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Summary and book reviews of The Amur River by Colin Thubron

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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  • Published:
    Sep 2021, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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About this Book

Book Summary

The most admired travel writer of our time - author of Shadow of the Silk Road and To a Mountain in Tibet - recounts an eye-opening, often perilous journey along a little known Far East Asian river that for over a thousand miles forms the highly contested border between Russia and China.

The Amur River is almost unknown. Yet it is the tenth longest river in the world, rising in the Mongolian mountains and flowing through Siberia to the Pacific. For 1,100 miles it forms the tense border between Russia and China. Simmering with the memory of land-grabs and unequal treaties, this is the most densely fortified frontier on earth.

In his eightieth year, Colin Thubron takes a dramatic journey from the Amur's secret source to its giant mouth, covering almost 3,000 miles. Harassed by injury and by arrest from the local police, he makes his way along both the Russian and Chinese shores, starting out by Mongolian horse, then hitchhiking, sailing on poacher's sloops or travelling the Trans-Siberian Express. Having revived his Russian and Mandarin, he talks to everyone he meets, from Chinese traders to Russian fishermen, from monks to indigenous peoples. By the time he reaches the river's desolate end, where Russia's nineteenth-century imperial dream petered out, a whole, pivotal world has come alive.

The Amur River is a shining masterpiece by the acknowledged laureate of travel writing, an urgent lesson in history and the culmination of an astonishing career.

1
The Source

Across the heart of Asia, at the ancient convergence of steppe and forest, the grasslands of Mongolia move towards Siberia in a grey-green sea.

The land's silence is almost unbroken. It is barely inhabited. At its farthest reach, near the Russian frontier, almost five thousand square miles are forbidden to travellers. These mountains, once the homeland of Genghis Khan, are today a near-sacred wilderness. The solitary track that reaches them ends at a barrier and a rangers' lodge. And here we wait – a guide, two horsemen and I – to enter a region that none of us truly knows.

Somewhere deep in this hinterland rises one of the most formidable rivers on earth. It drains a basin twice the size of Pakistan, and more than two hundred tributaries, some of them immense, pour into its flood in spring. For over a thousand miles it forms the border between Russia and China: a fault-line shrouded in old mistrust.

The Amur is elusive. Even the name's origin is obscure. To the ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Amur River is a poignant contribution to Thubron's acclaimed career, with his trademark lyricism elevating nature to a central, breathing character that often reflects the ambivalence of its human counterparts. Two minor quibbles are the lack of historical citations and photographs; with as much history as Thubron packs in, a bibliography is essential, as are visual aids for a travel book. Despite this curious oversight, the book will please armchair travelers and longtime fans of Thubron's work alike...continued

Full Review Members Only (764 words).

(Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Thubron's interest in contemporary political dynamics remains hazy. He acknowledges the ecological carnage wreaked by illegal logging and poaching — one of his guides is a poacher — but he presents these phenomena as local dilemmas, turning a blind eye to the global circuits of capital that make them profitable. He shies from making connections of any sort between the world through which he travels and the one in which we live.

The Washington Post
Elegant, elegiac and poignant...Thubron is an intrepid traveler, a shrewd observer and a lyrical guide... to the river, much of it along the border between these two powers at a time of rapid and tense reconfiguration of global geopolitics.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)
The Amur River shows Thubron to be at the peak of his powers… as one of our greatest prose writers in any genre. But The Amur River is not just beautifully written: it is also a work of great importance…Thubron uses the Amur River as a metaphor to deal with the relationship of two countries now regarded by many as the greatest threat to the West in these dying days of the U.S. Imperium.

The Sunday Times (UK)
A gripping read with fascinating political insight.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The celebrated British travel writer takes us on a fascinating journey along the Amur River...[an] enthralling travel narrative. A captivating portrait of a remote region of the world that many readers may know nothing about.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[B]reathtaking...Thubron's powers of observation and his dogged determination to complete this arduous journey—despite numerous injuries and a police interrogation—make this a top-notch travelogue.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Who Are the Cossacks?

Black and white photograph of a Cossack in military uniform on horseback circa 1890sIn The Amur River: Between Russia and China, Colin Thubron engages with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. One of these individuals is Alexei, an Amur Cossack who proudly meets the author decked out in his ceremonial uniform, yelling exuberantly "the Cossacks are coming back!" But who are the Cossacks?

First, the term "Cossack." Traditionally, they are a member of one of the autonomous communities drawn from various ethnic and linguistic groups (such as Slavs, Tatars and Circassians) that formed in Ukraine, southern Russia, the Caucasus Mountains and Siberia beginning in the 15th century and that were completely incorporated into czarist Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The word "Cossack" is Turkic in origin ...

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