The Amur River

Photo of Amur River and book cover

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China (New York: HarpersCollins, 2021), 291 pages with an index and a map.

This is the second book I’ve recently consumed on the Amur River. I’m not sure of my renewed interest in Eastern Russia, but having once visited Siberia on the Trans-Mongolian Train from Beijing to Moscow, I had wanted to go back and take the train on to Vladivostok, and perhaps take a round trip, utilizing the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railroad). With the conditions of the world and Russia’s horrific war, such a trip may not be available during my lifetime. But maybe, if I can be as active as Thubron, who was nearly 80 when he made this trip, the world will settle down and I can make such a trip. 

In July, I listened to the unabridged audible version of “Black Dragon River” which is the Chinese name for the river that runs between it and Russia. This is the 9th longest river in the world and the one few people have heard about, probably because much of it is off limits because of the fortified border. This is my third book by Colin Thubron. While traveling across Siberia in 2011, I read his book, In SiberiaI’ve also read Shadow of the Silk Road, which he describes a western trip along the old Silk Road, from China to the Mediterranean. Sadly, I didn’t review that book. 

Thubron is a wonderful travel writer. In this book he describes his experiences as he attempted to follow the Amur and its tributaries from its source in Mongolia to the Pacific Ocean. Like Dominic Ziengler, in Black Dragon River, much of Thubron’s travels are mostly on land. But he says close to the river. He begins with an expedition in Mongolia, to find the headwaters of the Onon River, which requires special permission as they are entering a “strictly protected area”. While on this trip, he falls off his horse and breaks an ankle (but only thought it sprained) and cracks some ribs. But he continues to hobble along own despite his injury. 

As he and his guides make their way through the northeast of Mongolia in a we learn about the Buryats of Russia, many who moved to Mongolia to escape Stalin, only to find themselves dealing with Khorloogiin Choibalsan, the leader of Mongolia after it became communist. Choibalsan was as cruel as Stalin, he just had fewer subjects to torment. It is estimated that between 1937 and 1938, when the purges in Mongolia were the worst, ½ of the nation’s intelligentsia and 17,000 monks were killed. 

Tubron leaves Mongolia and picks up a Russian guide, following the Onon River. After the confluence with the Ingoda River, the Onon becomes the Shilka River. He stops in towns along the way which appear to have seen their better days. He’s asked about his purpose. When he says he’s following the Amur to the sea, he’s informed he’s on the wrong river, that the Amur is far away. It’s as if people don’t realize that the Shikla is the main tributary to the Amur. He also has run in with Russian security, who are suspicious of his travels. But after a few days, it works itself out. Part of the problem may have been he accidentally saw the maneuvers along the Amur with Russian and Chinese troops. 

After the confluence of Argun and Shilka Rivers, which form the Amur, the river becomes the boundary between Russia and China. While it is a fortified, there is some trade across the river. But there is also much prejudice, with the Russians looking down on the more prosperous Chinese, who many see is only interested in making money. At the city of Blagoveshchensk, Thubron crosses the river into the much larger Chinese city of Heihe. From here, he begins to travel along the river’s southside, before crossing back into Russia where the Ussuri River meets the Amur. In the border city of Khabarovsk, he learns of archeologists who have discovered ancient Chinese artifacts being punished as the Russians doesn’t want the Chinese to have any claim to their territory. Russia claim on its eastern land is weak. It was only after the building of the trans-Siberian railway that the country was united, and much of its land in the east was squeezed by treaties from a weaken China. 

While the border seems to be somewhat stabilized along the Amur, many Russians have xenophobic views about the Chinese. Eastern Siberia is a long way from Moscow. In some ways, both sides of the border are frontiers. But most of the Russians Thobron meets on his travels are Europeans and they feel China is destroying their forest and lands for their own development. By the time Thorbon reaches Khabarovsk, it’s October. He’s been traveling since August. The river is beginning to freeze, so he heads back to the United Kingdom for the winter. 

