Tibetans Encounter the Long March

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-23:

The Communists were ensconced 1,200 miles away at the borders of Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, where they had formed a mini–Soviet state. When Chiang’s forces launched an attack to dislodge them in 1934, the Communists broke into three armies and escaped in a retreat that would become known as the Long March. For the Chinese Communist Party, this is an epic event, enshrined in revolutionary ballads and operas—roughly the equivalent of the exodus out of Egypt, except it was not Moses but Mao leading the Red Army to safety.

With Chiang’s army in hot pursuit, the Communists fled farther and farther west into China before turning north in Sichuan province. For Tibetans, it marked their first encounter with the Chinese Communist Party. It did not go well.

The Red Army of the 1930s was not yet the formidable fighting machine that it would later become. The Chinese soldiers were short of equipment, food, and local knowledge. The last overlords of the plateau, the Qing, were Manchus, not Han; the envoys they sent to the plateau were usually Manchus or Mongols. Many of the maps and documents were in Manchurian. The Red Army soldiers were mostly Han from the lowlands of eastern and southern China.

Idyllic though Tibet looks in those coffee table books, the habitat is brutal to the uninitiated, the weather perilously unpredictable. You can be soaked through the skin one minute, charmed the next by a magnificent double rainbow, then shriveled by ultraviolet rays of the high-altitude sun. Hailstones big as chicken eggs can kill an adult yak and occasionally humans. The oxygen-starved atmosphere leaves newcomers faint and headachy. Even Tibetans get lost in swirling blizzards and die of exposure.

The Tibetan plateau was terra incognita for the Chinese. “Where are we? Have we left China?” one bewildered young soldier asked his commanding officer as they trekked through grasslands to the east of Ngaba, this according to a book by Sun Shuyun, The Long March: The True History of China’s Founding Myth. The commanding officer admitted that he didn’t know himself. He suggested they wait until they encountered somebody who spoke Chinese. They didn’t. The most pressing concern for the Red Army was a lack of food. The Chinese soldiers started by picking crops from Tibetan fields—some of them unripe—and stealing stockpiles of grain. They captured sheep and yaks for slaughter. Many young Communists were still idealistic about helping the poor, and the memoirs reflect that they sometimes left IOUs after they looted Tibetan larders. It didn’t do much good because there was a limit to how much food could be raised. The plateau couldn’t support a large population, certainly not the thousands of newly arrived soldiers. For the first time in living memory, Tibetans experienced famine conditions.

At some point, the Chinese discovered that the Buddhist monasteries contained not only the treasures of Tibetan civilization, but potential comestibles. Drums were made of animal hides that could be eaten if boiled long enough—a technique the soldiers knew because they’d already consumed their own belts, rifle straps, leather bags, and the reins of horses. They even ate figurines that had been sculpted out of barley flour and butter, according to a memoir discovered by scholars Jianglin Li and Matthew Akester, who have extensively researched this period.

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Tibetan Origins

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 14-15:

Tibetans themselves have a fanciful origin myth with nods to both Darwinism and Buddhism. Although there are various permutations to the story, the gist is that the Tibetan people are the descendants of an ape and an ogress who mated on a cliff above a vast inland sea that once covered the Tibetan plateau. (The part about the sea is supported by geological evidence.) The ape was said to be a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, gentle in nature, and the ogress a pitiless warrior.

These qualities would be inherited by their descendants, the Tibetan people, whose destiny would be shaped by competing strains of compassion and cruelty.

Even after the introduction of Buddhism, imported from India in the seventh century, the Tibetans were hardly pacifists. Nor were they particularly insular, contrary to the latter-day reputation of Tibet as a hermit kingdom. In an era when horsemanship was the most essential skill of war, Tibetans ranged across central Asia, sacking cities and subduing other peoples who were incorporated into the Tibetan nation. Under the great emperor Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetans built an empire that rivaled those of the Mongols, Turks, and Arabs. For a brief moment in history, fleeting but hardly forgotten, the Tibetans were even more powerful than the Chinese. In 763 the Tibetans sacked Chang’an, the Tang dynasty capital city now known as Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors. Their occupation of the city lasted only fifteen days, but it would be long remembered by Tibetans with pride.

