Colin Thubron

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Black Dragon River: A Jour­ney Down the Amur River at the Border­lands of Em­pires

by Do­minic Ziegler

Black Dragon River:

A Jour­ney Down the Amur River at the Border­lands of Em­pires by Do­minic Ziegler.

Pen­guin, 357 pp., $27.95; $17.00 (pa­per)

The Amur is the ninth-long­est river in the world, but to West­ern­ers it may be the least known and most re­mote. It evokes no an­cient cul­ture, as the Nile or the In­dus does, nor does it oc­cupy a na­tion’s heart, like the Mis­sis­sippi. In­stead it cre­ates a lit­tle-known and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous bor­der­land. Ris­ing in the up­lands of Mon­go­lia, it flows for over 2,800 miles be­tween the Siberian forests of Rus­sia to the north and the moun­tains of Manchurian China to the south, be­fore spilling at last into the Pa­cific Ocean at the Okhotsk Sea. Its ter­rain is a fron­tier of em­pires. In the late sev­en­teenth cen­tury Rus­sian Cos­sacks, push­ing east and south, came into con­tact here with the bor­ders of the pow­er­ful Chi­nese Qing dy­nasty. A treaty signed in 1689 con­fined the Cos­sacks north be­yond the Amur basin, while also open­ing up Chi­nese trade to Rus­sia, and the peace be­tween the two coun­tries held for nearly two cen­turies. Then in 1854 Niko­lay Mu­raviev, the ag­gres­sive Rus­sian gov­er­nor of east­ern Siberia, sailed down the river with a con­voy of sev­enty-seven mil­i­tary rafts and barges, and be­gan es­tab­lish­ing set­tle­ments. By 1860 the en­fee­bled and pre­oc­cu­pied Qing had ceded all their ter­ri­to­ries up to the Amur’s left bank, an area that cor­re­sponds roughly to to­day’s Rus­sian Pri­a­murye and mar­itime prov­inces, reach­ing to the Korean bor­der.

Al­most at once Chi­nese mi­grants were cross­ing the river north­ward. They were viewed by most Rus­sians as a locust horde with no al­le­giance to their host coun­try. There was grow­ing talk of the yel­low me­nace and fear of a sleep­ing gi­ant, even as Chi­nese cheap la­bor helped build up the fac­to­ries, roads, and ports that en­sured Rus­sian con­trol. Then the Soviet Union closed off this di­as­pora with an iron cur­tain as rigid as that in Cen­tral Europe, all but eras­ing the Chi­nese pres­ence from his­tor­i­cal mem­ory.

But in the early 1990s, af­ter the Soviet col­lapse, the Chi­nese mi­gra­tion re­newed and gath­ered pace. Now Chi­nese traders, builders, en­trepreneurs, and farm­ers have pen­e­trated far be­yond the river­side Rus­sian towns, caus­ing re­sent­ment and some­times para­noia. There are fears of Chi­nese buy­ing up real es­tate, un­founded ru­mors of in­creas­ing in­ter­mar­riage and pro­lif­er­at­ing Chi­na­towns. Sta­tis­tics are so er­ratic and un­ver­i­fi­able that es­ti­mates of Chi­nese mi­gra­tion veer be­tween 300,000 and five mil­lion, com­pli­cated by sea­sonal move­ments, of­ten il­le­gal. In­ter­ac­tion be­tween Rus­sians and Chi­nese—prod­ucts of pro­foundly dif­fer­ent cul­tures—is con­fined to lit­tle more than com­merce, and the Rus­sian me­dia rou­tinely treat the mi­grants as a face­less biomass. One study recorded that “the more fre­quent and in­ten­sive the con­tacts of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion with the Chi­nese, the less it is in­clined to eval­u­ate pos­i­tively the im­mi­grants’ char­ac­ter.”1

At worst, the mi­grants are seen as tools of a long-term plot, hatched in Bei­jing, to take over east­ern Siberia. As early as 1994, in­flu­en­tial Rus­sian aca­demics were assert­ing:

China has huge ter­ri­to­rial claims against Rus­sia and stim­u­lates in every pos­si­ble way the pen­e­tra­tion of her cit­i­zens into Rus­sian ter­ri­tory .... The main goal of China’s en­try into Rus­sia, re­gard­less of its forms and chan­nels, is its in­te­gra­tion into eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties, ac­qui­si­tion of prop­erty and land, i.e. the cre­ation of eco­nomic and le­gal pre­con­di­tions for the le­gal seizure 2 of ter­ri­tory . . . .

