Welcome to my blog!

News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
or on Mastodon @balkandave@mastodon.scot, or Threads @davewatson1683

Tuesday 2 January 2024

The Amur River

My library pick last month and Xmas reading was Colin Thubron's travelogue, The Amur River. This is the border between Russia and China, and it has a fascinating history. However, I don't think the Amur River Tourist Board, if there is such a thing, will be ordering many copies. He doesn't exactly sell it as a tourist destination.

The Amur River (called Heilongjiang (Black Dragon) River in China) is one of the longest rivers in the world, flowing through Northeast Asia. It serves as a natural border between Russia and China. The river begins in Mongolia (although this is contested) and flows eastward, forming the boundary between Russia's Far East and northeastern China before emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean. 

Colin starts on horseback in Mongolia near the Mongolian royalty burial grounds. Most tourists would have called it a day as he falls off his pony, breaking his ankle and ribs. However, our intrepid travel writer continues using more modern transport for the rest of the journey. As he enters Russia, this is Siberia, a territory of many conflicts with China. So much so that almost no bridges cross the river boundary. The Russians colonised this region in the 17th century, sending cossacks and other freebooters to the river, massacring the native tribes as they went. The Manchu dynasty eventually lost patience and attacked the cossack forts before both countries signed a peace treaty in 1689.

On the way, Colin visits the remains of old fortresses and the local museums. The curators were understandably surprised to see a foreign visitor. The 19th century saw renewed Russian efforts to develop the region, taking advantage of Chinese weakness. This was the period of one of Britain's most disgraceful colonial conflicts, the Opium War, so the Russians were not alone. Count Muraviev-Amursky, the Russian governor, persuaded the Tsar that the river had strategic value. He assembled a force of cossacks and a mile-long flotilla of armed barges to control the river. The subsequent 1858 Treaty gave Russia control of the lands north of the river, but the cossack settlements seldom flourished. The Soviets also had a go at it, but with no more success. 

Khabarovsk is the largest city, and trade with China is primarily illicit. The Chinese find ways around trade restrictions and ownership rules, primarily by adopting a token Russian partner. There are significant memorials along the river to the dead of the wars—some to the early cossacks, but also to the conflict with Japan in 1945. The Nomonhan Incident in 1939 was on the Khalkha River, which is in the Amur Basin. I collected the armies for this a few years back. The region was also home to several Soviet-era Gulags, and the author visits the mass grave of 12,000 people killed during the years of Stalin's anarchy. Japanese prisoners of war died in much larger numbers after 1945. probably as many as 62,000 in the work camps.

The Sino-Soviet Border War of 1969 nearly sparked a nuclear exchange, fought over islands in the river that have no economic or strategic value. There is a detailed study of the conflict in the Helion Asia@War series. It is still home to significant armament factories, including where the SU-27 is built. There is a museum at the Amur Shipbuilding Plant, although the Soviet Pacific Fleet had long moved to Vladivostok.

This book is not a cheery read. Apart from the history, the lives of people in this sparsely populated region are tough by any standard. The scenery is unspectacular, if not dreary. However, it is an intrepid travel story, well told. 

One of my Nomonhan games in 15mm


  1. An interesting book but, again, probably not one I’d get around to reading.
    I vaguely recall a few years ago I spotted a book in a used bookstore, about a river journey in Siberia. I decided against buying it as I got the impression that it was a hard journey through bleak terrain - harsh all around. Probably quite interesting though.

    1. Certainly a grim journey. Not one I would consider.

  2. It is an interesting area in that on the Russian side only 7 million people live in Siberia. On the opposite chinese side its 87 million! The Chinese are basically colonising the opposite bank by marrying locals and also setting up business.
    I saw a map not so long a go where Russia gave up all of siberia as economically a drain on resources and the Chinese took over. I

    1. I read about Chinese businesses setting up using a local as a named owner, but I didn't realise the population difference was that great. Mind you, it was a depressing read and I wouldn't want to live there!