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Colin Thubron: ‘My best stories are from the countries I was brought up to fear’

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British novelist and travel writer Colin Thubron - Clara Molden

British novelist and travel writer Colin Thubron – Clara Molden

How are we to travel now? Our dreams vanished into winter, and even now journeys to far-flung places are on hold until late spring. When grounded, as we have been for so long, watching travelogues on TV, or looking at holiday snapshots, returns us to a seemingly bygone age. For travel writers, enforced immobility stirs up footloose fantasies.

The closer the confinement, the more extravagant the wanderlust. After an accident fractured my spine in 1978, I was forced to lie motionless on a hospital bed for two weeks. In that period, perhaps in unconscious relief at my survival, I conceived driving around the Soviet Union and walking the length of the Great Wall of China. In my healthier days, such plans would have seemed pipedreams.

In lockdown, we may throw out the lapsed holiday brochures and instead read the books of those foolhardy souls (myself included) who travel in places you would never go. Then you are seeing the world not with your own eyes, but through the mind and sensibility of someone else. And you can choose your terrain and companion at will. Hours later, perhaps, you surface unscathed. The author has undergone the journey’s hardship for you. But in these days of bankrupt airlines and clearer skies, and in the hiatus of lockdown, travel writers may be wondering about their effect on the world by which they earn a living. What pollution have we wanderers been spreading, and how many have we enticed to follow us?

After travelling in Asia for 60 years, I must have racked up an ugly greenhouse gas total. My chief defence is that nobody much follows me, except in print. My descriptions may have deterred more people from travelling than they have ever encouraged, and if readers make for Tuscany or the Costa Brava instead, I don’t blame them. My footprints (carbon and otherwise) wander too erratically. Sometimes they are ecologically innocent.

After flying to Mongolia recently, my transport for weeks was by an elderly horse (which collapsed in marshland), then by hitchhiking in Siberia and a series of underpowered buses along the Amur river (where, you ask?) – which for more than a thousand miles forms the border between Russia and China in the Far East. My horse was breathing out methane, but for weeks the only other pollution I incurred came from the outboard motors of fishermen and poachers.

Mongolia - Jennie RossMongolia - Jennie Ross

Mongolia – Jennie Ross

Travel writers are solitary and a bit secretive. We may go away for months, and live quite poorly, and move by foot or local bus, or hang around a cherished destination while we write. Our pleasures are less those of hedonism than of exploring some overriding obsession. This may have little to do with a region’s outward grimness or beauty. Some of us welcome chance and disruption. Such travellers eschew sanitised destinations and make for countries more troubled. Then, if things get tough, you think: what on earth am I doing here? You start to experience yourself bifocally. You are a writer, after all.

While you are being shadowed through the streets of wartime Damascus, or robbed in Tashkent, one part of you is scared or injured; but the other part is thinking: this is good copy. When asked “Why don’t you write about somewhere nice?” I can only answer that with routine enjoyment the urge to record experience fades away. I stop writing, and sip cappuccino. But a different feeling – almost an obligation – arises when I go to countries that my generation was brought up to fear: to regions of the old Soviet Union and China that are remote and often unlovely. Who would ache to follow?

Discomfort and occasional danger become an inevitable part of these journeys. There are events that no amount of research can predict. And now Covid, to which people of colour could be tragically susceptible, may survive a long time in remote regions of Asia and Africa, adding to the hazards of a fractured world.

Travel writers are not nomads or gipsies. The unromantic truth about us is that most of us spend more time in libraries or in our studies than we do on the road. Then we are just like others: desk-bound. Our image may be heroic or adolescent, but our reality is quite mundane. Today we are as marooned – but as hesitantly hopeful – as everyone else.

And we are dreaming: where next? In 1790 the French soldier Xavier de Maistre, confined over 42 days to his quarters for fighting a duel, wrote an entire book about travelling around his room in a pair of blue and pink pyjamas. In a parody of epic exploration, he walked from his armchair northward to his bed and on to his engravings and bureau, observing them anew. It was at once an exercise in dissociation and remembering.

Tashkent - IstockTashkent - Istock

Tashkent – Istock

As he travelled, he declared himself ecstatic with the immense spaces of his voyage. He reminisced about his lapdog, his servant, his beloved. But on his final release, he wrote, he rejected solitude. Then the avenues of the wider world opened into sunlight again.

