Black Dragon River: A Journey Down The Amur River Between Russia And China

Paperback | November 8, 2016

byDominic Ziegler

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Black Dragon River is a personal journey down one of Asia’s great rivers that reveals the region’s essential history and culture. The world’s ninth largest river, the Amur serves as a large part of the border between Russia and China. As a crossroads for the great empires of Asia, this area offers journalist Dominic Ziegler a lens with which to examine the societies at Europe's only borderland with east Asia. He follows a journey from the river's top to bottom, and weaves the history, ecology and peoples to show a region obsessed with the past—and to show how this region holds a key to the complex and critical relationship between Russia and China today.
One of Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Amur is also the most elusive. The terrain it crosses is legendarily difficult to traverse. Near the river’s source, Ziegler travels on horseback from the Mongolian steppe into the taiga, and later he is forced by the river’s impassability to take the Trans-Siberian Railway through the four-hundred-mile valley of water meadows inland. As he voyages deeper into the Amur wilderness, Ziegler also journeys into the history of the peoples and cultures the river’s path has transformed.
The known history of the river begins with Genghis Khan and the rise of the Mongolian empire a millennium ago, and the story of the region has been one of aggression and conquest ever since. The modern history of the river is the story of Russia's push across the Eurasian landmass to China. For China, the Amur is a symbol of national humiliation and Western imperial land seizure; to Russia it is a symbol of national regeneration, its New World dreams and eastern prospects. The quest to take the Amur was to be Russia’s route to greatness, replacing an oppressive European identity with a vibrant one that faced the Pacific. Russia launched a grab in 1854 and took from China a chunk of territory equal in size nearly to France and Germany combined. Later, the region was the site for atrocities meted out on the Russian far east in the twentieth century during the Russian civil war and under Stalin.
The long shared history on the Amur has conditioned the way China and Russia behave toward each other—and toward the outside world. To understand Putin’s imperial dreams, we must comprehend Russia’s relationship to its far east and how it still shapes the Russian mind. Not only is the Amur a key to Putinism, its history is also embedded in an ongoing clash of empires with the West.

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Black Dragon River is a personal journey down one of Asia’s great rivers that reveals the region’s essential history and culture. The world’s ninth largest river, the Amur serves as a large part of the border between Russia and China. As a crossroads for the great empires of Asia, this area offers journalist Dominic Ziegler a lens with...

Dominic Ziegler is The Economist's Asia editor. He was the founding author of “Banyan,” The Economist’s weekly column on Asian affairs. He has previously served as the magazine’s Tokyo bureau chief and as its Greater China correspondent. In that role, he opened The Economist’s first mainland bureau in Beijing in 1994. He has been with ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 8.4 × 5.4 × 0.8 inPublished:November 8, 2016Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0143109898

ISBN - 13:9780143109891

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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***Copyright © 2015 Dominic ZieglerPROLOGUEThrow yourself with confidence upon this f lowing tide, for upon this generous river shall float navies, richer and more powerful than those of Tarshish . . . and at its mouth . . . shall congregate the merchant princes of the earth.Perry McDonough Collins, A Voyage Down the Amoor, 1860As the long reel of the river’s story turns, many peoples flicker in and out of view as they move along the Amur’s banks or float upon its waters: Mongols, Evenki, Nivkh, Manchus, Daurians, Nanai, Solons, and Ulchi, to name a few; and then there were the Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Koreans. In many ways the Amur is the meeting ground for Asia’s great empires and peoples.For much of my life the Amur was the longest river I had never heard of. The Amur approached me slantwise. When I was a foreign correspondent living in Beijing, I made a trip to what used to be called Manchuria and is now China’s northeast. I flew to Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province. It was February, and minus 24 degrees. On the main square men with chain saws and ice picks were turning blocks of ice into artistic forms: swans, missile launchers, Chairman Mao, Father Christmas. The ice came from the Songhua River, chief tributary of the Heilongjiang itself—the Black Dragon River, which is what the Chinese call the Amur, and they gave the name to the province. The main stream was still some way to the north, marking not just the province’s northern border, but the country’s. On the other side of the Amur, Russia began. But in Harbin you could still feel— only just, because the city was undergoing