Such alarms are mainly sounded by re­gional au­thor­i­ties. More sober eval­u­a­tions num­ber the Chi­nese mi­grants at some­where be­tween 500,000 and a mil­lion. Yet there are com­men­ta­tors who fear that in time the Amur River fron­tier will be­come ir­rel­e­vant, and that all Asi­atic Rus­sia will be ab­sorbed by China, the ero­sion stop­ping only at the Ural Moun­tains.


Ziegler’s Black Dragon River: A Jour­ney Down the Amur River at the Border­lands of Em­pires might be

1See Ye. I. Plak­sen, In­te­gra­tion of the Mar­itime Kray into the Eco­nomic Struc­ture of the Far East­ern Re­gion (Ros­siya i ATR, 1993), quoted in Alexan­der Lukin, The China Threat: Per­cep­tions, Myths and Re­al­ity, edited by Her­bert Yee and Ian Storey (Rout­ledgeCur­zon, 2002), p. 97.


See Vik­tor Dy­at­lov, “Chi­nese Mi­grants and Anti-Chi­nese Sen­ti­ments in Rus­sian So­ci­ety,” in Fron­tier En­coun­ters: Knowl­edge and Prac­tice at the Rus­sian, Chi­nese and Mon­go­lian Bor­der, edited by Franck Billé, Gré­gory De­laplace, and Caro­line Humphrey (Open Book, 2012), pp. 82–83. ex­pected to ex­plore this bat­tle­ground, and to de­scribe Chi­nese and Rus­sian re­gional feel­ing. Ziegler is a re­spected com­men­ta­tor on Chi­nese pol­i­tics and fi­nance. He was the China cor­re­spon­dent for The Econ­o­mist for six years and is now its Asia edi­tor, and the per­sona in his writ­ten jour­ney is a knowl­edge­able and sym­pa­thetic one.

His book opens with prom­ise. Ziegler seeks out the source of the Amur on a horse­back trek into north­east Mon­go­lia, and finds it among the forested hills sur­round­ing the Onon River, the most dis­tant of the Amur’s trib­u­taries. His writ­ing here is at once po­etic and pre­cise, and re­veals a pas­sion for the fauna and flora of the re­gion (he an­no­tates them lov­ingly), and for its pris­tine al­lure:

Over the pass, fold upon fold of thick-forested moun­tains pushed north, like stand­ing waves. It was an­other world, an un­bro­ken rip­ple of dark green: barely touched by man, in­dif­fer­ent—a pro­found still­ness . . . .

We were drop­ping down to­ward the Onon, which we did not glimpse un­til we were nearly upon it. To de­cree where any river be­gins must nec­es­sar­ily in­volve a fic­tion. Only the very rare stream al­lows you to stand and point to the spot where it bub­bles, fully formed, from the ground . . . .

The Onon be­gan where two streams, each no more than three or four horse-lengths across, emerged from a blue­berry patch . . . . Here the streams slipped to­gether with­out fuss, 6,700 feet above sea level, at the tip of a gravel promon­tory that lay be­tween them. I waded across to the spit and here from cupped hands I drank the pure water of the earth, at the heart of an empty con­ti­nent.

Soon after­ward Ziegler at­tempts to cross the Mon­go­lian fron­tier into China by jeep, then to turn north to re­join the Onon. But his way is barred by a woman in a white mask sit­ting at a wob­bly ta­ble by the road­side. The re­gion is quar­an­tined be­cause of footand-mouth dis­ease, she says, and its bor­ders are in­def­i­nitely closed. Such un­pre­dictable chances are the curse of travel here.

More for­mi­da­ble bar­ri­ers shadow the Amur it­self. On the Rus­sian side hundreds of miles of barbed wire and watch tow­ers are still in place be­side “the con­trol track­ing strip,” whose raked earth will be­tray in­fil­tra­tors. Only a few ferry cross­ings breach the fron­tier. Where the bor­ders are con­tigu­ous, there are no bridges. Ziegler crosses only once, on a day trip, and records China in less than two pages.

