What do we really know?
Sometimes, you realise that the knowledge that you thought you had about a particular subject barely touches the sides. Many of us metal traders – particularly of the generation that witnessed the end of the Soviet Union and the booming growth of the Chinese economy – think we know lots about Russia and/or China. We haven’t just been to the capital cities and major financial centres, we’ve been to far-flung manufacturing plants in places half the world has never heard of. I’m sure plenty of you – like me – delight in regaling dinner party guests with tales of Siberian wasteland, private jets, bodyguards and ownership changes at the point of a gun (my supposed knowledge is more Russia than China).
Well, maybe we know a tiny bit of of one side of a picture.
The Amur river, which rises in Mongolia as the River Onon, and forms the far eastern frontier between Russia and China, is according to best estimates (although there is some variation in them) not far short of three thousand miles long and is (probably) the tenth longest river in the world. Just to emphasise that, for a mainly western readership, if it rose in Spain, it would flow to the Black Sea. It only looks quite small on maps because of the scale and the immensity of the Asian landmass.
I’ve just finished reading Colin Thubron’s most recent book, The Amur River, and that is what has persuaded me that my supposed knowledge is no more than a pinprick.
The basin that drains into the river is enormous, spanning Mongolia, Russia and China. The different ethnicities there are numerous, and the variety of tradition huge. Thubron – who is in his eighties – set out to travel the length of the river, from source to sea. He rode on horseback with Mongols (descendants of Genghis Khan), in 4x4s and busses with a variety of both Russians and Chinese, on river ferries and in poachers’ fishing boats on the final run north from Khabarovsk to the estuary on the Sea of Okhotsk. The story he tells is of a region far from the capital cities, where old friendships and animosities still live on. Where the river forms the border, each side stares across it in mutual distrust. There are cities where crossing is possible, where Chinese sell to Russians and Russians work for Chinese, but there is clearly no love lost. The Russian side has cities, towns and villages that are seemingly as poor and desperate as they were in the Soviet days, or indeed in the days of the Czars; apart, that is, from a brief period when there was a doomed attempt to make Nikolaev, the port at the mouth of the river, into a version of San Fransisco, on the other side of the Pacific. It didn’t work, because there was really no hinterland to support the attempts at trade. So the life is still very much a hand to mouth, subsistence existence.
The cities, towns and villages on the Chinese bank, by contrast, glitter with new skyscrapers, and the trading mentality has a firmer hold. Reading between the lines, though, it’s a precarious environment, with no real certainty. But who knew that the Chinese were exploiting huge tracts of Russian timber land – we’re aware of Brazil and Indonesia, for example, chopping down everything in sight; I for one had no idea this was also going on in the Amur basin.
This story is all so far from our metal traders’ knowledge of mines and smelters, processing plants and scrap gatherers, oligarchs and easy dollars to plough into the London property market. It’s a different world, yet these two countries have been so influential in recent years, but nevertheless out on the far right hand side of the map living in a totally different era.
Colin Thubron is one of the (if not the) finest contemporary travel writers. Go back to how I began this: for those of us who think we begin to understand these countries, this book is an eye-opener.
The Amur River, by Colin Thubron, is published by Chatto and Windus (Penguin Random House).