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Travelog laced with history along the Heilongjiang
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  • http://english.dbw.cn   2016-01-21 14:30:33
     

    Dominic Ziegler, Asia editor of The Economist magazine, takes Northeast China's Heilongjiang River as the subject of his new book, Black Dragon River, published by Penguin Press. (Photo Source: China Daily)

    By Andrew Moody

    Dominic Ziegler says it was the love of wild places that led him on a journey along the Heilongjiang or Black Dragon River.

    The 4,500-kilometer river, which largely divides China and Russia, is the subject of his new book, Black Dragon River, which combines history and travelog.

    "For a time it was the longest river I had never heard of. When I was living in China in the 1990s I was constantly in search of wild places but never got there, although I had been up to Harbin, just out of reach of it," Ziegler says.

    "It is only when I worked in Japan and flew over it a couple of hours before landing, on a flight from London to Tokyo, that I resolved to find out more."

    This eventually involved taking a three-month sabbatical from his job at The Economist magazine, where he is now Asia editor, and starting his journey on horseback from the river's Mongolian source.

    His actual trip, which was done in stages, was over 10,000 km in length, since part of the river is out of bounds (as a result of it being a border) and so he had to make detours through wetlands and also take the Trans-Siberian railway.

    "I rode up to the source by horse and wanted to follow the river into China, but there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease so I couldn't," he says.

    Ziegler, who was speaking in the offices of The Economist in central London's St James, says one of the intriguing aspects of the river (known as the Amur in the West) has been its role in history, particularly in defining the relationship between China and Russia.

    He says people make the mistake of believing that Russia always had its own Far East, but this was largely a result of Cossack interlopers invading territory from the late 16th century onward.

    "There was this extraordinary and actually rapid push east by Cossack trappers in the forests looking for valuable furs, which were knows as soft gold," he says.

    "They had no idea they were moving through lands controlled by the Manchus and were knocking on the back door of the Chinese empire."

    On his journey, Ziegler traveled to Nerchinsk, where in 1689 a treaty was signed between the Chinese emperor Kangxi and Peter the Great, the tsar who brought Russia into the modern world, which defined the border between the two countries.

    It is the first treaty China signed with a Western power and, somewhat curiously, was written in Latin, an agreed neutral alternative to Russian and Manchu. This was due to the presence of Jesuit priests in the Chinese delegation.

    "The town is still in the middle of nowhere, but at one point in history the two great gargantuan empires in Eurasia spun around each other in this spot," he says.

    The journalist believes that even today as a result of this treaty China and Russia have a relatively stable relationship.

    "The two sides negotiated on the basis of real strict equality, which is in contrast to all the later unequal treaties of the 19th century. I think personally, even if both sides are not aware, it still colors the relationship and gives it a grounding."

    One major breach in the relationship did come in the 19th century. Muscovite Russians became obsessed with stories of the opening up of the West in the Unted States, and had an ambition to turn the Heilongjiang into the new Mississippi. They seized territory from China almost equivalent in size to France and Germany combined. They also thought they could bring French cognac and Hawaiian pineapples through the western mouth of the river.

    "The Russians developed fantasies that their manifest lay in the Pacific. This is a river that freezes half the year and it is not navigable for all of its route, and even at the mouth there are sandbanks," he says.

    Ziegler, 54, who has been with The Economist for 30 years and was its Beijing correspondent in the 1990s, says there is a sense in the Russian Far East that the real engine of their economy now comes from China in the south.

    "I think there is a sense of Moscow being far away and that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is just letting them swing, and the area is becoming depopulated," he says.

    The exchanges between the territories above the river and China are not all economic.

    "You often see these tall blonde long-legged Russian women marrying the Chinese because they see them as both hardworking and drinking less than their own men. They take a pragmatic approach," he laughs.

     

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    Author:    Source: xinhua     Editor: zhaojiawei

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