The Tibetan empire collapsed in the mid-ninth century and fragmented into minor principalities. It was not until 1642 that a strong, centralized Tibet was reestablished under the leadership of a succession of Dalai Lamas installed and supported by the powerful Mongols. The fifth Dalai Lama had the Potala Palace built on the ruins of the fortress of Songtsen Gampo, giving the impression of an unbroken line of succession with the past. But his Tibet was less than half the size of the former empire, with most of the formerly Tibetan lands to the east split up among various smaller kingdoms and fiefdoms, of which the Mei kingdom of Princess Gonpo’s ancestors was one of many.

Gonpo’s ancestors came originally from the western reach of the plateau, near Mount Kailash—a region called Ngari, which might account for the name Ngaba. Perhaps to enhance their legitimacy, they claimed to have migrated during the ninth century, the golden age of Tibet, as warriors under the command of the great emperors. When the Tibetan empire collapsed and receded, an official history suggests, they remained behind in the east, establishing their own fiefdom.

Ngaba was the perfect place to go rogue. It was the very embodiment of the old Chinese chestnut “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” It was more than one thousand miles from Beijing—at least a month’s journey by horseback—and nearly as far from Lhasa. By the time the Mei kingdom was firmly established in the eighteenth century, the eastern reaches of the Tibetan plateau had been annexed by the Manchus, who had conquered China and established the Qing dynasty. But the Qing emperors were stretched too thin to bother with the tiresome task of governance. They would send in the cavalry only if fighting between fractious chieftains threatened the empire. The attitude seemed to be “Let the barbarians rule themselves.” They even gave imperial seals to many of the local rulers, Gonpo’s ancestors included, confirming their authority to rule.

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Amur River Boom and Bust

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 265-268:

The enormous silence of the river, its shrinking human populace and its virgin forest, give the illusion of return to some primeval Arcadia, of recoil from a stricken present. But to its inhabitants it means desolation. For almost four centuries the Amur has been the stuff of dreams, but also of promise forever delayed. In the mid-nineteenth century, especially, there arose in Russia a grand and delusive exhilaration. Just as in the seventeenth century the Cossacks were lured south by rumours of a Daurian river valley spread with wheat and sable-filled forests, even silver and precious stones, so the accession of the initially liberal Czar Alexander II, in an empire that had been stagnating for thirty years, released a groundswell of intoxicating hope. Momentarily Russia turned her back on Europe, with its old humiliations, and found a visionary future in Siberia’s east.

Suddenly the immense but little-known Amur loomed into brilliant focus. Here would be Russia’s artery to the Pacific, a titanic waterway flowing, as if by providence, from the belly of Siberia into an ocean of infinite promise. The trading concessions wrenched from China by the British and French, the prising open of Japan, and above all the arrival of a young and vigorous America on the opposite coast, would surely transform the Pacific into an arena of world commerce. Russians had watched the American advance westward with awe. It seemed to mirror their own headlong drive across Siberia to the same ocean, and now the two countries might flourish together in a shared oceanic commonwealth. There was even heady talk, in Siberia, of a political alliance.

With Muraviev-Amursky’s seizure of the Amur from a helpless China in 1858, the vision of an eastern destiny became euphoria. The Amur, it was declared, would become Russia’s Mississippi, and Muraviev was hailed, without irony, as ‘one courageous, enterprising Yankee’. Such dreams climaxed in the energies of the American entrepreneur Perry McDonough Collins, quaintly named his country’s ‘commercial agent’ on the Amur. ‘Upon this generous river shall float navies, richer and more powerful than those of Tarshish,’ he announced, and at its mouth ‘shall rise a vast city, wherein shall congregate the merchant princes of the earth’.

Even before Muraviev’s land grab, St Petersburg was rife with reports of foreign merchant ships making for the Amur. Soon a lighthouse at De Castries was raised to guide them. A fleet of steamboats began plying the once-quiet waters. The lower river valley was declared a free trade zone. And the fulcrum of these hopes was the newly founded port of Nikolaevsk at the Amur’s mouth, which Alexander and I were approaching on the lonely Meteor. For a few years German and American trading firms went up here, housed in stout log cabins with iron and zinc roofs. A library of over four thousand books was assembled, with recent Paris and St Petersburg newspapers, happily uncensored. The officers’ club flaunted a dining hall and ballroom. Life was reported delightful. The Nikolaevsk stores were selling Havana cigars, French pâté and cognac, port and fine Japanese and Chinese furniture. Susceptible minds twinned the town with San Francisco. And Perry Collins, of course, went further, looking forward to the day when St Petersburg itself would be replicated on the Amur.

