Straddling the Wilderness Between Russia and China in Colin Thubron’s ‘Amur River’

Lee Polevoi

 

The Amur River: Between Russia and China

By Colin Thubron

Harper

291 pages

 

Imagine you’re standing at the source of the Amur River, deep inside some of the most remote regions of China, Mongolia, and Russia’s Far East. On your journey following the Amur, you ride on horseback, accompanied by a Mongolian guide and two men, also on horseback. The terrain you cross is treacherous, to say the least:

 

“Sometimes this uncertain earth, mined with hidden quagmires, opened like a trapdoor under us. Suddenly the horses would be dropping to their withers and the peat-laden water brimming over their backs. Then they began to struggle out, their eyeballs white and bulging, their forelegs scrabbling for a hold, their hind legs kicking in panic, while we were thrown back and forth in the saddle.”

 

At one point, something goes wrong, and your steed goes down: “Tilted sideways in that rotting earth, he rolled and threw me. For an instant I found myself trapped beneath his heaving flank, my feet still in the stirrups, my ribcage screaming. Then he started up in fear, and began to bolt.”  

 

Now imagine all this is happening when you’re 80 years old.

 

 

In his new book, veteran travel writer (and octogenarian) Colin Thubron offers differing estimates on the length of the vast Amur River. It may be the 10th longest river on the planet (or possibly the eighth longest), while the “favored estimate” is 2,826 miles “as it flows through south-east Siberia then meets China, then breaks for the Pacific …”

 

During his travels, Thubron crosses more than 1,100 miles along this vast waterway—not only on horseback, but by train, car, and boat. His trek encompasses visits to desolate villages and decaying monasteries, with encounters that range from friendly and well-meaning, to more sinister interactions with local police.

 

Who says no one is intrepid anymore? Colin Thubron is intrepid.

 

Part of the pleasure of reading his travel books is the sheer lyricism of his language. This is a traveler upon whom very little is lost, and who is gifted in putting his adventures into richly colorful prose.

 

 

Early on in his voyage, Thubron spots a flock of birds winging their way through the sky:  

 

“To the south, across a watery horizon, we see cranes flying. It is impossible to tell to which species they belong—the stately white-naped or the silvery demoiselle—and their sad voices are almost inaudibly far away … Their beauty and their dancing, even their rumored monogamy, clothed them in myth all over Asia—the Chinese imagined they carried the dead to immortality—and I watch them vanish with obscure regret, as if they will never return.”

 

Throughout The Amur River, Colin Thubron experiences what he calls “… the cold wonder of traveling a land empty of the memory or scars of human history …” Thanks to Thubron’s evocative writing, we get to experience that (terrible and beautiful) cold wonder too.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic. His new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, will be published in 2023.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:          

--Prince Roy (Wikimedia, Creative Common)

--Kmusser (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Harper

 

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