Thubron’s latest, “The Amur River: Between Russia and China,” is hence not entirely new territory for him. Though the Amur, called the Heilongjiang in Chinese, is longer than the Indus and as politically consequential as the Rio Grande, it remains largely unknown in the West. Beginning about 500 miles east of Russia’s Lake Baikal and almost that far from any significant human settlement, it spills into the Pacific just past the grim, Russian harbor town of Nikolaevsk, Thubron’s final stop. Because it forms the border between Russia and China for more than 1,000 miles, much of its length is off limits even to travelers as determined as Thubron. Perhaps to make up for it, he begins his journey at the source of the source: the marshlands of northern Mongolia where another river, the Onon, is born in a trickle that, when it crosses into Russia, becomes the Shilka and eventually the Amur.

Even where it is not a highly militarized border zone, this is forbidding country. In Mongolia, Thubron passes through the Khenti Strictly Protected Area, a vast reserve of mountain, swamp and steppe that includes the birthplace and legendary burial site of Genghis Khan. There are no roads, so he travels on horseback with local guides, and breaks an ankle and two ribs for his effort. In Russia, the climate is bleak, the isolation profound. Already sparse populations are dwindling fast. Only on the Chinese side, where Thubron spends relatively little time, is there much infrastructure or social vitality. There, cities are sprouting almost overnight, forests giving way to factories and farms.

Thubron hires guides, hitches rides, hops a train when he has to, and chats up whomever he can. The Russians, it turns out, fear and resent the Chinese. The Chinese feel much the same about the Russians, though with perhaps less fear than contempt. Their shared history is not a pretty one. In 1689, after Manchu armies uprooted Cossacks from forts they had established throughout the region, the czar ceded the Amur basin and much of Siberia to Beijing. By the mid-19th century, China had been hobbled by rapacious European powers, including and particularly by Britain. In 1858, Russia took back all lands north of the Amur. It was hardly worth it. The Amur, difficult to navigate even when it wasn’t frozen, formed a poor highway to the Pacific. The towns that Thubron visits on the Russian side are dour, alcoholic, near-abandoned. On the Chinese side, new cities “gleam with the future.” There, the pace of change is so furious, the past is all but lost.

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