Then, within a decade, harsh realities broke in. Far from being a riverine highway, the Amur was revealed as a labyrinth of shoals, shallows and dead ends, and for seven months of the year was sealed in ice or adrift with dangerous floes. Even cargo boats of low draught might not reach Khabarovsk, let alone Sretensk. And the river mouth offered no simple access. The straits between the mainland and the obstructing island of Sakhalin made for hazardous steering, especially from the tempestuous Okhotsk Sea. Ships sank even in the estuary. As for the Amur shores, for hundreds of miles they were peopled only by a sprinkling of Cossacks, natives and subsistence farmers, many forcibly settled on poor land, and open to the floods that still ravage it. For its inhabitants, this became a cursed river: not the ‘Little Father’ of Russia’s affection, wrote a dismayed naturalist, but her ‘sickly child’. The structures of commerce that worked elsewhere – the trading houses, the shipping agents, the free zones – had been imposed upon an indifferent wilderness. In the simple, brutal realization of those most disillusioned, there was nobody to trade with and nothing to trade. Within a few years the agents and flotillas were gone, transferring first to De Castries and then to the ice-free harbour of Vladivostok.

As for Nikolaevsk, even Collins had expressed misgivings. Its waterside was so shallow that ships had to drop anchor half a mile offshore, and their cargo was transported by lighters to a swampy coast. In winter the town was blasted by Arctic blizzards and lay sometimes six feet deep in snow. Even the reports of foreign commerce were exposed as delusion. The shipping had never been significant. Within a few years Nikolaevsk became a byword for boredom, immorality and petty scandals. In its celebrated officers’ club, remarked a worldly sea captain, the newspapers were few and several months old; it compared poorly to a low German beer house. The great explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky equated the whole place with Dante’s hell.

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A Manchu Losing His Language

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 163-164:

He can remember his family genealogy, he says, for five generations back, and they were pure Manchu, and spent all their lives on the Heilongjiang.

And what was the river to them, I wonder.

‘It wasn’t exactly holy. But we still call it our Mother River. My ancestors were all soldiers on these shores. We belonged to the White Banner.’ He is glowing now. The eight Manchu banners had supplied the military elite of their dynasty. ‘My son is a soldier too. And tall, like you.’ He calls up a photo on his phone of a strong young man, swimming somewhere in the Yellow Sea.

Liang breaks in: ‘Does he speak Manchu too? Mr Toobelong likes languages.’

‘No. Only a few old people ever spoke Manchu here, and they’ve died. Except me. People aren’t afraid to say they’re Manchu any more, but they only know Chinese. Even my older brother – he’s dead now – never spoke Manchu. For some reason I was the only one. I think as a boy I was always listening . . .’

Only when I ask him if he’s proud of his heritage does a moment’s confusion surface. Perhaps in obedience to the Party line, or in deference to Liang smiling beside him, he says: ‘No, not proud, we’re all the same now.’ He makes a levelling motion with his hand. ‘We are all Chinese.’ After a silence he adds: ‘All the same, I’m sorry my son doesn’t speak . . .’

It was in the distant Amur outposts that the language had held out longest. There are still speakers of a related tongue two thousand miles to the west, where Manchu soldiers had once guarded the frontier against czarist Russia. But the number who know true Manchu nationwide is unknown, veering between twenty and a mere three, with a few academics studying early Qing documents. The language itself belongs to the obscure Tungusic branch of the Altaic family, shared by Turkic peoples, Hungarians, Finns and Mongolians. Even the last Manchu emperor, it is said, spoke it only haltingly.

Yun too, when he starts to speak, looks stolidly puzzled. It is as if the words occupy a basement in his memory, and have to be pulled up one by one. But slowly they start to loosen and flow, and finally become a whispering stream, full of short vowels and blurred gutturals. Occasionally the gong-like tone of a Mandarin loan-word sounds, but even in Yun’s voice, in which every word blends into the next, Manchu emerges softly staccato, seeming closer to Japanese.