an orgy of redevelopment—that this had once been a chiefly Russian place.It had indeed been the largest city of European residents outside Europe, a Russian railway town at the turn of the last century that later, during the Russian civil war, was refuge to fifty thousand White Russians. Redbrick Russian buildings still lined the main street. Some city officials, spurning overcoats to go out into the punchy cold, took me to sing karaoke as the sun set. We sang “Edelweiss” (in Chinese) and a Mao Zedong verse about the Long March. But they all spoke Russian, and we also sang the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” in as doleful a bass as the vodka enabled.The officials then took me to a surviving Russian restaurant. No Russians, it is true, were serving there, only Chinese. But the food came as a shock after China’s usual fabulous fare. I was served a bowl in which a gray piece of Amur salmon swam in a greasy slop. This was ukha, I was told (there was no choice), Russia’s traditional fish soup. Later in the Russian Far East I discovered that there, too, this wonderful reviving soup could on occasion be prepared by unloving hands. The Chinese-made ukha in front of me looked inedible. But my waitress would not set it on the table until I had paid up front for it. That also happened to me in Russia, later. But only in Harbin did it ever happen to me in China.On that visit, the Amur was just a presence, felt but not seen. A few years later, on a winter f light from London to Tokyo, where by now I was living, I pulled up the blind after a fitful night, a couple of hours before we were to land. The sun was low, and the clouds had cleared. Below, all was a wilder- ness picked out by brilliant shafts of light. The taiga was cut through by a broad white ribbon that snaked north and then, on the far fringe of the curving earth, turned purposefully east before debouching, stillborn, into a frozen sea. Along the length of this forceful river I struggled to find human signs. I was smitten.I resolved to find out more about the Amur. I learned that the modern history of the river is the story of Russia’s push across the Eurasian land- mass, and the story of its unanticipated meeting with China. It was in the Amur watershed that China signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk with Russia in 1689, its first treaty with a European power and one that regulated the two countries’ relations for nearly two centuries. To this day China views Russia differently from other Europeans. At Nerchinsk, the terms very much suited China, for they held Russians at bay. Nerchinsk was a treaty negotiated on the basis of strict equality. Later, in the nineteenth century, a stricken China was forced into a series of “unequal” treaties with Western powers. Today the Chinese state nourishes its schoolchildren on a diet of victimhood at the hands of Western imperialists. Russia in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was every bit the imperialist, joining Britain, France, Germany, the United States and—later—militarist Japan, in carving China up. But today Russia’s part has been forgiven or forgotten, or considered somehow dif­ferent.This has very little to do with a shared history of Communism in the twentieth century. Indeed, Sino-Soviet fraternity crumbled following the death of Stalin in 1953, not long after the founding of the People’s Republic ofChina. Mao Zedong ensured that antagonisms grew, and in 1969 a skirmish broke out on the ice of the Amur River that threatened to spark a more general conflagration along the whole 2,700-mile frontier. But in China, all that goes largely unmentioned.Above all, apparently forgiven and forgotten (for now) in a country that cherishes its humiliations is a gargantuan Russian grab of territory from China the scale of which dwarfs all the better remembered Western depredations in the Victorian period—Hong Kong, Shanghai, and the other Treaty Ports. This imperialist grab was very different from the others, driven as they were by hardheaded and well-informed calculations of power and profit. Rather, 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 under Czar Nicholas I who were all too ready to share in an episode of mad escapism. Russians rediscovered a river that for centuries had hung forgotten on the eastern edge of their realm, f lowing 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. Above all, it seemed to offer a golden chance for Russia to replace an oppressive European identity with a vibrant one facing the Pacific. Thanks to the Amur, Russia—ground down by czarist absolutism, its peasantry enserfed, and even its aristocrats admitting the country to be at a dead end—could contemplate a hopeful future.Today it is clear that this delusion was fed far more by awareness of the unrolling of the American frontier than by any knowledge Russians had about their own Far East. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russians consumed the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, chronicler of the American frontier. The newspapers were full of tales of the California gold rush that was then under way. When seizing upon the Amur River as a wellspring of national renewal, Russians were fed by New World dreams. The river would be Russia’s Mississippi. The supposedly lush region the Amur River drained was to be a new America. The natives there were crying out for Russia’s civilizing hand. Russians just had to have the Amur. Led by Eastern Siberia’s governor-general, Nikolay Muraviev, they launched a grab in 1854 and took from China a chunk of territory equal nearly to France and Germany combined. They took it without firing a shot. Then, almost instantly, they regret- ted their folly.The Amur is one Asia’s mightiest rivers but I was soon to learn that it is also the most elusive. Over the centuries, the names for it have shifted like the sands at its mysterious mouth. The Manchus once had dominion. They revered the river as the Sahaliyan Ula, or the Black River. They were in awe of its magic powers, but the Manchus are now gone. Among the Russians who now live along what they call the Amure, few recall that they took the name—Amur, or “good peace”—from the greeting extended by local Dauri- ans, most of whom the early Russian incomers then exterminated.Scarcely the least of the altercations between Russia and China over the great stream that runs between them is quite where the headwaters of the Amur River may be said to lie. The matter has been laid to rest only recently—and perhaps only for now.Russia long ago took to insisting that the source was the Ingoda River, just east of Lake Baikal, Earth’s biggest lake, with a fifth of all the world’s fresh water. Russians have long been intimate with this particular river, though at more than four hundred miles long and never deep, by Siberian standards it is a rivulet. When setting out from Irkutsk or the southern end of Lake Baikal, the Ingoda formed the natural route to the silver mines of Nerchinsk, first exploited by Greek mining experts whom Czar Peter the Great brought to Siberia in the late 1600s. Then, very soon after, the mines were dug by the first of many, many men from European Russia who were banished to Siberia under a sentence ofkatorga, that is, exile and hard labor.On the Ingoda is Chita, the settlement Czar Nicholas I approved as the place of exile for a very particular group of men condemned to katorga, the Decembrists, so named after the month in which they made their futile gesture. These young, hopelessly romantic noblemen had returned from the wars against Napoleon and were infected with a European passion for liberalism and constitutional government. They had changed, in other words, while autocratic Russia had not. Their aspirations were quite out of keeping with the absolutism of the czars. In St. Petersburg’s Senate Square on December 14, 1825, a day when his troops were to swear loyalty to the new czar, the noblemen launched a coup of stunning ineptitude as they mislaid their revolutionary ardor. One strode purposefully onto the square only to complain of a headache. The man chosen as the coup leader, Prince Sergey Trubetskoy, failed to show up; instead, his face muff led, he wandered despondently about the city. Now that they were leaderless, the rebel troops lined up against Czar Nicholas’s ranks in Senate Square were defenseless, and hundreds were mowed down.Till the end of his life Nicholas was obsessed with that day in the square. His response to it set the tone for three decades of rule during which ideas and imagination were given no truck. The proto-revolutionaries became Russia’s first prisoners of conscience. The scale of their bungling in St. Petersburg was notable. But in the popular mind it came to be outweighed by the purity of their ideals. Above all, the Decembrists wanted an end to the serfdom that oppressed the Russian state nearly as much as it did the mil- lions of peasants who lived and died as slaves. In Chita the old log Church of Archangel Michael with its Decembrist memorabilia remains a shrine to these men and their remarkable wives. Their example serves as a reminder and at times an inspiration, even today, of other possibilities for Russia than an autocratic state.Later, when the Amur seemed to open up new eastern vistas, the Ingoda became the natural route to them. First adventurers, then soldiers, governors, natural philosophers, tradesmen, runaway serfs, projectors, dreamers, vagabonds, hard men, revolutionaries, and eventually, by the late nineteenth century, whole peasant villages from European Russia all traveled down the Ingoda in the search for a different future. Sometimes much farther: oneJune day in 1861 the irrepressible bulk of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin escaped down the Amur and traveled eastward three-quarters of the way around the world until, four months later, he stood with beard, huge smile, and rotting teeth on the London doorstep of his exiled friend and fellow radical Alexander Herzen.The Great Siberian Railroad, now known as the Trans-Siberian Railway, put this f low of people, cargo, and war matériel on a sounder footing. Completed in 1905, in haste because war had broken out with Japan, the railroad runs through the Ingoda’s water meadows for much of the long valley, the view from the dining car little changed. The Ingoda, then, became Russia’s route to the ocean and window, it seemed only a century ago, to a grander Pacific destiny, one that seemed to promise all too briefly the rebirth of Russia herself.As for the Chinese, they championed their Songhua River as the Amur’s pure original