Forbidden territory: on horseback to the source of one of Earth’s most formidable rivers

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Across the heart of Asia, at the ancient convergence of steppe and forest, the grasslands of Mongolia move towards Siberia in a grey-green sea.

The land’s silence is almost unbroken. It is barely inhabited. At its farthest reach, near the Russian frontier, almost 5,000 square miles are forbidden to travellers. These mountains, once the homeland of Genghis Khan, are today a near-sacred wilderness. The solitary track that reaches them ends at a barrier and a rangers’ lodge. And here we wait – a guide, two horsemen and I – to enter a region that none of us truly knows.

Amur map

Somewhere deep in this hinterland rises one of the most formidable rivers on Earth. It drains a basin twice the size of Pakistan, and more than 200 tributaries, some of them immense, pour into its flood in spring. For over 1,000 miles it forms the border between Russia and China: a faultline shrouded in old mistrust.

The Amur is elusive. Even the name’s origin is obscure. To the west the river seems unreachably remote, and few people have even heard of it. There are wildly different estimates of its length, naming it the 10th or even eighth-longest river in the world. Its Chinese shore is almost untravelled, while razor wire and watchtowers shadow its Russian bank from end to end in the most densely fortified frontier on earth.

The author with two horsemen: Ganpurev (left) and Mongo
The author with his two horsemen: Ganpurev (left) and Mongo. Photograph: Colin Thubron

A day goes by, and then a night, while we wait to cross into these proscribed mountains. The rangers in this country, named the Khan Khenti Strictly Protected Area, are reluctant to release us, although I have permits secured by the trusted agent who found my guide and horsemen. I feel a first twinge of unease. Our three tents, pitched in the meadow grasses, are beginning to look forlorn, and the elation of starting out – the visceral excitement, the tingle of apprehension – is ebbing into the fear that we may never start at all. At night I am woken by our horses cropping the grass outside my tent. It is that hour when the mind darkens; and suddenly the notion of following a river of 2,826 miles (the favoured estimate), as it flows through south-east Siberia then meets China, then breaks for the Pacific, seems little more than a fantasy.

I open my tent-flap on the cold dark, and catch my breath. My shadow falls black over the grass. The night above me blazes with stars, and across that immense Mongolian sky the Milky Way moves in an icy torrent of light.

Dawn spreads the thin radiance of another planet. The world seems still unstained. In the distances around us the sun is lifting a glistening mist above grasslands heavy with dew. It is as if a great fire were burning over the plains. For a while it obscures the hills that fringe the skyline, then its haze dissolves as though we had imagined it. The air grows warmer. Tiny diurnal moths are rising from the grasses, where invisible warblers sing, and the air fills with the click and whirr of grasshoppers. To walk here is to wade through a tide of wildflowers: multicoloured asters, gentians, butter-coloured potentilla, peacock-blue columbines. Over farther slopes, swathes of blown edelweiss make a frosty pallor for miles.

Then the horsemen emerge, heavy in their native deel overcoats, their daggers at their belts, to check our tethered mounts. It is well into morning before the rangers appear. They come to our tents on motorbikes, in their outsize boots and piratical headbands. They carry little briefcases.

Edelweiss and other wild flowers on the Mongolian steppe
Edelweiss and other wild flowers on the Mongolian steppe. Photograph: Alamy

Batmonkh, my guide and native of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, says they are feeling important because the prime minister has arrived here on pilgrimage to Burkhan Khaldun, the mountain sacred to Genghis Khan. But they remain with us a long time, eating our biscuits and scrutinising our papers. The country ahead of us is dangerous, they say, and almost impassable. The most distant tributary of the Amur, the Onon River, rises in remote marshlands, and the monsoons had been heavy that summer. Now, in late August, the ground is flooded and treacherous. And there are bears. Once inside the reserve, we will be beyond help.

Batmonkh listens to them without interest. He says they resent outside intruders in their land. I cannot understand a word they say, only silently hope they will not forbid us.

Eventually the rangers present us with a document to sign, absolving them of any responsibility, and at last they leave, bouncing over the steppelands on their Chinese motorbikes after washing their hands of us. We should have listened to them, of course.

