Was it a mirage — that heady moment when the world seemed almost too welcoming to western travellers and western ideas? Either way, it seems long gone. The pandemic has shrunk horizons, the withdrawal from Afghanistan has darkened them. Such thoughts cloud my mind as I sit on a deserted Chelsea roof terrace, waiting for Colin Thubron.
Thubron is regularly called Britain’s greatest living travel writer, a phrase that faintly implies he should be dead. He has survived the attention of Syrian secret police and the inattention of Uzbek drivers. In Lebanon, he once persuaded a mob not to lynch him by grabbing their hands and pleading friendship.
Aged 82, he steps out on to the terrace a tad gingerly. Not long ago, he was thrown off a horse in Mongolia, cracking two ribs. “I’ve never seen myself as an old man, that’s the trouble,” Thubron smiles. He has narrow, piercing blue eyes and a faint lisp; he seems slightly otherworldly.
For several decades, Thubron has helped shape western visions of unreachable places. He is global Britain as full spirit, not empty slogan. In the 1980s, he lifted the veil on Russia and China, putting a human face on the west’s declared enemies. His writing, as he puts it, is “one culture looking at another. You feel it’s dangerous to say there are cultural differences at all any longer but, of course, there are.”
This task has occupied TE Lawrence, Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris and others. What has set Thubron apart is his lyricism. In the modernising Damascus of the 1960s, he wondered if travellers would continue to wake “in a jasmine-scented night, to hear the sherbet-seller calling for him to refresh his heart”. Climbing Mount Kailash in Tibet, he heard his group’s breath rasping “with weakness or prayer”.
Thubron’s latest book recounts his journey down the oft-overlooked Amur River, which, for 1,100 miles, forms the border between China and Russia. For many in the west, China and Russia are again ominous shadows. Yet Thubron’s journey highlighted a different reality. On one side of the Amur are three Russian provinces with barely 2m people; the three on the other side are home to almost 110m Chinese. The growing demographic and economic imbalance fuels resentment. “In spite of the official Russia-Chinese entente, they hate each other, honestly. Well, the local Russians hate the Chinese, and the Chinese, it’s hard to say what they feel about the Russians — a certain sense of superiority now.”
On the page Thubron is a hidden narrator, his judgments clear but his motives and emotions rarely revealed. In person he is less forthright and more forthcoming. “I’m increasingly less proud of the west. That’s what travelling and politics have done,” he says, with English diffidence.
He dislikes evangelising, but he makes the case for travel. People are satisfying their curiosity via Google Translate, Zoom and maybe soon virtual reality. Business travel may never recover from the pandemic. “It’s very easy to have the illusion that everything is closer and easier. It’s rather a dangerous one; there’s no understanding to be had that way. You have to be in another country. There’s an illusory closeness that you get on the screen, which is no substitute,” says Thubron.
It is 20 years since 9/11. “I often think that if only the denizens of the White House and No 10 were to have sat a few weeks in a chaikhana in Kabul or Herat that they would think twice about so blithely thinking they can carve up countries or invade them and help change their culture.”
In London, you travel without leaving. Kutir declares itself “a restaurant born from a love affair with Indian wildlife lodges”. The menu features pictures of tigers, like those Thubron’s father used to hunt in the 1920s. Sitting outside gives us respite from both Covid and the jungle-print wallpaper.
Thubron orders soft-shell crab, followed by chicken tikka masala. I choose mushrooms and plantain dumplings. Thubron is happy with water, but when I order white wine, he decides it would be “curmudgeonly not to join”.
You can trace most travel writers back to boarding school, and quite a few to Eton. Thubron, son of a military attaché to Canada, was sent away to school aged seven. “It is a sort of infliction that is worse than anything that happens in adult life.” I note his use of the present tense. “Apart from the deaths of one or two people I love, I don’t think anything has been quite as searing as that sort of experience, being taken away.”
His parents’ existence 3,000 miles away made him feel that “abroad was the place to be” — with the lights of New York and a cottage near the Great Lakes. “All boys that age, you love what makes you exceptional,” and what made Thubron exceptional were his trips across the Atlantic. The seed was sown.
10 Lincoln Street, Chelsea, London, SW3 2TS
Carafe of Gavi di Gavi Cristina Ascheri £35
Soft-shell crab and chickpeas £12
Morels and broccoli £14
Chicken tikka masala £18
Plantain dumplings with kale £16
Steamed rice £10
Total (inc tip) £127.13
Eton had an influence, too. Thubron did not shine academically — “In my day, any fool could get into Eton, and any fool did” — nor did he warm to the school’s ethos. “What I least cared for, I think it’s better now, was a sense of ingrained superiority. It was a little bit like boys pretending to be men.
“There was a tendency to not care deeply about anything. There was always that feeling that you were a little bit above it. You were also above your own shortcomings, misfortunes, etc. To admit to a personal wound was pretty alien to that culture.”
The flipside was a sense of self-reliance, which would underpin his travels. Having failed the scholarship exam for Cambridge and worked briefly in publishing, “I just went off and did it, and felt that excitement and that feeling that nothing will happen to you. And I think I still have that. I always thought I was going to be OK.”
Thubron’s crab arrives on a bed of chickpeas. My starter, interspersed with fried lotus root, is surprisingly spicy.
His first literary hit was Among the Russians in 1983, where he encountered a society so decrepit that people wanted Stalin back. Thubron went to Moscow’s best-known Slavic restaurant and found that only one of the 36 dishes on the menu was available. In Behind the Wall (1987), he probed the memory of China’s Cultural Revolution. He stayed at a luxury hotel where everything had been manufactured in rich countries and the phone lines didn’t work.
