Excerpt from The Amur River by Colin Thubron, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Amur River

Between Russia and China

by Colin Thubron

The Amur River by Colin Thubron X
The Amur River by Colin Thubron
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2021, 304 pages

    Sep 20, 2022, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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Print Excerpt

He calls back: 'The Onon.'

I rein in. Here is the infant Amur. It is, of course, scarcely different from any other runnels we have crossed: only narrower, purer. It has a faint peaty tinge. Upstream it does not bubble whole from the ground, but emerges in a glinting coalescence of marshland waters, edged by fescue grass and willows. I want to drink from it, but as I start to dismount my ankle winces and I cannot stoop. In this river's infancy I feel suddenly old. I imagine a foolish tenderness for it, as if for a child who does not know what will happen. In time it will cease to be the Onon and become the Siberian Shilka, changing gender to the Russians' 'Little Father', before it transforms at last, on the border of China, into the giant Amur.

For the rest of the day, in and out of sight, we follow its gleaming passage eastward.

How still it is. No jungle cries start up at night, or cicada raspings. We are nearing the forest quiet of Russia. In my tent's pitch dark, I'm grateful for my body's weariness that disregards where it sleeps (on a thin foam mat), and I savour our fleeting triumph. The Onon meanders through the night outside, while this dreamy felicity descends, and I lie oblivious in the mosquito-whining air, and sink into sleep.

At dawn a light rain falls, like someone throwing grit on the tent roof, and carries a chill of foreboding.

All morning the ground grows slushier under us, as if the whole terrestrial world were turning to water. The Onon is sunk invisibly in its wetlands beside us, where yellowing grasses trace its slow descent. Hour by hour my delight at our finding it dissipates with the splosh of the White Horse's hooves in the deepening morass. Where we are riding no rain falls, but on every side the sky is bruised amber and grey with half-lit clouds. Once only they part to shed down a beam of yellow-gold, which spotlights the river like a benediction.

Towards evening we come upon the only habitation we see in six days: a ranger's cottage and a crude log canopy above thermal springs by the river. The ranger is taciturn, as if we have disturbed him, and assigns us a rough-built hut beyond his own. Mongo and Ganpurev had heard rumours of these springs. Their habitual quiet turns to muttered anticipation, then to boyish glee as they clamber down to bathe. The foliage along the riverbanks has receded before flat grasslands by the springs, where the river flows faster and darker. The springs are four or five pits, edged with planks and sheltered by log ceilings. They look abandoned. Mongo and Ganpurev are already emerging from them in the dusk when I descend. Naked, they do not show the taut bodies I'd expected, but are smooth-muscled, hairless. Ganpurev is growing a belly. Soon they start back to our hut, leaving me alone.

I strip and lower myself into the warmth, hoping to ease my ankle, which has turned amber and black, like the sky. For a few minutes, half floating here, I feel the aching release of my body, and marvel at the strangeness of this thermal eruption into the cold river. Its waters seem already used and cloudy. Above me, in the gaps of the log roof, a few stars are shining. Then I heave myself out. For an instant I am standing upright in the darkening shelter, above the enigmatic pool. Then the ankle's pain stabs upwards, and I'm falling. I've underestimated the labour of our riding, the insidious weakness, and my ribcage smashes on the solid log bench behind me. For a minute I lie wondering what will happen if I move. What is fractured or punctured? Gingerly I stir and begin to dress, hopelessly trying to avoid pain, and at last climb back towards the hut, clutching at handholds of fescue grass.

Our hut is hacked from raw wood, with twin platforms for sleeping. A rusted stove pushes its chimney into the roof. The place is littered with the detritus of whoever last passed through: discarded cigarette packets, ash, empty bottles. That night, from the upper platform where I try to sleep, with Batmonkh and the horsemen below, I look out at my bitter compensation – the Onon pale in the moonlight, curved below a solitary larch tree. Framed in the rough-hewn window, it has frozen to an engraving, its banks shorn bare, its waters halted in mid-flow: a lost river, winding out of nowhere.

Excerpted from The Amur River by Colin Thubron. Copyright © 2021 by Colin Thubron. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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