Colin Thubron was talking to Tom Sykes

The Amur River by Colin Thubron will be published in September

How Thubron has transported us around the world

There’s a lot of it, and there was even before the pandemic. Towards the end of 2001, when I keyed the words “virtual travel” into a certain search engine, I was offered “about 21,000 results”. When I did the same on Feb 1 2021, there were “about 1,920,000,000”. At their best, though, the sites featured in those results are still no more than guidebooks with gizmos.

True, when your trip is on the information superhighway, you do save on fares, sunblock and antimalarials. You can push a mouse to the north of your screen without layering up, to the south without pulling on shorts. As with meeting your colleagues on Zoom, you can even stay in your pyjamas. Virtual travel does, often, convey some of the irritations of getting from A to B. Instead of swatting mosquitoes, you are zapping ads. Instead of an immigration officer, you might be confronted by a webmaster, who sets a download of software or an upload of data as the price of entry.

And, just as your plane can be grounded, so can its substitute: your browser, you may be told, “has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience.” When I can’t hit the road myself, however, I prefer to turn to what D H Lawrence, in Mornings in Mexico, summed up as “one little individual, looking at a bit of sky and trees, then… making little marks on paper”.

Colin Thubron is one of the most dependable of those individuals. In the estimation of Jan Morris (who herself resisted the term “travel writer” but was a great conjurer of place), he is “transcendentally gifted… one of the two or three best living travel writers – in some ways probably the best”.

He worked as a publisher and freelance film-maker before finding “the courage to take the plunge” and write full-time. At 25, he went to live with an Arab family in Syria, an experience that yielded Mirror to Damascus (1967), a biography of the city that he has described as simply “a work of love”. More books followed on Lebanon and Cyprus, before he turned his attention further east, first in Among the Russians, for which, in 1982, he drove into the Soviet Union in an ancient Morris Marina, pursued by the KGB, then in Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China (which won the Hawthornden Prize – for “the best work of imaginative literature” – and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award).

The Mutianyu Great Wal - Ju HuanzongThe Mutianyu Great Wal - Ju Huanzong

The Mutianyu Great Wal – Ju Huanzong

The opening up of China in the 1980s, he said, “stirred me unbearably. It was like discovering a new room in a house in which you have lived all your life.” Thubron’s books are underpinned, but never overpowered, by research into history, landscape and politics. On the road, he makes the most of his “mangled” Russian and “toneless” Mandarin. In common with Jonathan Raban and Paul Theroux (and younger border-crossers such as Kapka Kassabova and Philip Marsden), he has written fiction as well as non-fiction, and in his travel books, alongside a search for the truth, there is a novelistic attention to characters and conversation.

The most telling accounts of a culture, he believes, often come not from those who want to explain it but from those labouring or suffering under it. He wants to know what they believe, what sustains them. He draws them out. His descriptive powers are of a high order, but he brings a place to life, too, through those who people it. Forget Google, and let him (and other practitioners of his art) transport you…

In Siberia (1999) Until a few years before Thubron’s journey, all that foreigners could see of Siberia (and only under the eye of official guides) was five towns scattered along the Trans-Siberian Railway. As with China, the draw was the sudden opening up. He heads east across seven time zones and one third of the northern hemisphere, intent on finding out what has succeeded a “shattered communist faith”. His account grips from the opening image: “A bleak beauty, and an indelible fear.”

Shadow of the Silk Road (2006) In Xian, last resting place of the tyrant-emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, there is an unimpeded view of the terracotta warriors guarding his tomb – thanks to fear of the Sars virus, which has brought tourism to a standstill. From there, Thubron is travelling more than 7,000 miles, on the ghost of a great Asian trading route, to the Mediterranean. Imagining an exchange with a Sogdian, whose people dominated the trade for half a millennium, he says his greatest fear is “of nothing happening, of experiencing nothing”. He needn’t have worried.

To A Mountain in Tibet (2011) The mountain is Kailas, which is holy to one fifth of humanity, and for centuries has been ritually circled by Hindus and Buddhists. Thubron follows the pilgrims, hearing along the way of life in remote villages and rundown monasteries. But this is also his most personal travel book, one in which, having lost the last of his family, he is on a pilgrimage of his own.

By Michael Kerr

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