate languages are rarely learned by the other populations — and Thubron writes that there exists in Russia an underlying fear that Beijing, once so mobilized, will cross the river and turn Eastern Russia into a Chinese province. 

Of course, there is a deeper history, and Thubron seeks it out. The Chinese side of the river was once the lands of the Manchu, and before them, the nomadic Jurchen tribes (in Dawujiazi, he meets a speaker of ancient Manchu, one of a supposed twenty speakers remaining in the world). On the Russian side, there were the Nanai, Ulchi, Niukhi, Evenk, and some 30 more. During Soviet times, Russian indigenous groups were treated as an experiment, to see if a group ‘without culture,’ “might leapfrog over history into the pure Communism of Homo Sovieticus.

The envy of travel writers everywhere, Thubron is cut from a faded cloth, equally applauded for his output of fiction as for his travel narratives. No one writes like Thubron anymore, if anyone ever did. His prose is as smooth and soothing as a poppling brook. His magic, like he describes the Amur’s “lies in its element of flow.” He faithfully records his tender phone calls with his wife in London, who reminds him to think not of her, but of his journey. Thubron is fully human, a traveling poet with none of the hubris or false humility that plagues the genre. 

On the banks of the Onon, the “infant Amur,” Thubron feels old. “The world has lost its innocence,” he writes. He becomes, at times, paranoid of being watched and followed. And not without cause—he is detained, arrested, and, several times, the FSB (the modern iteration of the KGB) spookily call the cell phone of a companion he has hitched himself to. But children and mothers dominate the book’s closing pages, providing all the rebirth, new life, and innocence Thubron felt the river lacked. At his long journey’s end, he spies an old man wading in the mouth of the Amur, fishing. It’s a quality of youth to see age in other people — Thubron is full of it. 

In Once Upon the River Love, Russo-French novelist Andreï Makine wrote that one “could spend your life of the remote Amur and never discover whether you were ugly or beautiful, or understand the sensual topography of another human being.” So long as Thubron continues to travel, and to write, and so long as we are able to travel with him, we need not fear such unawareness.  

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China (HarperCollins 2021), Hardcover, pp 304

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

Purchase The Amur River by Colin Thubron

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Last Updated on 21 September 2021 by Travel Writing World

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