What divides Russia and China? “One of the most formidable rivers on Earth”

By Stoker

“Travel broadens the mind” you must have been told many times. But does it? In the twenty-first century, does it? It can certainly be fascinating and for those who haven’t been, I recommend a few days in Las Vegas. It will provide you with insights into the human condition which will certainly surprise your mind, though to what extent it will emerge broader I am not so sure. Or Benidorm; that too will assist in your view of the human condition, though as to how positively I cannot say.

Our ancestors of course had a much more restricted view of the world, a world that was, to use an expression du jour, much more diverse than our increasingly standardised offering today. Even the most educated of young British gentlemen setting off on his Grand Tour would be amazed by the customs and habits of the French, just 22 miles away from his native land. If he journeyed across south-west Germany he would see architecture in the latest fashion of Britain, yet which had been built two centuries and more before. In the Swiss Alps were mountains of extraordinary grandeur, impassable much of the year, and a society that was in many ways democratic, consultative, and federal (terms that might need explanation to him). Then, Italy! No “Italy” then of course, but a system of princely city states, loosely united by an Italian language albeit with large regional variations, and ruled by rich powerful families, with art, music and architecture that were so different to anything north of the Alps.

Most gentlemen travellers stopped there, though the very bold might have pressed on into Turkey, or headed north-east into the Balkan states and to Poland, societies just beginning to emerge from feudalism.

Those were travel opportunities that truly broadened the mind; gentlemen returned to their wet, rather dull, island determined to change and improve and indeed to lead fashions. The houses, gardens, woods, art, and sculpture they created showed that that determination succeeded triumphantly, and created the golden Britain of Georgian times – a hundred years from around 1720 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.

Where might we now seek to challenge our understanding of the world in which we live, the behaviours of our times, the habits and ways we are accustomed to? Most of us cannot go travelling (and not just because of Covid); we have careers, mortgages, “perambulators” as Cyril Connolly said “in the hall”. No grand tours for us. We might have had a bit of wandering time just before university, or after; we may have had working holidays in the US or India; we might have undertaken extended trekking expeditions out of Kathmandu between jobs. But to really find insights needs longer and deeper wanderings than those constricted breaks often permit.

So, if we are constrained in our dreams but wise in our ambition to learn, we read the very best of travel writing. We let the fit and sage and erudite do our exploring for us. The twentieth century was blessed with a range of travellers who could write. Robert Byron (not the poet but of his family), Peter Fleming, Jan Morris, Eric Newby, Freya Stark, Bruce Chatwin, Dervla Murphy; they all explored parts of the world we might find difficult to get to, and took time that we would find difficult to spare, and wrote with powers and insights that most of us can only borrow. Now, we must pause and bow. Patrick Leigh Fermor was maybe the greatest travel writer in English of all time, a man whose life was travelling and writing. He found the writing a bit more difficult of the two simply because of his constant need to produce perfection and the constant dismay that he felt (his readers never agreed) that he had not quite got there. His greatest works are the dreamlike three volumes of his walk across Europe to Constantinople (as it then was) in 1931 to 1934. These appeared in 1968 (A Time of Gifts), 1982 (Between the Woods and the Water), and the final volume in 2013 (The Broken Road), after his death aged 96.

The only reason for that “maybe” in relation to Leigh Fermor is because there is one challenger to the title, thankfully still amongst us, still travelling in the most obscure regions, still pondering what he has seen, still telling us about his experiences and observations in his writing: Colin Thubron.

Thubron is very different to Leigh Fermor*. Leigh Fermor did not go to the wilderness. His interest was western classical civilisation, he liked its almost forgotten edges, to go where life had been modestly comfortable but was little changed, and to live among people who he got to know well. He had both an extraordinary memory and kept extensive diaries. The results are beautiful and fascinating insights, written in prose that is poetic. Thubron likes to leave behind western influences, to turn east as he leaves home and head, especially, into those little known territories within and north of the great range of the Himalaya, stretching from the Black Sea to China. He is 82 now, but shows no signs of putting his boots away. He has been writing since 1969 and has written much, in books, articles, and also in fiction, unlike Leigh Fermor who wrote comparatively little. But Leigh Fermor was outgoing, very well connected, a man who, if not comfortable with publicity, certainly knew how to work it. Thubron keeps his profile lower, subject to the urgings of his publishers, though he captured a lot of publicity with perhaps his best book, Shadow of the Silk Road, a journey from east to west over many months, published in 2006. His best book perhaps, until now, with the publication two weeks ago of The Amur River.

Thubron begins in Mongolia where he hires a horse and travels through the low-lying reaches of that country heading for the source of the Amur River. This is almost unknown territory, boggy, remote, difficult to traverse, and heading always east, to the Pacific. It is also politically dark territory; for almost four hundred years it has been part of the boundary between Russia and China. For much of that time Russia was an imperial power, whose main interests were to the west and Europe, and which was slowly growing in wealth and strength. China was also an imperial monolith, and had been for many centuries, but was declining in strength, riven by internal wars. To both of them the Amur River was the back wall of their wildernesses, but nevertheless strategically important and not to be ignored. Under Peter the Great, Russia began to look east as well as west. There were a series of battles and skirmishes until in 1689 ambassadors from each side met by the river and agreed a boundary partly of the river but also encompassing some land on the Russian side, colonised by Chinese farmers. So it remained, though in the 19th century the strong Russians took advantage of the weak Chinese Emperor and forced the Chinese farmers into the Amur (literally in many cases, where most drowned) and took their land. So now it is indeed the river, for most of its length, that is the international boundary.

In 2021 the position is reversed. China is the rising power, with an expanding population, a thirst for continuing economic growth, and strong military forces. Russia is also wealthy, but there has been little interest in Moscow for a century in the eastern provinces, which are relatively lightly fortified and which are among the poorest parts of Russia, with constant population drift to the west. Russia has become a state debtor to China, a strategy which China employs around the world to buy friendship, raw materials, and new markets. As Thubron writes, this obscure boundary, this unknown river, is an increasingly important frontier between two powerful, well-armed, but politically unstable nations. It may be difficult for many of us to point to on an atlas, but it is one of those places that might to the next generation become only too well known.

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written. Here is the great mind of a lifelong traveller and ponderer of the state of the world working in top form. Through Thubron’s many conversations with the vast range of people that he meets, not only will you reach an understanding of very different lives, but you gradually will start to feel the tensions that are slowly building in this most remote and unlikely potential flashpoint. Here are people only too aware of their history, their neighbourly conflicts, the machinations of distant politicians, and the dangers that are slowly moving closer. It is a book which may not comfort your mind, but it will certainly broaden it.

Colin Thubron: The Amur River. Published by Chatto and Windus, rrp £20

* Thubron knew Leigh Fermor well and greatly admired him. Together with Artemis Cooper, he used Leigh Fermor’s diaries and notes to finish Broken Road.