Yun looks happy now, in his far ancestral tongue. I wonder what he is saying. It sounds somehow important. This, after all, was the language of a dynasty that had ruled the fifth-largest empire ever known, extending deep into Inner Asia and far north of the Heilongjiang. I imagine a vocabulary adapted to verbose edicts or shouted battle orders. But when Yun ends, and I ask him, he says he knows too little of history or politics to voice them. Sealed in a language that nobody else understands, he has been talking about his domestic troubles.

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Switching from Russian to Chinese

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Next morning, the day before I cross to China, I lock myself in my hotel room and prepare to ease into the language that I learnt poorly more than thirty years ago, and have rarely spoken since. My Mandarin notes and textbooks, squashed into my rucksack, spill out like ancient scripts, still covered in my tutor’s red biro, and stained with the rings of coffee cups. Beyond my window, through an opening in the shoreline flat-blocks, a section of the Amur gleams, with Heihe lying beyond under a clouded sky. A Russian patrol boat is crossing the gap.

The only sounds in the room are my own. I return to my makeshift table. It’s a relief to leave behind the complexities of Russian grammar, the dual aspects of verbs, the exacting cases of nouns, the sheer length of words. Chinese, which lacks verbal tenses, genders, even the singular and plural, seems suddenly, radiantly simple. I shift my table to the light of the window and the glint of the Amur, and my exhilaration rises. The vocabulary flows back. Sometimes I have the illusion that I am not remembering, but learning anew. I anticipate the stark thrust of Mandarin replacing Russian wholesale. A change of language feels like a change of person. Sounds and structures dictate emotion. New concepts emerge, while others die. I have the illusion that I become more aggressive in Mandarin, and that my voice descends an octave. Perhaps I will need this. I have no idea what dialects may be coming my way. Yet for a long time I hear Mandarin returning, and imagine all will be well.

But as the hours go on, this happy remembrance stiffens. The unfamiliar structures start to weigh on me. There are words I have clean forgotten. Perhaps it is all too long ago. The blessed existence of Western borrowings (in Russian there are many) is all but absent. Mandarin is a tonal tongue – its words change meaning with their pitch – and the language turns, in my memory, to an echo of discordant gongs. I remember finding it easier to speak than to understand: the reverse of what I wish. Suddenly I miss the pliant beauty of Russian.

By evening a self-induced dementia has set in. When I go down to the hotel restaurant I mistakenly ask for the lavatory in Mandarin, then order a meal in Russian and chat to the bewildered waitress in a deranged mixture of both. Often my poor grasp of either leaves me suspended in mid-speech. I have no idea what is going to come out of my mouth.

I had a similar experience years ago in Beijing in 1988, where I managed to contact an old classmate from my Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84. She worked for the Romanian broadcast service of Radio Beijing (which has a larger audience now than it used to in those days). I had first learned Romanian (fairly well) while in the U.S. Army at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, so she and I were both in the advanced Romanian language class at the University of Bucharest. Our classmates included her Chinese broadcaster colleague, 4 young East German translators/interpreters, and 2 other American Fulbrighters, and we spoke mostly Romanian to each other during that year. However, when we met again in Beijing, after my wife and I had spent a year in Guangdong teaching English and I had put some effort into learning basic Mandarin, I had a hell of a time keeping my new Chinese phrases out of my once-fluent Romanian when talking with her and her travel-agent husband, who knew Italian and English.

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Fate of Chinese Cossacks

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 103-104:

I turn back to where the museum [in Albazino] dreamed by Agrippina Doroskova stands among fallen leaves. In its grounds are a reconstructed Cossack farmstead, a Cossack chapel, a flour mill and a cosy izba, with a child’s cot and toys, a samovar and pretty pictures, evoking a life from which all brutality and dirt have been airbrushed. But inside, the museum becomes an anthem to Cossack heroism. Its entrance blazes with a violent and romantic picture of the siege during some imaginary last day, in which the hirsute warriors, with their Madonna’s icon held aloft, battle like gods under the flaming turrets of their doomed fort. In nearby showcases lie the leftovers of their war and burial: a scorched powder-horn, an axe head, some shredded belts, many little pectoral crosses, and the half-rotted plaits from the tight-bound hair of their women.

The curator is proud and solicitous. I am alone here – her first Westerner in months – but I am making obscure requests. From her archives she finds a snapshot of Chinese visitors: six businessmen whose wives are cowled in Orthodox headscarves. They have Russian names, and one is holding an icon. Yet they look entirely Chinese. They are the descendants of Cossack defectors at the time of the siege, the curator says; they opted to join the Manchus rather than go back home. Why they did so is unsure. Perhaps they feared reprisal for crimes, or wanted to keep the native wives who might have been denied them in Russia.