The pro­hib­ited Rus­sian river zone ob­structs deep ex­plo­ration, and Ziegler does not at­tempt it. In­stead he veers into his­tory, and his promised “jour­ney down the Amur” comes to re­sem­ble in­stead a study of south­east Rus­sia along the Trans-Siberian Rail­way. The Amur drains a basin al­most as huge as Mex­ico, so nu­mer­ous towns, re­gions, and top­ics can loosely be held rel­e­vant to the river. In a se­ries of well-paced and well-re­searched nar­ra­tives, Ziegler ex­plores sub­jects as var­i­ous as the dec­o­ra­tive arts of the na­tive peo­ples and the bizarre Jewish home­land pro­posed in 1928, whose ide­al­is­tic set­tlers be­came the vic­tims of Stalin’s para­noia. Ziegler’s visit to Irkutsk, the one-time “Paris of the East,” leads him to de­scribe tsarist Rus­sian ex­pe­di­tions in the Pa­cific. Chap­ters on the sleepy provin­cial cap­i­tal of Chita evoke a de­tailed his­tory of the Bud­dhist Bury­ats, who still in­habit the bor­der­land of Rus­sia and Mon­go­lia, and who were the most so­phis­ti­cated of the na­tive peo­ples con­fronting Rus­sia in the eigh­teenth cen­tury.

Then there are the De­cem­brists, ex­iled to Chita and be­yond in 1826 dur­ing the reign of the im­pla­ca­ble Tsar Ni­cholas I. Mostly prin­ci­pled no­ble­men at odds with tsarist au­toc­racy, they staged an in­ept re­bel­lion in St. Peters­burg and were scat­tered into Siberian ex­ile. Their leg­end ac­crued glory through the num­bers of women who vol­un­tar­ily fol­lowed them into ban­ish­ment, leav­ing their com­fort and even chil­dren be­hind. In Rus­sia the term “De­cem­brist wife” sur­vives as an ep­i­thet for de­vo­tion, al­though the wives did not all re­main faith­ful.

If there is an in­ter­mit­tent theme to these blocks of his­tory, it is Rus­sia’s re­cur­ring vi­sion of a shin­ing Pa­cific fu­ture, of the Amur open­ing up the Siberian hin­ter­land east­ward as tri­umphantly as the Amer­i­cans were open­ing up their West. Siberia, too, had its na­tive peo­ples—scat­tered groups of herders, fish­er­men, and hunters (who still sur­vive)—and the myth per­sists that these “small peo­ples of the north” (as Soviet ethno­g­ra­phers de­fined them) wel­comed the Rus­sians as peace­ful car­ri­ers of en­light­en­ment. As Ziegler makes his way east, he vis­its dim-lit lo­cal mu­se­ums dis­play­ing stuffed an­i­mals and rusty weapons. The cu­ra­tors seem obliv­i­ous

to what their Cos­sack hal­berds and man­a­cles sug­gest about the bru­tal Rus­sian con­quest. Ziegler writes:

For a cou­ple of decades around the mid­dle of the nine­teenth cen­tury, the Amur River was at the heart of an ex­trav­a­gant delu­sion that gripped the peo­ple of a stag­nant au­to­cratic Rus­sia .... Rus­sians re­dis­cov­ered a river that for cen­turies had hung for­got­ten on the east­ern edge of their realm, flow­ing through empty Chi­nese lands. They knew al­most noth­ing of this river and its wa­ter­shed—nei­ther its phys­i­cal as­pects nor, re­ally, who dwelled there. All the bet­ter: onto this river they first pro­jected dreams of min­eral and agri­cul­tural wealth, and then dreams of na­tional re­newal. This river-road was to be Rus­sians’ route to great­ness.

In the des­o­la­tion of Rus­sia’s present­day Pa­cific prov­inces—where the pop­u­la­tion is de­clin­ing as fast as China’s is ex­pand­ing—the dream of the Amur’s fu­ture car­ries its own pathos. The vigor and op­ti­mism of the pioneers whose ex­ploits Ziegler charts—the ruth­less Yero­fei Khabarov and Mu­ravievA­mursky, whose stat­ues tower over Siberian cities in de­cay—are redo­lent of an­other age: an age when China seemed in ter­mi­nal de­cline.

The ex­pand­ing Rus­sian power first met the Chi­nese at a re­mote set­tle­ment on the Amur in 1651, when the free­booter Khabarov mas­sa­cred the mem­bers of a Manchu gar­ri­son and seized their women. A quar­ter of a cen­tury was to elapse be­fore resur­gent Manchu forces, dur­ing the sixty-year reign of the Kangxi em­peror, be­gan tight­en­ing their hold on the river, and en­gulfed all but one of the tiny Cos­sack forts there.