For a moment we halt at the edge of the reserve; the next we are in underbush, following the Kherlen River where it descends from its watershed in the east. Already the slopes are steepening and darkening into forest. A late cuckoo calls. Half unconsciously, we are crossing the divide from Eurasian grassland to Siberian taiga, the scent of crushed wildflowers fading under our hooves, and all of us elated by our release.

Entering the marshlands.
With his guide and two horsemen, the writer enters ‘a region that none of us truly knows’. Photograph: Colin Thubron

But soon the terrain grows sodden. Sometimes the horses flounder in bog water that is still flowing. Once, ominously, the ground beneath the leading horseman gives way, and his stallion – a handsome roan – collapses into a mud hole, and struggles up as he remounts.

By early afternoon we are riding along hills above the river. Buzzards are dropping low over its swamp. For miles we brush through stunted birch thickets, while larches troop down the mountainsides like an invading army, and infiltrate the valleys. The only sounds are our own. As the air sharpens, I sense the deepening remoteness of our path, and feel an old excitement at entering another country.

My horse is a 12-year-old stallion who has no name. To the horsemen he is simply “the White Horse”; any other label would be sentimental. He is tough and scarred. We ride in a straggling cavalcade of nine, our tents and food trussed on five packhorses. These beasts are strong and glossy after summer pasturing – not the sickly creatures of late winter. Short-legged and large-headed, they descend from the tireless horses of Mongol conquest, able to gallop 10km without pause, and we ride them in the Mongol way, with legs bent back from the knees on short stirrups.

Towards evening comes the first hint of trouble. One of our packhorses is still unbroken, and its wild energy unsettles the others. Ahead of us, in low woodland, they are suddenly thrusting and barging together, then they tear loose from their leading ropes, three of them bolting back the way they came, their eyes dilated in fear, with the horsemen following.

One of the packhorses nearly caused the loss of vital baggage.
One of the packhorses nearly caused the loss of vital baggage. Photograph: Colin Thubron

Batmonkh and I tether the last pair to saplings, and wait. We wait for seeming hours. When the horsemen return with their charges, we find that the recalcitrant palomino has thrown off its baggage, which now lies somewhere – anywhere – in the forest around us. They return to search for it, while Batmonkh and I wonder disconsolately which of the giant saddlebags is missing. If it holds my rucksack, I realise, my passport and visas will be gone, and our journey ended. I tramp back along the way the horses disappeared, but the forest spreads around me in a glaze of concealing birch scrub.

Batmonkh, when I return, is surveying the leftover luggage still strapped on our tethered horses, alarmed that our food is gone and that we will have to start back at once.

After an hour we hear a far-off shout. Batmonkh says: “I think they’ve found it.” And soon afterwards the two men return, still inscrutable, with the lost saddlebags, as if their recovery were expected. And when we unpack that evening, on a tree-sown slope above the marshes, we find that the recovered baggage had contained our food.

We set up our tents at dusk on the rain-softened earth, the horsemen hacking down branches to frame a shelter of their own. Our possessions – food boxes, water bottles, harness, hatchets, even a canvas chair – lie strewn about the grass, while the horses graze disburdened under the trees. It is strange, in this unpeopled solitude, to realise that our campfire is the sole human light, seen only by wolves or woken bears.

In the chill of nightfall the fire draws us closer, and its smoke repels the mosquitoes that are rising round us. Batmonkh cooks up noodles and scraps of beef on the portable stove, while the horsemen drink salted tea, and smoke. They seemed like twins at first, but now they start to diverge. Mongo looks older than he is, sashed like a brigand, hard-faced and talkative; Ganpurev keeps the appearance of a boy: but of a sharp-eyed boy who has given trouble. He is the youngest son of a family that became poor. They both wear peaked caps and high boots, and anoraks with pirated labels. Around the fire they talk about practicalities: horse-herding and money. In this terrain, eight hours’ riding will cover only 20 miles, they say. The silence, when we at last sleep, is the silence of exhaustion. Even the horses do not stir, asleep on their feet in the starlight.

