This is a densely-written account of one man’s journey along the River Amur, at the boundary between Russia and China, and to the north-east of Mongolia. The man in question is Dominic Ziegler, an editor at the Economist, but his focus is less on the present-day difficulties faced by this remote region, and far more on its rich and complex history. So although I was expecting a travelogue, along the lines of The River At The Centre of The World by Simon Winchester, this is at heart a history book.
The narrative contains a great deal of historical material, covering episodes such as the early life of Genghis Khan; the Mongol attack on Kiev (1240); the Decembrist Revolt against Nicholas I (1825); and the Boxer Rebellion and the massacre of Chinese by local Russians at Blagoveshchensk (1900).
However, the structure of the book is geographical not chronological, causing some confusion as you go back and forth in time, or find the same historical character appearing and reappearing. The geographical method works well if the episode is rooted in a specific location, and one that Ziegler is visiting. For this reason, the Blagoveshchensk episode hits the reader hard, even in a book fairly brimming with brutality. But not all the episodes had a link this specific, and then it started to feel as if the narrative was drifting.
Ziegler interweaves his history with scenes from his travels, which were less colourful than I expected. This could be down to his very neutral tone, as though at one remove from the story. There is a lack of dialogue and personalities, of the sort I enjoyed in The Kolyma Diaries by Jacek Hugo-Bader, another travel book about remote parts of Russia.
Instead, what brought Ziegler’s story alive for me were the little factual gems strewn through the narrative: the study that showed as many as 8% of Asian men descend from Genghis Khan, for instance, or the fact that in the 18th century there was an informal Russian empire that spread down the American coast as far as Sonoma County, California.
A good resource if you have an interest in this part of the world, but not an easy read.
Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires
Dominic Ziegler, 2015.
Penguin, 357 pages, $27.95 (hardcover) or $17.00 (paperback).
I listened to the audiobook version of this title, narrated by Steve West and published by Brilliance Audio. I also checked the hard copy out of my local library!