Review #29-30: The Amur River / Black Dragon River

Readers of Chinese history are used to the idea of it as a civilisation shaped by water – not least thanks to Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom – and dominated by two great rivers in particular. But there is a third to the far north which – currently – forms part of the border with Russia: the Amur, or Heilongjiang. And while its population is much sparser than the Yangzi or Yellow River and its history more modern, two recent books have turned their focus on the Amur as an influence on Chinese history, in particular its relationship with its big, bleak northern neighbour.

Of all the corners of China I have never travelled to, the far north is the one I most regret. It’s not just the Harbin ice sculptures, or the tiger sanctuary where – I heard from friends – you could pay to throw a live duck to the tigers, which sounds legitimately demented. For me the attraction was towns like Heihe, where you could travel as far north into the driving snow, and gaze across the river to what seems to be the expanse of the Russian far east: even colder, even less hospitable, even more vast. No matter how bleak things may seem, there’s always somewhere bleaker.

The Google Streetview can never be sufficient to capture more than a clinical photographic moment – and one from nine years ago, at that. The human traffic across the Amur at Blagoveshchensk and Heihe – one that it is as much about illicit trade as it is daytrippers and migrants – is at once mistrusting and mutually dependent. But there’s a weight from history too – this part of the Amur became a flashpoint for modern tensions between Russia and China. During the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, for instance, while the eyes of the world were on Beijing, Russian authorities ordered the expulsion of Chinese in Blagoveshchensk. With no boat traffic across the river, the 5,000 Chinese people were ordered to swim the river. Almost all of those who did drowned; almost all of those who refused were killed by Russian police or townspeople.

But four days after the carnage a Russian colonel, Alexander Vereshchagin, sailing to Khabarovsk, found his steamship ploughing through Chinese corpses, all floating downstream. The whole width of the river, he wrote, was covered with bloated and decaying bodies. ‘They float along the width of the Amur as if haunting us. The passengers came out of their cabins to see such a rare scene. It will stay in my memory for ever… “Breakfast is served” announces a waiter…’

If today you travel the eight miles upriver to Verkhne-Blagoveshchenskoe, you find no memorial.

Colin Thubron, The Amur River

These are two very different travel books. Colin Thubron has dozens of published works under his belt going back to the 1960s, but Russia and China hold a particular fascination for him: The Amur River is his ninth consecutive book since 1984 in those countries, and has won the 2022 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. Dominic Ziegler, the Economist’s Banyan columnist and senior journalist covering Asia, published Black Dragon River, his first book, back in 2015.

While both books are named after the Amur river itself, they have a remarkably different relationship with it. Both authors seek its source in the Khentii Mountains in Mongolia, and both travel to its mouth at Nikolaevsk, but while Thubron sticks to the waterway itself, travelling by boat as much as possible, Ziegler takes detours far from the river itself to quirkier places like Irkutsk and Birobidzhan, travelling by rail and road. From what he tells us, Ziegler only travels on the Amur once when crossing the river to Heihe – incidentally, the only time he sets foot on the Chinese side. While Thubron supplements his evocative travel writing with historical context, Ziegler has the opposite approach: short insights into the travel [the terrible driving, the fellow train passengers) lead into lengthy, fascinating historical gobbets about geopolitics of the area.

Happily, this means there are relatively few overlaps between the two. Apart from some quotes and asides, like Chekhov’s experience with a Japanese prostitute in Blagoveshchensk (he undertook a not dissimilar journey in 1890), and key historical ground like the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, the 1900 massacre and a similar massacre of Japanese in Nikolaevsk twenty years later, the two books are remarkably different. Both authors’ experiences hint at some universalities for travellers in the area too: they both get in trouble with Russian authorities, for instance, and both remark on the controversial Matryoshka doll-shaped rubbish bins in Heihe and the terrible quality of driving in the ubiquitous second hand 1990s Japanese cars on the Russian side.

As the sun cast the car’s long shadow before us, a final scend of the steppe pitches us into Nerchinsk.

Nerchinsk. When the place was a mere stockade manned by rough Cossacks, the future of the world’s two biggest empires had pirouetted around this place in ways unimaginable since. For several days in late August 1689, in an encampment down by the river, emissaries from Peter the Great, surrounded by the “clash and clamour” of ten thousand Manchu warriors, had negotiated with the envoys of Kangxi, the Manchu emperor of China.

Dominic Ziegler, Black Dragon River

Reading both books back to back, though, I’m struck once again by the power of good travel writing. With Thubron I felt I finally travelled there. He is a perfect guide – no matter that he is turning 80 at the point of writing, his skills of observation and description are masterful. It’s not just his evocative physical observations: parks teeming with black squirrels, the dispersed anglers, isolated boats, markets (and antique dealers) hawking cut-price counterfeit goods. For someone who revels in the ‘thrill of solitude’, Thubron has a willingness and an ability to seek out and talk to interlocutors, and an empathy to interpret – and write about – their thoughts and feelings with a remarkable clarity and efficiency. A four-sentence exchange with two Russian women at a funfair in Heihe offers as much insight into Russian views of China as any academic paper. His search for a native Manchu speaker (of whom there are thought to be barely a dozen left) in Dawujiazi is profound and moving. Thubron’s Amur river is wild and desolate, and its people are swirling and meandering in its floodplains, striving for their humanity.

That’s not to say, of course, that Ziegler’s book is the lesser. Ziegler seems to be much less interested in the people of the Amur, and more in the process of nation building on either bank (and especially Russia), from the earliest settlements, through the pax mongolica, the arrival of Cossacks and Manchus in the 17th century to the near-present day. His history writing is lucid and clear, straddling a topic as broad and sprawling as the region itself (although, in straddling the boundaries between travel writing, history writing and journalism, he chooses not to include sources). At times he is chattily idiosyncratic – introducing the great Manchu patriarch Nurhaci, for instance, Ziegler picks up a fleeting reference to him (which I did not recall) in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That aside, Ziegler covers this corner of Chinese history (which I feel I know well) effectively, and I learned plenty: I knew little of the Russian presence in the early modern Beijing court, for instance, compared to the Jesuits; nor the Siberian fate of the Decembrists.

Sitting here in a frigid English December, with clear skies, juddering heating and frost unmoved from the lawn or my own 1990s second hand Japanese car, it’s a testament to both Ziegler and Thubron that I have been wishing myself somewhere much bleaker and colder – anywhere between Mongolia and Sakhalin.

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