Along A Remote Ribbon Where Countries Meet

EARLY this year I received an unusual invitation from the International Crane Foundation (ICF), a United States-based group dedicated to saving these endangered and graceful birds. Could I join an international group exploring the remote Amur River Basin? The trip would visit nature reserves and local communities as we floated on a boat up that great Far Eastern river for some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).

I was excited by the offer. As an amateur birdwatcher, I would see rare birds in a spectacular natural setting. I could listen to naturalists from all over the world - Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and elsewhere - trying to find common language in a shared cause.

I was also drawn, as a Moscow-based correspondent, by the chance to travel to a remote region of Russia that had been closed to foreigners until very recently. The Amur River, for most of its course, forms the border between Russia and China. Since the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, this has been one of the most heavily militarized areas of the world, unapproachable to Americans.

So with a sense of anticipation, I joined the other participants where they had been meeting for a couple of days at a forest campground outside of the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, our jumping-off point. July 4: setting out

The dock of the river port is crowded with people on this sunny Saturday morning. Families line up to board the barge ferries pushed by tugboats to towns up and down river. Another boat is boarded exclusively by fishermen, their gear carefully wrapped in green canvas. Peddlers offer bottled drinks and cakes from makeshift tables along the wharf.

Our odd conglomeration of people, from a Japanese documentary television crew with piles of metal trunks to ornithologists hefting backpacks, clambers onto our vessel, the V. Poyarkov. The three-decked river boat normally hauls Russian tourists down river to the Pacific Ocean, through Russian territory.

As the Poyarkov pulls from shore, a traditional Soviet naval tune blares from the public address system. Its martial beat is soon replaced, however, by rock music. Down river, black smoke rises from the smokestacks of a distant power plant. On a gravelly beach, ladies in bikinis splash with their children in the swirling brown water.

We quickly leave the signs of the city behind us. A group of cormorants sun themselves on a sandbank. The participants, many with notebook and binoculars, gather on the top deck in a conference room lined with windows overlooking the river.

Dr. Yuri Shubaiyev, an intense Russian ornithologist with curly black hair, reports on the status of storks and cranes in the Khabarovsk and Primorski regions in the Far East. The numbers are depressing: There were 200 nests of White Storks in 1974, but 10 years later only 85, a decrease he blames on land reclamation projects that have dried up the wetlands these birds depend on.

One by one, his colleagues who work in nature reserves along the Amur River add their reports, each one painstakingly translated into English and Chinese. The discussion is interrupted only when we reach the convergence of the Ussuri and Amur Rivers, where the Amur becomes the border with China. Everyone rushes to the left side of the deck, peering at the gray Russian gunboat "60 Years of October" moored there to protect the border.

As we move up river, Common Terns and their smaller cousins, the Least Terns, swoop and dive with gray-colored pointed wings along rocky cliffs. The Russian side of the river is spare, nothing but low flood plains covered with leafy trees. But on the Chinese side we come up to the city of Fuyuan, an ugly spread of tin-roofed sheds and brick smokestacks, ranks of concrete slab apartment blocks marching up the hills. This vision of 19th-century industrialism is a recent sore on the Amur, not even marked on

my 1976 National Geographic map.

The seminar resumes with Chinese colleagues from the province of Heilongjang reporting on the view from their side of the river. In the past 10 years, half of the wetlands of what the Chinese call the Three-Rivers Plain have been drained as people pour into what was once a cold, forbidding frontier area, says a Chinese biologist. The search for firewood has left the storks with few trees tall enough to build their nests in.

Later I join a small group discussion on management of nature preserves, where the directors of protected areas on both the Chinese and Russian side of Lake Khanka meet for the first time. "They can't just pick up the phone and say "how are the birds?" Dr. George Archibald, the founder of the ICF, tells me later. The Americans play the role of middlemen, trying to bring together the scientists and wildlife managers from the countries that lie along the birds' migration paths.

In the midst of a long speech by Li Chun Yuan, a bureaucrat from the Heilongjang Forestry Bureau, Russian naturalist Sergei Smirenski rushes in excitedly to announce the spotting of an Oriental White Stork. Everyone hurries to the windows, but Li persistently drones on, finishing his speech. Irina, a Russian translator from Moscow, later jokes, "It was like us before perestroika." July 5: up to Amurzet

At breakfast Mr. Archibald and his colleague Jim Harris of the ICF talk to members of Japan's Wild Bird Society about how to work with the Chinese. Almost all the cranes and storks spend their winters in the river valley of the Yangtze and points south, areas where development threatens to wipe out what little protection exists. The Chinese are fascinated with technology, like putting radio transmitters on birds to track their migration paths, but not too interested in breeding or other studies, they agr ee.

Archibald, whose wife, Yoko, is Japanese, talks to me about the cultural interactions of the four main nationalities on the boat. "The Japanese are more different from the Chinese than Russians are from Chinese," he says. "Russians and Americans are very easygoing. We get along well. The Chinese are sort of happy-go-lucky. But the Japanese are so formal."

This day's talks are devoted to storks. I wander outside to lean on the railing. Chinese fishermen are the most frequent sign of human life, although no villages are to be seen. A Russian tugboat pushing an empty barge appears, flying the tricolor of the new post-Communist Russia, but with a huge cutout of a red hammer and sickle still fixed to its smokestack.