This last re­mote strong­hold, named Al­bazino—a prim­i­tive rec­tan­gle of stock­ades and wooden tow­ers—be­came the test­ing ground of two em­pires that barely knew each other. Fol­low­ing or­ders from the Chi­nese em­peror, its six-hun­dred-strong gar­ri­son, which had re­luc­tantly sur­ren­dered, was per­mit­ted to leave, un­armed. But within two months the Rus­sians re­turned to the aban­doned fort with 826 men and twelve can­nons, and re­built it more strongly than be­fore. Its ram­parts were fronted by a deep ditch and pits con­ceal­ing iron stakes. A gun tur­ret swiveled can­non­fire through a com­mand­ing arc, and the pal­isades were hung with bas­kets of resin to il­lu­mine night at­tacks.

For a few months this soli­tary out­post staked Rus­sia’s claim to the Amur River. Even now, re­duced to an empty de­pres­sion no larger than a foot­ball field, it seems in­ac­ces­si­bly far from the Rus­sian heart­land, and al­most un­vis­ited. The re­turn­ing Chi­nese en­cir­cled its ram­parts with a triple earth­work, lined by light ar­tillery, and sealed off the river with gun­boats. For a full year they bom­barded Al­bazino with shot and in­cen­di­ary ar­rows, charged it from be­hind leather-cov­ered as­sault en­gines, and rained down long-range fire from a nearby hill. Mean­while both gar­ri­son and be­siegers were dy­ing of scurvy. By the time the fort sur­ren­dered, the Cos­sacks were re­duced to sixty-six wraith-like sur­vivors. Soon after­ward, in 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk con­firmed Rus­sia’s ex­pul­sion from the Amur. But it was con­cluded with a scrupu­lous ap­pear­ance of par­ity that—Ziegler claims con­tro­ver­sially—set the tone for Sino-Rus­sian re­la­tion­ships there­after. The treaty was drawn up care­fully in the lan­guage of nei­ther na­tion, but in the Latin of two Je­suit priests at the Qing court. Yet the Chi­nese ret­inue at the ne­go­ti­a­tions in­cluded 15,000 armed men, whose clank­ing pres­ence may have hur­ried on the out­come. In ex­change for trade con­ces­sions the Cos­sacks were forced to re­treat from the Amur to the crest of its north­ern wa­ter­shed.

More than a cen­tury and a half later, in 1854, the Rus­sians re­turned un­der Mu­raviev-Amursky, to a wan­ing Qing em­pire and a blood­less re­cov­ery of all they had once con­ceded. The Chi­nese have in­ter­mit­tently con­tested this re­oc­cu­pa­tion, and it was by a re­ver­sion to the Nerchinsk Treaty that Mao Ze­dong, as the Sino-Soviet re­la­tion­ship de­clined, laid claim to the lands lost by China. Ziegler, mind­ful of the thin­ning Rus­sian pres­ence there to­day, writes:

Rus­sia seized these lands at a time when West­ern im­pe­rial pow­ers were carv­ing up a stricken China among them­selves—“like a melon,” as Chi­nese pointed out at the time. Rus­sians have since had a cen­tury and a half to con­vince them­selves that the lands were al­ways right­fully theirs.


Black Dragon River is framed as a travel book, these ex­pan­sive his­to­ries are not bal­anced by Ziegler’s ex­pe­ri­ence on the ground. He writes in­ter­mit­tently that “I now wanted to ex­plore how Rus­sians had pushed so far east” or how the Amur “shaped the em­pires that have come into con­tact with it.” But this is not the kind of knowl­edge that travel read­ily yields. A jour­ney is col­ored by the his­tory the trav­eler brings to it, while in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers in­sight into present feel­ings and con­di­tions. It is in this last, cru­cial re­spect that Black Dragon River falls short.

This is the more to be re­gret­ted since Ziegler’s en­coun­ters, when they come, are some­times graphic. There is the de­scrip­tion—an ac­count burst­ing with in­for­ma­tion—of his visit to a fish re­search in­sti­tute, and of the Amur’s 120 species, in­clud­ing “the sil­ver carp, the sharp­belly, the skygazer, the three-lips, the black Amur bream, and the north­ern snake­head, which sur­vives in mud by draw­ing its breath from the air.” This fi­nan­cial jour­nal­ist may seem en­dear­ingly more in­ter­ested in the fate of the kaluga stur­geon and the demoi­selle cranes, which “walk with a Parisian bus­tle of dark tail feath­ers be­hind them,” than in the of­ten calami­tous do­ings of his own species.