source. Westerners know the river as the Sungari, from the old Manchu name meaning White River (perhaps on account of its limpid water). The Sungari is the Amur’s longest and most powerful tributary, 650,000 gallons sluicing every second into the main Amur stream at a point far downriver from the Ingoda. The Sungari’s source lies high up in the Changbai range in China’s northeast, on the border today with North Korea. These are potent mountains. They are the mythical birthplace of the ancestors of the tribesmen who founded the Manchu state and then conquered China, ruling until a century ago as the Qing dynasty, China’s last, if you do not count the Communists.Meanwhile another country also piggybacks off the magic mountains’ power. North Korea is the world’s last totalitarian state. State mythology claims that in 1942 Kim Jong Il, North Koreans’ late Dear Leader, was born on the slopes of Mount Changbai (“Eternally White,” Mount Baektu to Koreans), at a time when his father was leading Korean freedom fighters against the aggression of imperial Japan. It also claims that a swallow fore- told the birth, and a double rainbow attended it. In truth, though you would go to the gulag for saying it, Kim was born on the grimy outskirts of Khabarovsk, Russia’s chief city on the Amur, where his father commanded a Soviet battalion of Korean and Chinese guerrillas. It is one of those strange things that also in a compound in Khabarovsk, in 1945, was the Last Manchu, Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. He spent five years in Soviet captivity after his Japanese-backed pocket empire of Manchukuo collapsed with Japan’s surrender. The fallen emperor whiled away the days reading the Diamond Sutra and raising green peppers and tomatoes in the yard, while others among his shrunken entourage held séances in the bed- rooms.Mao Zedong and his Communist followers used to claim they were driving everything foreign out of China, starting with the Manchu legacy. Yet in territorial matters, never was the Chinese empire larger and more secure than in the heyday of the Qing dynasty. As a sense only grows, along with economic clout, of a return to historical greatness, Beijing’s rulers today cling ever more fervently to the Qing’s maximalist definition of China’s empire. Yet inside the current borders, some ethnic groups chafe at repression by the Han Chinese rulers: Tibetans on the roof of the world, Uighurs in Xinjiang in the far west of China, and ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia; periodically unhappiness spills over into violence, always met by the authorities with a mailed fist. All the while, Taiwan, first conquered by the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi emperor in the late 1600s, has slipped from the Communists’ grasp—a renegade province, they say. They vow to win Taiwan back, by force if necessary, even with nuclear weapons.In this context the vast lands north of the Amur River and east of its great tributary, the Ussuri, come into focus, lands once known as “Outer Manchuria” or “Outer Tartary.” What will become of them? 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. Yet in the meantime China’s Communists have spun a narrative of national humiliation around the carve-up, and now destiny seems to be on their side: Hong Kong, ruled by the British, returned to the motherland in 1997, the Portuguese enclave of Macau two years later. Taiwan, Beijing says, is just a matter of time. So where does that leave Outer Tartary and the Russians living there? China has revived no claim since Mao Zedong’s time. But Russians in the Far East know their numbers are dwindling. Han Chinese, Russians say, are filtering silently through the forests of the Russian East and settling in the decaying towns. It is only a matter of time, Russians say, before China stakes its claim. Hence it matters where the Amur’s source lies. It is why it disturbs Russians when the Chinese say that the Songhua, rising in the Changbai mountains, is the Amur’s proper source—that the Songhua, indeed, is the great and essential stream, and that the Amur is its mere tributary.Not long ago, Chinese and Russian geographers decided the matter of the Amur simply had to be resolved. Not just truth was at stake, but dignity and perhaps even national destiny. Satellite maps were printed, to expansive scales. Compasses and dividers were applied to them. For days, geographers from the two countries took the measure of every tributary that coursed in animated squiggles or glided away in oxbow meanders on its way to meeting the main stream. In the end the conclusion was unexpected, even shocking. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese could deny it, and in that Beijing room it would be nice to think that someone even laughed. For the Amur’s source, that is, the one most distant from the river’s mouth and the ocean beyond it, lay in neither one country nor the other. The Amur tributary farthest from the sea was the Onon River. And for that half of the year in which all the streams of Siberia are not hard-frozen, the Onon’s headwaters bubble from the side of a mountain not in China or in Russia, but in a wild part of northern Mongolia. I resolved to see the Onon’s source, source of the Amur, the Amoor, the Black Dragon River, L’Amour, one the world’s great rivers, siren stream to dreamers.I resolved not just to find the source but to follow the whole watercourse of the Amur River. The challenges, it quickly became apparent, would be formidable. At home, my collection of aeronautical charts from the United States Defense Mapping Agency that covered the Amur basin piled ever higher. The river is longer than North America is broad, and the terrain diverse. To reach the Onon headwaters would mean traveling by horse; at the other end of the river, the final run would have to be done by the ancient Soviet hydrofoil that tied the town at the Amur’s mouth to the rest of the world, and then only during the summer months, before the river froze.Yet the political challenges appeared to be as daunting as the physical distances. For all the exclamations of brotherly relations between Russia and China, they keep their guard up—Russia especially—along their border. This is a problem for a riverine explorer, since for nearly two thousand miles the Amur marks that border and is, in effect, out of bounds, the banks marked out by trip wires and watchtowers. Talk of even a bridge across the river tying the two countries together has come to nothing (something which, along with the wild Amur’s complete absence of dams, fills me with secret pleasure). Fewer than half a dozen border crossings operate along the river, ferries shunting passengers back and forth for the short ride between the two countries. For a Briton—and a suspect journalist to boot—securing visas in these parts is like hunting for hen’s teeth. It would mean that for great chunks of my journey I would have to abandon hopes of waterborne travel and take to the Trans-Siberian Railway as it shadows the course of the Amur on the Russian side.No matter how I traveled, I hoped for much. I hoped that the Amur would serve as a lens—clear on some occasions, necessarily opaque on others—to understand how it has shaped the empires that have come into contact with it, past and present. Looking back, I do not think I imagined to find in such empty country the degrees of violence and cruelty I encountered in the history of the early Russians moving east. I wondered whether this original sin set the tone for the better known atrocities meted out on the Russian Far East in the twentieth century, notably during the Russian civil war and under Stalin.But I also hoped to find wilderness—wild redemptive places that theAmur basin promised thanks both to its scale and to its biological diversity, which is extraordinary. The basin encompasses an amazing range of ecoregions, from tundra to boreal taiga forests, to steppe grasslands, deciduous temperate forests, and wetlands. In some mountains, you will find the ibex; in the broadleaf forests, the Amur leopard (still hanging on) and butterflies the size of handkerchiefs; in the Amur itself, the giant sturgeon; and along the river’s banks, the wild lotus. It is not just that wild places stir me deeply—reason enough to want to make this journey. I was also curious to learn how the scale of the Amur wilderness had shaped and modulated the empires and peoples that stood before it. And to weigh against an inevitable litany today of environmental degradation and destruction (a logging and mining boom is taking place in Russia, while in just three decades the population in the Chinese part of the basin has doubled), I rather hoped to find some good news. In particular, I had heard that a common desire to protect a magnificent family of birds, the cranes, six of whose species breed in the Amur basin, had served to break down political antagonisms across prickly borders.But now the seasons were moving on, with winter not far away. Though mine was a more humdrum journey, like the cranes I had to be off. C H A P T E R 148°12.3' N 108°29.0' EThe phoenix of prosperity wishes to make the roof of one man its abode, while the owl of misfortune wishes to haunt the threshold of another.Juvaini, The History of the World Conquerorup one side of the wide valley of the south-f lowing Kherlen River, a scattering of log cabins sheltering behind stockades that splay at drunken angles. Jeep tracks count for streets. Stray cows keep down hints of municipal grass, and goats recycle the trash. I had been here once before, in midwinter, during Tsagaan Tsar, the festival of the white moon—the Mongolian New Year. Then, tables strained under mounds of food: curds and sweets and sides of butchered mutton and always the Mongolian sheep’s fat and prized tail. A pyramid of cookies stood in for the mountains of Shambhala, that pure, visionary land.The days were spent first greeting elders and then everybody else. Within gentle handclasps, snuff bottles passed from one man to the next were admired and then returned. A monk hung khadag, Buddhist scarvesof blue silk, around our necks. Neither the steamed mutton dumplings nor the vodka nor the singing of slow, formal airs stopped flowing. Outside, the weaker animals succumbed to the rapier cold, calves deep-frozen where they fell. On the third day, or perhaps it was the fourth, or fifth, the town emerged as one into the crystal air. A motorcycle, spanking new from a China factory, gleamed in the middle of the steppe, first prize for a horse race to mark the new year. Boy and girl jockeys climbed into saddles in felt boots and thick, embroidered jackets. The