The return of these ‘Peking Albazinians’ – their yearning for some long-past belonging – touches the curator with confusion. Some of their ancestors were prisoners, but most had deserted. They may have numbered a hundred or more. In Peking they became the nucleus of a separate company in the Imperial Bodyguard. They lived in the old city near the Eastern Gate, and were given female criminals to marry. They had a Russian priest and consecrated their own church, once a Lamaist temple, which they furnished with salvaged icons. With time and intermarriage, they lost their Russian looks and language. Travellers described them as godless drunkards. Yet the memory of their origins lingered. Their church transformed into an Orthodox mission that lasted into the twentieth century – as late as the 1920s it held Albazinian nuns – until other pieties – Bolshevism, Maoism – swept it away. Then the church became the garage of the Soviet embassy, before reverting to a tiny congregation.

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Negotiating the Treaty of Nerchinsk, 1689

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 63-66:

Nerchinsk has been in decline ever since the Trans-Siberian Railway bypassed it at the end of the nineteenth century. Its distant silver mines are long worked out, its factories failed. A palisaded prison spreads close to where the Nerva river joins the Shilka, and a military airfield lies abandoned on the outskirts. I search in vain for any memorial to the treaty signed here: an agreement whose breach and promise still resonate across three centuries.

The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk marked the first check to Russia’s headlong conquest of Siberia. From the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean, over more than three thousand miles, Cossacks and soldiers had traversed the whole continent in less than sixty years. It was in the frozen governorate town of Yakutsk, six hundred miles from the still-unknown Amur, that rumours spread of a mighty river flowing through a paradise of harvest fields to the south. In 1643 a desperate, three-year expedition under Vasily Poyarkov descended from the starving settlement and ravaged the middle courses of the Amur, exacting a tribute of furs from the scattered Daur tribespeople, or slaughtering them. By the journey’s end Poyarkov’s mutinous force of 150 men was reduced to 20 by starvation, disease and fatal flogging – some he killed with his own hands – and he returned to Yakutsk with the first, tentative mapping of the Amur. In a pattern that would be repeated, Poyarkov was recalled for trial in Moscow, and vanishes from record.

Four years later a more terrible scourge was unleashed on the Amur by the buccaneer Yerofei Khabarov, who ravaged the riverine settlements for over five hundred miles. In one episode alone he boasted of the massacre of 661 Daur villagers ‘with God’s help’, along with mass rape.

But now the native peoples appealed to the nominal suzerain of the region, China. Khabarov was withdrawn for trial in Moscow, and his eventual successor, with more than two hundred men, was blown to bits by Chinese cannon on the lower Amur. For thirty years afterwards the two great empires fought a shadow war of mutually ignorant diplomacy, while a flood of Russian peasants, Cossacks and criminals, beyond government control, poured into the Amur basin. It was after 1680, with their rule secure, that the Manchu Chinese at last lost patience. One by one the Russian forts were eliminated, and after the death of more than eight hundred besieged Cossacks in their last Amur stronghold, Moscow and Peking moved to negotiate a peace.

Nerchinsk by then had become Russia’s gateway to the Amur, yet was little more than a stockaded fort with a few government and traders’ dwellings. This wooden village would later be wrecked by the flooding river, and rebuilt more durably on higher ground; but in 1689 the waterside meadows became the venue for the first treaty China ever concluded with a European power. The two empires – the parvenu Russian and the ancient Chinese – were deeply strange to one another. Their delegates were well versed, but their rulers far away. Peter the Great, barely seventeen, was preoccupied with domestic turmoil, but his depleted Treasury was dreaming of trade with China. The Chinese emperor Kangxi, the most powerful and cultivated of his dynasty, was anxious above all to seal his frontiers against the incursions of these brutish northerners, and to prevent Russia from allying with a newly belligerent Mongol power pressing in the west.