I spot the distant white figure of a stork standing, with its black wings folded, on long knobby legs on the mud flats of the Chinese shore. Soon the seminar empties out to join me. Within the next few hours, we spot seven more storks on the Russian side, numbers amazing to even our Russian ornithologists. Small flocks of ducks and cormorants gather for their own shoreline chatter.

I climb to the bridge where I find our young captain, Viktor Slusar, perched on a chair in a gray T-shirt and jogging pants. The Amur is 4,444 kilometers (2,760 miles) long, he explains, its length divided into upper, middle and lower sections. We are now traveling the middle Amur, heading upstream toward Mongolia. At its widest point, near the mouth, it is 5 to 6 kilometers (3 to 4 miles) in breadth. It deepens to 70 meters (230 feet), but here the river is shallow, often less than 3 meters (10 feet) de ep.

Captain Slusar has spent 15 years on the Amur, much of it ferrying Russian tourists on scenic trips up and down river. He tells of seeing bears ford the river and clouds of migrating ducks darkening the sky. "I was born in Baikal, and I admired the lake" there, he says of the world's largest body of fresh water, located west of here. "But then when I came here, I immediately realized I wanted to live my entire life here. When I see the salmon, the small streams, the taiga forest, it's so beautiful."

The river boats are in dry dock until mid-May, when the ice begins to melt. But the season is brief: By Nov. 7, the abandoned holiday that used to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, the boats go to port.

The captain proudly hauls from below an oil portrait of Vasily Poyarkov, a bearded 17th-century Cossack explorer after which the boat is named. "This boat is my first home, not my second," Captain Slusar says. "Those winter months, sitting, are more than enough for me."

The border status of the Amur kept it virtually undeveloped, Slusar says. Barbed-wire fences stretched all along the Russian side, sometimes at the shoreline, mostly inland. Now tourists from each side cross over to shop. The captain laments that his passengers now are less interested in enjoying the peaceful scenery than in buying cheap Chinese consumer goods.

That evening our boat pulls up to the covered barge that serves as the wharf for Amurzet, the first sizable settlement on the Russian bank of the Amur. We have passed into one of the odious curiosities of Stalinism: the Jewish Autonomous Region, created in 1934 as an alleged "homeland" for Soviet Jews, in reality a forced resettlement area. Amurzet was founded as a collective agricultural settlement at that time. The last three letters are an acronym meaning "Zemelnoye Evreiskoye Tovarishchestvo," or Jew ish Land Community.

But as in the rest of the region, Jews are a tiny fraction of the populace, having left as soon as they could, most recently by emigrating to Israel. Out of a population of about 6,000 in Amurzet, perhaps 10 Jews are left, reckons an old man perched on the concrete wall on the embankment.

A small crowd has gathered to watch us. We are the first foreigners, other than a few Chinese, ever to appear in Amurzet. Four young girls are standing together, one wearing a "Chanel" T-shirt and bright pink lipstick. How's life here? I ask. "OK," she replies in the monosyllabic dialogue typical of teens the world over. Would you live your whole life here? "No," she quickly responds, "it's boring."

As the long summer day fades into purple, we head down the town's one main street past two-and three-story brick apartment buildings to the House of Culture on the town square and the ubiquitous statue of Lenin that still graces every public space in Russia. A small group of residents, our four teens among them, gather in a hall to hear naturalist Smirenski (the tireless organizer of our trip), Archibald, and others talk about nature conservation. Nearby is the Zhuravlini (Cranes) Game Refuge.

"Never take your wonderful nature and wildlife for granted," Archibald tells them, "because you have some of the world's great treasures here."

The meeting breaks up at 11 p.m. On the other side of the hall, a dance party for local youths is still going strong. As a red light flashes, the kids shake to pulsing rock music. Girls line the walls, waiting to be asked to dance, or dance together.

Nina Kostina is the director of the Culture Hall, a warm, friendly mother of three strapping sons, one of whom organizes the thrice weekly dances. "We had beautiful nature here not long ago," she says, telling of the foxes, deer, bear, and even tigers that roamed their woods, the river full of fish, and the flocks of birds. But the wetlands have been drained for cultivation and the wildlife has become sparse.

The dramatic events in Moscow are far away, she says, and their impact unpleasant. "Life has become hard here," Ms. Kostina tells me. "It is difficult to survive. Prices are high and salaries are very low.... People go to the store, look around, and buy nothing." The townspeople live, as they do these days even in Moscow, on the food from their private gardens and the livestock they raise. But they worry because the sugar they need to preserve the wild berries and other produce is in short supply.

The dance breaks up at midnight. A group of youths approach a colleague and me. Where are you from? America, a land which comes to Amurzet mainly in the form of movies at the local film hall ("My Mother is a Vampire" is the current bill).

"I want to go to America," says Andrei Fiyodov with a sigh. The 19-year-old is a budding entrepreneur, running with a friend a private store selling clothes, liquor, cigarettes, and other goods, opened only five months ago after the market reforms were announced in distant Moscow. "Now we are freer," he proclaims as he walks us back to the boat.

At the dock a two-man patrol from the local border-guard unit urges us onto the boat. We are breaking curfew, a legacy of the border tension along with the barbed wire fences that still run along shore.

* Tomorrow: Finding birds, bureaucrats, and bare shelves.

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