In Nerchinsk he comes upon the lav­ish and di­lap­i­dated man­sion of the Butins, long-gone barons of the nearby sil­ver mines, who trans­ported from the 1878 Paris Ex­po­si­tion the big­gest mir­rors in the world. Af­ter hob­nob­bing with the care­taker, Ziegler is ad­mit­ted down a pas­sage­way heaped with tile­work from the abortive ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig of a Mon­go­lian palace, en­ters rooms still drip­ping with damask and or­molu, and ends up for the night in a can­vas sleep­ing bag, un­der the largest pier-glasses in the world, “each the height of a gi­raffe.”

Ziegler re­coils from con­tact, above all, with the Chi­nese. In all the book’s 334 pages, there is a sin­gle, ten-line ex­change with one em­bit­tered Chi­nese trader. If Ziegler ever con­sid­ered trav­el­ing on the river’s south­ern bank, he does not men­tion it. This, in an ac­com­plished jour­nal­ist with more Chi­nese than Rus­sian ex­pe­ri­ence, is a mys­tery. Nor is this omis­sion ex­plained by want of courage. In a prank that strikes a cu­ri­ous con­trast to Ziegler’s usual pru­dence, he falls in with an ex-con­vict who lobs some money over a prison wall at Nerchinsk in ex­change for a fight­ing knife that comes sail­ing back. Af­ter they are both ar­rested, Ziegler es­capes with a cau­tion from an in­dul­gent prison gov­er­nor. But it is hard not to con­clude that such en­ter­prise might have been bet­ter put to more en­light­en­ing pur­pose: a probe along “the con­trol track­ing strip,” per­haps, or a jour­ney along the Chi­nese shore, a bor­der less closely mon­i­tored than the Rus­sian one.

For it is the Sino-Rus­sian ten­sion that haunts to­day’s river, and that cries out for the in­sights of ex­pe­ri­ence on the ground. Trav­el­ers are few here, and hu­man in­ter­ac­tion on any but a com­mer­cial level seems ex­cep­tional. The Chi­nese are reg­u­larly fea­tured in Rus­sian tele­vi­sion and news­pa­pers, writes Vik­tor Dy­at­lov, direc­tor of the Re­search Cen­tre on In­ner Asia, but there are no “faces”:

There is no in­ter­est in the in­di­vid­ual per­son, his life or his destiny. Rus­sia is con­cerned not so much with the Chi­nese as peo­ple, but merely in the prob­lems they are seen to em­body .... To­day, the Chi­nese mi­grant has be­come a func­tion, an ab­strac­tion.3

The Sino-Rus­sian re­la­tion­ship now is trum­peted as be­ing closer than ever. Of­fi­cially the bor­der dis­putes are re­solved. Yet in times of stress the old sores chafe again. Putin him­self, near the start of his pres­i­dency, re­marked: “Un­less we make a se­ri­ous ef­fort, the Rus­sians in the bor­der re­gions will have to speak Chi­nese, Ja­panese, and Korean in a few decades.” But what­ever that “se­ri­ous ef­fort” might en­tail for the sym­bio­sis of the two nu­clear pow­ers, it must ac­com­mo­date the thin­ning Siberian pop­u­lace who fear that Moscow has aban­doned them. A cen­sus in 2010 num­bered the in­hab­i­tants of Rus­sia’s Far East at a mere 6.3 mil­lion— one of the spars­est pop­u­la­tions in the world—while the three abut­ting prov­inces across the river to the south are home to 110 mil­lion Chi­nese. Ziegler, con­fronting this ques­tion on his fi­nal page, at last won­ders:

Some [Siberi­ans] are al­ready think­ing through the con­se­quences. If Rus­sia can tear up agree­ments and treaties to grab Crimea, what kind of an ex­am­ple does that set for an in­creas­ingly as­sertive China that might one day awake to feel long­ings for its for­mer lands be­yond the Amur? 3See “Chi­nese Mi­grants and An­tiChi­nese Sen­ti­ments in Rus­sian So­ci­ety,” p. 82.

Fish­er­men on the Okhotsk Sea, at the mouth of the Amur River, which sep­a­rates Rus­sia and China

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