"Black Dragon River" (Penguin Press), by Dominic Ziegler
The border between the United States and Mexico is almost 2,000 miles long. The border between Russia and China, two of the world's most powerful and intriguing nations, is around 2,700 miles. Considering the intricate dramas of the U.S.-Mexico border, anyone with a passion for how cultures come together should perk up at the Far Eastern promise of "Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires."
Another good sign: The author is Asia editor for The Economist.
But settle in. It takes 270 pages to reach the key line, "I was curious to know more about the Chinese and their place in the Russian Far East today."
Author Dominic Ziegler instead draws deeply on history while traveling down the river that, with tributaries, marks much of the Russia-China border. As he makes his way through rural Mongolia to begin his journey, he sets the scene with 13th-century tales of Genghis Khan, whose Mongols sacked both Beijing and the seat of early Russian civilization, Kiev.
The layers continue as Ziegler moves downstream, including Cossack conquest in vast Siberia and an extraordinary meeting of thousands of emissaries of two of history's most intellectually curious leaders, Peter the Great and the Kangxi emperor. The treaty they concluded in 1689, the first between Russia and China, was negotiated on such equal terms that the two sides used Latin as a neutral language.
It was that early respectful encounter, Ziegler argues, that has set China's relationship with Russia apart from its later relationships with other Western powers, which are weighted with what the Chinese government has bitterly called a "century of humiliation."
That doesn't mean relations have necessarily been warm, and Zeigler spends quite a bit of his travels in Russian cities and towns far from the border with China, apparently for logistical or security reasons. The result is a great deal of Russian history, while you'd think little happened over in China in the centuries between the Kangxi emperor and the rise of Mao Zedong.
But why complain when there are so many distractions? Like a good traveler, Zeigler wanders over to anything interesting. "A Buddhist republic within the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation: How could this be?" he writes, then mucks around happily for the next 24 pages. Much later on, he takes a look around Russia's oblast, or province, of Birobidzhan, "nothing less than the modern world's first Jewish homeland."
Eventually, though, you do start to hope for some actual modern-day mixing of Russians and Chinese. This book barely delivers. By the time the journey drifts into the current day, the Amur River bends north and leaves China behind. In a handful of pages before he plunges with it toward the Pacific, Zeigler just hints at the wrenching change of fortunes for the two great powers over the past few decades.
In the briefest of encounters with a Chinese trader at a border city, Zeigler mentions past "tales of awestruck Chinese who had never seen a fridge or a hair dryer till they crossed the Amur" into Russia. The trader practically snorts with disdain.
These days, Russians in the remote borderland are a "population sliding into degrading poverty," trying to dismiss the lights and bustle of Chinese cities across the river as nothing but a Potemkin village, Ziegler writes.
It will take another book, and a more focused journey, to tell us more about how these sometimes prickly cultures really interact, not through the sweep of history, but in the galloping day to day.