The next June, Thubon returns to Siberia. After Khabarovsk, the river turns north. From here, the Ussuri River, which flows from the south, becomes the border with China. Thubon travels along both sides, stopping in remote places, traveling with a Russian outdoorsman who takes him fishing and discusses survival in the deep cold of winter. He gains a vision of another side of Siberia. Most of this area is remote, except for Komsomolsk-na-Amure, which is where the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railway) crosses the river. This was a site of Soviet weapon factories which has produced aircraft. Along the river, nuclear submarines were built. But Thubon is not able to secure a permit to visit these sites and continues to make his way by car and boat to the river’s mouth into the Pacific. made this trip, most of the capacity is limited. 

I enjoyed reading this book. It reads like a travelogue, with the author providing just enough detail to give you a feel for the land and its history. While I also enjoyed Black Dragon River, it felt less like a travelogue as Ziengler goes much deeper into the history, not only of the Amur, but of the Mongolian and Chinese influence in the larger world. Both books are worth reading. My one complaint is that Thorbon tends to use obscure words, especially adjectives. But he writes some beautiful sentences. An example: “Perhaps it is the intimacy of the town, cradled in its hills and wrapped by the river, that sheds a gentle euphoria.” 

Ger Camp in Mongolia
Thubron had a number of colorful descriptions of these such as “mushroom caps”

Learning more about Russia

Our Frightening World

Dining on the train

We’re living in a scary time with what is going on in Ukraine and Putin’s disregard for the rule of law as he orders Russia to invade a sovereign nation. In 2011, I took the Trans-Mongolian railroad from Beijing to Moscow and then an elegant overnight train on to St. Petersburg. It was a wonderful trip and a few years later I read Colin Turbon’s book (which I’m reviewing below). The photos in his post came from that trip. I found the Russian people to be warm and welcoming. But sadly, the country has a long history of corrupt leadership (from the Czars to the Soviets, and now with Putin). While it would be wonderful for Putin’s army to be humiliated in his Ukrainian operation and order restored, we must remember that those who will suffer are the Ukrainian people and the Russian soldiers, many who are conscripted into the military. 

Notice the km marker indicating the distance A Rfrom Moscow

When I was in college, I took a class focusing on Russian history. Sadly, most of those books I read focused on the attempts to modernize (or westernize) the country by Peter the Great, the 1917 Revolution, and Stalin. I should attempt to update my knowledge. I found a wonderful Twitter trend by an London bookseller (who is from Eastern Europe) on books to learn more about both Ukraine and Russia. Click here to read through the thread. Who would like to join me in learning more? 

A Russian rail yard

Colin Thuborn, In Siberia

 (1999, HarperCollins ebook, 2009), 270 pages

During the Soviet era, much of Siberia was closed off from the West. The Soviets utilized this vast area (which contains nearly a fifth of the world’s landmass) as the Czars had earlier. Siberia existed as place of exile of criminals and political prisoners. During the Second World War, industry began to develop in Siberia. The remote lands were far from the reach of Hitler’s tanks. The land is blessed with resources including minerals, oil, timber, wheat and cursed with hardship. The coldest temperatures ever recorded in inhabited place was in Siberia. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and two years after the end of collective farming, Colin Thubron set out to explore this region. Thubron, an Englishman, was familiar with Russia, having spent time there during the Cold War and having written on the nation. In his travels, he takes the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railroad), a line that runs north of Lake Baikal, and a steamer up the Yenisei River to the arctic. In the East, he flies to remote locations. In all, he covers the region from the Urals to the Pacific, from the “Altai Republic” along the Mongolian border to Dudinka, beside the frozen waters of the Arctic.  