The delegations agreed to meet in scrupulous equality, but China’s two ambassadors, close relatives of the emperor, arrived from Peking with 1,500 soldiers and a fleet of supporting junks and barges, loaded with cannon, that converged on Nerchinsk along the river. Against this entourage of some 10,000 the Russians could muster barely 2,000 men. But issues of procedure and etiquette stifled all else. Noting the Russians dressed in cloth of gold and precious furs, the Chinese stripped off their blazoned brocades and moved to the conference in sombre dress under huge silk umbrellas. An identical number of guards attended each embassy: 260 men, who faced off at equal intervals and ceremonially frisked each other for hidden weapons. The Russian ambassador advanced behind a slow march of flute-players and trumpeters. The delegates dismounted in unison and entered their two tents simultaneously – tents that had been scrupulously merged so that no one would suffer the indignity of visiting the other first. The ambassadors sat down and shouted their greetings in concert. Only three Russian dignitaries took seats, and the Chinese mimicked them, leaving more than a hundred mandarins standing opposite their Russian counterparts during the first session. They remained in mutual incomprehension. The ambassadors shared no word of language. So the negotiations were conducted in Latin by two Jesuits attached to the Chinese court, and by an erudite Pole for the Russians.

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Caught Between Russia and China

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 26-27:

Into Soviet times this ritual of homecoming quietly continued, a lifeline more profound than simple nationhood. Then the 1930s Terror brought a bewildering dislocation in which the Buryat identity became itself a crime, and people burned or hid their genealogies, erasing their own past in a severance that is even now unhealed. ‘We lost our inheritance.’ He is talking in a sombre monotone. For him, his people’s authenticity springs from the steppelands. ‘But our nomad children go to boarding schools now, where they learn Russian or Chinese curricula. Soon they no longer remember how they enjoyed riding a horse or milking a cow. They probably don’t even know what a cow is.’

I stare at him, at his formal suit and tie, and wonder how many urban dwellers feel their true homeland to be a remote campsite where the earth throbs under them. Yet his grandfather was not a herdsman, he says, but a talented journalist. He was the wrong class from the start.

‘One evening, in 1941, he thought he was among friends and said he hoped Hitler would win the war so that the Reds would stop oppressing Mongolia. That night the KGB took him away. He vanished into the Gulag. In those days Germany was closing in on one side, Japan on the other. No one felt safe. My grandfather returned only with the death of Stalin in 1953. He died three months later, peacefully, at home, as if this was what he’d been waiting for.’

‘Does your father remember him?’

‘My father never spoke of it. I grew up in ignorance. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Gorbachev’s perestroika, but that all seemed far away to us, not like with you. But we had our own revolution and in 1991 our archives were opened. Then I was able to read my grandfather’s interrogation. And suddenly all that had happened struck home. We were very Sovietized, you know, very brainwashed. And when I read, I broke down and wept.’

In this time of resurgent nationalism people’s anger found its target not in Choibalsan – long promoted as a patriot hero – but in the distant abstraction of Stalin.

‘Yes, some of us hate Stalin. But we don’t mind the Russians, you know. We quite like them.’ He suddenly frowns. ‘I don’t quite understand this either, after everything they did. Perhaps it’s because they brought us culture, European culture. They gave us medicine and education. We started from very low down, you see, started from almost nowhere. A century ago we were at the mercy of the Chinese, and they robbed us . . .’

This still astonishes me. The Russians crushed the Mongolians’ native culture, devastated their monasteries and almost liquidated their elite. Yet it is the Chinese, dominant in the country for three centuries until 1921, who are regarded with visceral loathing and distrust. Their instruments of torture are lavishly displayed in the state museum, beside the account books of their avaricious traders. And it is the merciless usury of Chinese merchants that has endured in people’s imagination. Half the country was said to be in their debt. There are Mongolians even now who believe themselves haunted by long-dead Chinese, warning them away from buried treasure. Neither lamas nor shamans had been able to exorcize them.

Soviet propaganda may have prolonged this old antipathy; but it was the avalanche of Chinese immigration early in the last century that turned the country to violence and at last into the arms of Russia.