children sang to their horses, reminding them of their valor. And then they rode out together, one thick press, out of town and over the ridges to the start some two hours’ ride away. When they returned, this time strung out in a long, irregular, staggering line, fifty mounts with ice-foamed f lanks were urged back into town. By the end, the jockeys were beyond exhaustion, like their horses. They fell out of their saddles and stumbled toward their families, burying frozen tears in mothers’ coats.In winter, we had come by jeep up the Kherlen River, a slick, white, empty highway. But now, when I return, it is the close of a glorious summer. Mongonmorit is empty, because herders have driven their animals to fatten on far pastures, where the men and women also take hay before winter. The curling ribbon of the Kherlen has taken on the hue of the khadag sky. Though scarcely out of the tumbling mountains, the river f lows with the strong, smooth gait that will carry it for another six hundred miles over into northeastern China.On the steppe, the brief riot of summer is very nearly over: the grasshoppers and crickets fizz just as they did in high summer, but the khaki grasses rustle underfoot like old parchment. Marsh birds are on the move, green- shank and snipe starting up with a cry. Wildfowl barrel toward the south- west in urgent knots and, high up, a flapping ball of lapwings is harried by a hawk. Above all, the f lies are gone. The bloodsucking torment of the gadflies and mosquitoes is over. Gone, too, are the chief of the tormentors, clouds of flesh-smothering blackflies that swarm in summer like smoke from a prairie fire. Horse weather, at last.Mongonmorit is the last human settlement. Looking upstream, hazy ridges converge, and the flat valley funnels to a vanishing point. Beyond that is nothing: no dwelling, not even a tent, for countless miles—virgin forest until the Russian border, and probably well beyond it. It is as vast and true a wilderness as it is possible to imagine, and the Onon headwaters promise to lie at the heart of it. The seduction of it sharpens the pleasures: of appetite, naturally, and of the clean scent of autumn; but also of anticipation.Of course, notions of wilderness get rudely qualified in our anthropocene age. The impact of humans is evident in even the remotest parts of land or sea, if only you look for it. I looked hard, in dusty shelves, before coming here, and two things struck home about the wild places ahead of me. It was, first, a more peopled land in past centuries than now, especially in warmer periods: crisscrossed by hunters of game and gatherers of pine nuts and cloudberries; used by herders for summer grazing; borrowed as a refuge by people who, for one reason or another, were on the run; or simply a range to cross on the way back home. It was to some, perhaps many, a familiar region. Probably that is true of most of the places we value for being solitary and wild.Second, but more unusually, the human impact, the more emphatic human impact, came not from outside this remote region pressing in: climate change, airborne pollution, logging, hunting—the usual dismal litanies. Rather, the truly powerful impact came from one single human raised eight hundred years ago near the Onon headwaters. And his impact is not measured on the parochial scale of his home turf, these mountains ahead, but on a scale that encompassed continents. For the boy Temujin was raised in this wild place, and he later came to be Genghis Khan, the supreme khan, khan of “all the people living in felt tents.”Through a sense of a divine mandate, sheer will, military f lair, and the exhibition of both extraordinary cruelty and, to some, extraordinary devotion, this ruler forged a people. And through a string of stunning conquests, Genghis Khan directed his armies to found a Mongol realm that stretched from China to the Euphrates, Korea to Eastern Europe, the Pacific to the Mediterranean: the biggest contiguous empire the world has known.I think no individual in the past millennium can have impacted the planet more than Genghis Khan, and only Jesus and Muhammad before him. If that seems fanciful, consider a study carried out by a group of geneticists a few years ago into Asian variations in the patterns of DNA. They sampled two thousand men from sixteen Asian population groups stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific. To the geneticists’ intense surprise, they discovered that 8 percent of the men shared a common lineage of Y chromosomes (possessed by men but not women). They had, in other words, stumbled upon a shared ancestor of these men, a single individual apparently living in Mongolia one thousand years ago, give or take. Such a rapid spread of genes cannot have happened by chance. It points, rather, to an extreme form of social selection. Only a certain kind of man can possibly have scattered his seed so abundantly, a conqueror who has the pick of the breeding-age women, one who slaughters enemy warriors on a vast scale and carries away their widows and daughters: Genghis Khan. Extrapolating from the sample, 8 percent of males in populations from Uzbekistan to northeast China, or the core area of the Mongol empire at the time of Genghis Khan’s death, share the common lineage. Sixteen million males, one in two hundred of the world’s