Sunset over Lake Baikal

Siberia, Thubron writes was “born out of optimism and dissent.” (22)  Starting in the 1750s, Siberia became a place to exile criminals (just as Britain exiled its criminals to Australia) and although the number of criminals outnumbered the political prisoners, the later served as a “leavening intelligentsia” for the region. (162) Ironically, Siberia with its vastness became a place of freedom. In the 18th Century, those who moved there had a saying, “God is high, and the czar is far off.” (22)  In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Siberia was a stronghold out for the White Russians who fought against the Bolsheviks. Thubron tells of a discussion in Irkutsk to build a statue to honor Admiral Kolchak, a leader of the White Russians who was shot by the Bolsheviks at Irkutsk and his body pushed below the ice. He doubts the monument will be built. However, in 2011, when I travelled across Siberia, I enjoyed a a beer brewed in Irkutsk named for the Admiral. If you can a statue, a beer seems like a fitting tribute. 

Traveling in the years after the breakup of the Soviet system and the end of state-sponsored atheism, Thubron was surprised to find religion so alive. “Russia’s atheist past seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer,” he noted. (56)  As he traveled, he witnessed new and renovated churches opening. At the dedication of a monastery outside of Omsk, he asked himself, “Why had this faith resurrected out of nothing, as if a guillotined head had been struck back on its body? Some vital artery had preserved it.” (59) Not only does he explore the resurgence in the Orthodox faith, (who seemed to be profiting from the ability to import and sell alcohol and cigarettes tax free (56), but also Buddhism among the Buryat (165ff), a dying Jewish settlement in Eastern Siberia (208ff), Russian Baptist (220f), Old Believers with their insistence of the correct way to cross themselves in prayers (175f), and even a few who were trying to revive traditional shamanistic practices (98ff). In each situation, he meets with religious leaders. One of the more interesting interviews was with an Orthodox priest in Irkutsk, whose father had been a communist and whose mother was a Christian. He told about how in the Army, he began to be convicted of his sin and came to God through his guilt. This priest feared a war between China and Russia and felt that America was a godless land (156-7).

But not all of Siberia is teaming with religious revival. Many of the people Thuborn spoke with felt their world collapse along with communism. One woman, sent to Siberia by Stalin,still refused to criticize the Communist Party. Toward the end of his journey, in northeastern Siberia, he visits Kolyma, the location of some of the deadliest camps. Being sent here was a death sentence. In the winter of 1932, whole camps (prisoners, dogs, and guards) froze to death. It is here that the coldest inhabit place on earth is at, where the temperature has dropped to -97.8 F, where one’s breath will free into crystals and twinkle onto the ground, a phenomenon known as the “whispering of the stars.” (254)  Yet, despite such harsh conditions, they produced nearly a third of the world’s gold in the 1930s. It is estimated that one life was lost for every kilogram of gold produced.  Over 2 million people died here. (251f) The condition of the camps horrified Thubron, who seems concern that the residents of Siberia accept the camps of the past without much thought.

Water tower from the days of steam engines

In his last collection of Stalin horror stories, Thuborn tells of the prison ship, the SS Dzhurma. This ship, according to Thubron, became lodged in ice in 1933 with 12000 prisoners on board. All the prisoners froze to death and half the guards went crazy, according to Thubron. This would also be the deadliest maritime disaster ever, in terms of life lost. When I read this, I thought it sounded like fodder for a horror story and I did some checking. From a couple sources on the internet, found that there are some questions of the validity of this tragedy. Two things don’t fit according to these sources. First, the Soviets purchased the Dzhurma two years later, in 1935. Second, it was only a little over 400 feet long, making it nearly impossible to have had 12,000 prisoners onboard. However, in 1939, another “death-ship,” the SS Indigirka sank with its human cargo trapped below deck. (256) 

I really enjoyed this book and wish I would have read it before traveling through Siberia. At that time, I read Ian Frazier’s excellent travelogue, Travels in Siberia. Thubron’s book is a little out of date, but it is also excellent. His writing is engaging and never boring as he weaves together a story about this vast and unknown landmass. I found reading this book on a e-reader both pleasant (it’s nice and light) and a little troublesome as I couldn’t easily flip back to the map at the beginning. Furthermore, the map didn’t show up well and found myself dragging out an atlas to locate places Thubron traveled. I recommend this book.  

Small village along the railroad tracks