Amur River trek
Marshland waters en route to the source of the Amur. Photograph: Colin Thubron

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, 10 years ago.

It is the profiles of surrounding mountains that guide us, but to me, as the sun rises, they are only snowless shadows. The morning air is cold and pure. The dew on our tent roofs has glazed to ice, and the coats of the tethered horses gleam with frost, their breath pluming over them. All morning we keep to the uplands, riding through larch forests along the tank tracks left by Soviet military exercises decades ago. The Russian border is 40 miles to our north. But now the tracks have blurred to rivulets of flood water, and shrubs and grasses closing over them.

‘The morning air is cold and pure.’
‘The morning air is cold and pure.’ Photograph: Colin Thubron

By noon we are mired in another terrain. Our track thins to a horse’s width, and is almost lost among birch scrub, and we are brushing blindly through it. For hours we hear only the sloshing plod of our horses. Then we are plunging into steep-banked streams, tributaries to rivers we do not know, with the packhorses following. Sometimes we dismount and lead them. We sink in shin-deep. My waterproof trainers are useless, and the boots of the others are filling with water. The horses are not used to this. They are the heirs of nomad cavalry, bred for the steppes.

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.

It is after one of these furious trots that we stop and throw ourselves down in the grass. I remember its softness and the weight of my breathing. A few minutes later, standing up and suddenly dizzy, I recover consciousness at the foot of the White Horse, with my ankle twisted under me. With misgiving I feel its creeping pain. Then Batmonkh helps me into the saddle. For a moment I wonder if I’ve fallen because of altitude – but we are only at just over 2,000 metres (6,700 feet). Wilfully I decide the ankle can’t be broken, and that in the morning I’ll be walking. Then I feel the ease of being on horse again, my foot weightless in the stirrup, and the valleys opening before us in a shining sea of green. And with this a chill descends: the cold wonder of travelling a land empty of the memory or scars of human history.

The vast landscapes of Khentii Province in Mongolia.
The vast landscapes of Khenti, Mongolia, birthplace and likely the final resting place of Genghis Khan. Photograph: Julian Elliott Photography/Getty Images

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.

We come down in forest shadow, splashing over streamlets of recent rain. Pink rocks, swept down by the meltwater in another age, press up from the alluvial earth. It is almost noon. To our south-east we see a blur of irregular mountains: the two-peaked mass of Mount Khenti, where Genghis Khan may lie. I cannot tell how far away it is. Then the terrain levels out and we go through lashing thickets, our heads bowed, advancing blind. Twice my riding helmet deflects the blows of low-hanging larch branches. Then the scrub clears before a margin of feathery grass. And here, without warning, we come upon a trickle of water, a yard wide. The horses ahead have already crossed it, and are out of sight. I shout to Batmonkh: “What is this?”

He calls back: “The Onon.”

The author takes a break during his epic ride.
The author takes a break during his epic ride. Photograph: Colin Thubron

I rein in. Here is the infant Amur. It is, of course, scarcely different from any other runnels we have crossed: only narrower, purer. It has a faint peaty tinge. Upstream it does not bubble whole from the ground, but emerges in a glinting coalescence of marshland waters. I want to drink from it, but as I start to dismount my ankle winces and I cannot stoop. In this river’s infancy I feel suddenly old. In time it will cease to be the Onon and become the Siberian Shilka, changing gender to the Russians’ “Little Father”, before it transforms at last, on the border of China, into the giant Amur.

For the rest of the day, in and out of sight, we follow its gleaming passage eastward.

How still it is. No jungle cries start up at night, or cicada raspings. We are nearing the forest quiet of Russia. In my tent’s pitch dark, I’m grateful for my body’s weariness that disregards where it sleeps (on a thin foam mat), and I savour our fleeting triumph. The Onon meanders through the night outside, while this dreamy felicity descends, and I lie oblivious in the mosquito-whining air, and sink into sleep.

This is an edited extract from The Amur River by Colin Thubron, published by Chatto & Windus on 16 September, £20