men, have Genghis Khan in their blood.In other ways it is not fanciful to imagine that Genghis Khan reverberates in the lands through which he and his successor khans passed, and in ways that shape them today. In Mongolia, this is not hard to miss. For seven decades of the twentieth century the country was the second ever Communist state, a satellite of the Soviet Union (whose embrace it preferred over China’s). During that time, Mongolia’s Communist rulers suppressed all admiration for Genghis Khan, that feudal, imperialist bandit. They understood his potency. And, sure enough, since Communism fell in 1990 and Mongolia gained true independence, the young impoverished democracy has, with a vengeance, staked its claim to the great khan as the chief identifier for a land cut loose from the old certainties, squeezed between two giants, Russia and China, and now in thrall to a mining boom whose potential will either make a poor country extraordinarily prosperous, or tear it apart in an orgy of corruption and inequity.But the old reverberations, perhaps more dimly sensed, nevertheless seem to shape the impulses of another, still bigger country once under Mongol rule: Russia itself, with a very old Asian dimension. If the Mongols’ thirteenth-century destruction of European Russia had any lasting influence on the later Russian state, marking it out from the rest of Europe, it was perhaps one of two things. Either “Oriental despotism” had laid the foundations for czarist despotism, Soviet tyranny, and post-Soviet strongman rule—“scratch a Russian or you find a Tatar,” Napoleon was supposed to have said. Or, more creatively, Russians had learned from the Mongols the imperative of political unity in ruling an expanse of land that soon stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific—Russians, in other words, took up the Mongols’ task and completed it. Russians today dispute which view is the more correct, depending on outlook. Either way, I now wanted to explore how Russians had pushed so far east, thousands of miles from their European heartland.The impetus for my search came quite unexpectedly, during my winter under the white moon, on that first visit to Mongonmorit and its surroundings. With Gala, my friend, we called on the family of a herder, a pillar of the community on whose chest were pinned rows of Soviet-era medals. We exchanged snuff bottles and new-year greetings, and then we talked about mutual friends, and about the unusual cold that year, scything down the herds.After a while, the door of the ger, the felt tent, sprang open, and a young man in Mongolian dress and leather riding boots like the rest stepped in and sat on the iron bed opposite us—the family’s only bed—between the herder’s two grandsons. He put an arm around each of them, as if the third brother. But there was a difference. The young man was fair and blue-eyed: wild blue eyes and tousled hair.He looked at me with feigned lack of surprise, as all Mongolians do when foreigners enter the ger: in the countryside, hospitality is all, and interrogation an uncouth form of conversation. I could hardly blurt out the questionsI wanted to ask of this young man, a country Mongolian in all his ways except his European face. A little later, he left as briskly as he had arrived, having uttered not a word, except in whispers to his brothers. The thump of hooves raced away soon after he had shut the door. Only later, sideways, did I ask about him, and then the old herder gave the details matter-of-factly: he was a Russian backwoodsman; he had appeared a few years before out of the forests to the north, gathering mushrooms and pine nuts; he had come to this family and he had never left; he herded with them in the summer, and gathered nuts in the winter; he was now a son, and nobody thought much of it.To me, that afternoon’s meeting seemed wildly implausible, challenging lazy assumptions about a clear line between West and East, Europeans and Asians, rich countries and poor. I wanted to understand better, and I knew then that I would see Mongonmorit again. It was the way to the Onon, which I felt held a clue to the earliest impulses that drew Russia eastward, taking a small nation out of its forest fastness far away in northwestern Europe until it grew, four hundred–odd years ago, into a continental power—one which, unexpectedly, came up against a more sophisticated, a more established, in every way a more puissant empire: China itself. That meeting took place along the Amur River, of which the Onon is the source. I had to start at the beginning.

Editorial Reviews

"A superb book that marvellously melds high-class travel writing on one of the world's least known regions with fascinating history of explorers, emperors, freebooters, revolutionaries and larger-than-life characters - all in a landscape that begs to be explored by traveller as intrepid and determined as Ziegler."—Jonathan Fenby, author of The Penguin History of Modern China  "If you think you understand the modern world, think again. Dominic Ziegler takes us on a magical journey to an extraordinary part of the globe - a river that snakes through history and possibly all our futures. It is a story of cruelty, mystery, beauty and wilderness that leaves you smiling at your previous ignorance."—John Micklethwait, co-author of The Fourth Revolution