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Nights in Mongolian Yurts

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 24-25:

The Onon flows in an arc of light to our north, and we are crossing a land unfamiliar even to Batmonkh. Overnight we find simple hikers’ camps, but there are no hikers. In the guest gers the walls are of beaten felt, thick and warm, and breakfast, if we are lucky, includes fried dumplings and home-made yoghurt. One night some weathered herdsmen vacate a family ger for us, its walls weighted with logs against the wind. Inside, the nomad furnishings are still in place. Its willow framework radiates down from a circular smoke-hole, and a stove on the floor sends a rusted pipe skyward. The household altar no longer harbours photographs of Party leaders, but has returned to older sanctities. Crude paintings of Tibetan Buddhist deities and protectors – the benign White Tara and the fearsome Black Mahakala – are propped on a tin of Imperial Best Quality Biscuits. Beneath them, beside a miniature prayer wheel, some juniper seeds are burning, while behind hangs a bundle of dried curds for sacrifice to the local mountain spirit. The family gives us a dish of cold mutton bones, then leaves us to sleep: I on the only bed, while Batmonkh and Tochtor lie among blankets on the floor.

These mobile dwellings, and the fragile villages that absorb them, seem natural to the Buryat Mongols who inhabit this region. Their recent past is dark with flight and persecution. Early in the last century, with revolution and civil war engulfing their Russian homeland, they fled south into a more tranquil Mongolia. But already the country was sliding under Russia’s shadow, and soon Stalin’s flail fell on them at the hands of Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a Mongolian despot as ruthless as his Soviet mentor. Through the 1930s night-time arrests took away thousands of Buryats for execution or the labour camps. They were charged with pan-Mongol conspiracies or with spying for a newly aggressive Japan. In an age of fear, they were judged fatally different. Between 1937 and ’38, at the height of the bloodbath, half Mongolia’s intelligentsia was purged, along with 17,000 monks.

Yet the Buryats remain settled in a deep band south of the Russian border. At 42,000 people, they number less than 2 per cent of Mongolia’s population; but their talents have won them unequal influence and resentment, and it is they who occupy the watershed of the sacred Onon river from its source in the Khenti mountains to its departure over the Siberian frontier to our east.

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Mongolia’s Holy River

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 7-10:

The source of great rivers is often obscure. They descend in a confusion of tributaries, or seep from inaccessible swamps and glaciers. The Indus is born from six contested streams. The Danube, it is claimed, issues from a gutter in the Black Forest. As for the origins of the Amur, when a conclave of geographers from Russia and China met to debate it, they found to their chagrin that its farthest source lay in neither country, but in these remote Mongolian mountains. My horsemen know the river only as the Onon, the ‘Holy Mother’; but if the mother herself is born somewhere, few but Ganpurev know quite where this is, and he has been there only once, ten years ago.

The horses are not used to this. They are the heirs of nomad cavalry, bred for the steppes. Riding them, you forget anything you’ve been taught. I no longer rein in the White Horse when he nuzzles the buttocks of the packhorse in front. And you spur them forward not with your heels but with a hissing Chu-chuh. You never fondle their heads. As we reach higher ground we start to go faster, with relief. But the preferred gait of the White Horse is not a leisurely canter but a fast trot. For mile after mile he insists on this jarring bustle for which the Western rider’s inured rise-and-fall in the saddle is hopeless – the tempo is too fast – and instead you stand in your stirrups as the Mongol raiders did.

Here the shadows of the past are older, deeper. For this is the Mongol heartland. Eight hundred years ago Genghis Khan decreed the upper valleys of the Onon and Kherlen rivers an inviolable sanctuary, permitted only to Mongol royalty, sealed off for their private rites and burial. It became the spiritual powerhouse of his vast empire. Even now, Batmonkh says, travellers to these mountains are resented. This is holy land. Somewhere to our east, a forested massif lifts to the rocky pate of Khan Khenti, revered as Burkhan Khaldun, on whose slopes the young Genghis Khan, destitute and alone, found a haven from his tribal enemies. On these protective heights, runs the Mongol epic, he sheltered as poor as a grasshopper, and later faced the mountain in grateful worship – a mountain already sacred to his people, close to the Eternal Blue Sky of their ancestral veneration. To this mountain, too, he dedicated the worship of his descendants for ever, and himself returned in times of crisis to breathe again its primal power.

The true site of Burkhan Khaldun is unsure, but beyond us, in the watershed of the Onon, its valley fills with the adversities of the future conqueror. Here, in about 1162, he was born into the clan of a minor chief. On its banks, after his people had abandoned her, his mother dug for roots to keep her children alive, while the boys fished its streams; and here, after escaping from imprisonment by enemy raiders, Genghis submerged himself in the Onon waters, keeping his head afloat in the wooden halter by which they had confined him, then slipped away.

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