This was a boom time for travel writing, where, to the western public, parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa were accessible yet unfamiliar. Thubron found new stories in the traces of the Silk Road. After the Taliban were ousted, he went to Afghanistan: in its harsh landscape, he declared, “the mystery becomes not cruelty, but compassion”. He heard stories of mass graves, but also of hope. “Those Taliban times won’t come back,” a Tajik man told him.
“You met people who were civil servants, they weren’t western, but you could see the beginnings of some other society there,” Thubron recalls. “I thought it would slowly crawl towards something better.”
But his memory of being offered an Afghan army escort in Mazar-i-Sharif lingers. “God, you’ve never seen such a shambolic lot. Absolutely hopeless. They put the fear of God into you just with their incompetence.”
We’re halfway through the carafe of wine, and into our main courses. My plantain dumplings are pleasantly tender.
In The Amur River, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping come across as distant, almost impotent figures. Instead, the microphone passes to the locals. “Land is the only thing we’ve got too much of,” says one Russian woman. Does the barren landscape shape the people? “It’s got to have some effect, and Siberian Russians, well certainly the older ones, are a more robust kind, more outspoken than those in European Russia.”
Britain and Russia are forever at odds. “There seems like such a disparity between the Russians one is fond of and the government they have,” says Thubron. “Let them work it out for themselves. It’s a very discomforting thing to say. But the way governments work, and politics transforms, seem so intimate to a society that to try to change it by outside influence is almost always mistaken.”
Will China one day annex a chunk of Siberia? “Not in the immediate future, no,” says Thubron.
Many travellers want to find the reality of foreign countries, but become stuck in the uninformative, if pleasurable, orbit of the tourist industry. What is Thubron’s advice on how to travel? “I suppose I’m a bit austere. I usually say travel alone. Don’t travel with anybody of your own culture if you really want to understand another one . . . People tend to gravitate to you if you’re alone. You arouse their curiosity more. They may think you’re lonely. A Russian thinks you must need a vodka.”
He adds: “But then that’s not travelling for pleasure.” He walks where possible, and advocates maximal flexibility and minimal baggage. “I lay out everything I’m going to need before I go, and say, ‘do I really need this?’, and the answer’s almost always no. So I go with a very light rucksack.” How many pairs of trousers does he take on one of his multi-month trips? “Probably one, the one you’re in.” The advantages of travelling alone, I think.
Guidebooks are little help where he goes, so he takes language manuals. “There you can read forever.” He speaks Russian and Mandarin, although he can’t read the latter. His most prized baggage is his summaries of conversations and landscapes. “You get to fear not so much being murdered as losing your notes. Because if you lose them, there’s no book.”
During Thubron’s Amur trip, he is taken in for questioning by Russian police, suspicious of his knowledge. “How do you know more than we do?” one policeman inquired, wonderfully.
Or did the policeman say that? Because, like all Thubron’s conversations, it is noted later from memory. He doesn’t record, because people “clam up or become a bit theatrical”. So “you can’t say that they are verbatim conversations. They’re compressed.” Suppose I turn the tape recorder off now, I say, and write this interview from memory? It would probably end in a libel suit. Thubron insists that some phrases are too good to invent.
Even so, travel writing is unfashionable. To its critics, it’s neocolonial: white travellers inspect the foreigners whom their ancestors once governed. If you really want to understand a society, wouldn’t you live there or ask a local? Travelling is hardly conducive to expertise: what does a commuter know about St Pancras?
“Every sentence I write is imbued with my particular culture, class, race, and you can’t do anything about it . . . There’s no such thing as the objectivity that you crave,” Thubron concedes. But he adds: “If you regard every relationship as a power relationship, then you descend into paranoia. A travel writer is often trying to understand or even learn from the country that he’s going to, rather than in some way impose himself.”
Each book consumes him for “three or four years — of which only five months or so is travelling. It’s a little humiliating. People imagine you’re always on the road. In fact, you’re doing research and you’re writing.” In 1900, Russian forces marched 5,000 Chinese immigrants to the Amur and forced them into the water, although they couldn’t swim. The massacre is barely marked on the ground, but Thubron tells it powerfully.
His books can lapse into generalisation. The Russians have an “intense desire for order”, the Chinese have a “need to number, label, differentiate”, the west suffers from “garish self-centredness”.
“Probably in my earlier books there is a certain amount of stereotyping, I suspect,” he says. “I don’t like the clichés, of course, and I travel in part to dispel them, but I can’t say they’re all untrue. Nor are they untrue about my own culture, that they find the English cold up to a point. That at least is something that travel writing dispels: it does make you a little more objective about your own culture, you begin to see that you’re not the norm at all, and that you’re pretty odd, and that England’s pretty odd.”
I ask what he makes of the government’s idea of global Britain. “Redefining is not our thing, is it? It’s the American thing — decide who you are, and programme it to be.” The terrace is empty but for us, and an enthusiastic Spanish waiter. Thubron declares his curry excellent, leaves a chunk of it, and declines pudding.
Travel writers have not always been open-hearted. Wilfred Thesiger, last of the gentleman explorers, came to despise modernity. “I remember asking him what he most regretted in his life, and he said, ‘I never killed a man’.” Paul Theroux, meanwhile, seems impatient with just about everyone he met along his travels. “Paul is, yes, not a great lover of people.”
Thubron, who met his now wife, Shakespeare scholar Margreta de Grazia, in his mid-fifties and has no children, describes his life of travel as “self-centred”. But I notice how, throughout the conversation, he asks me questions — what I believe, where I’ve travelled, if I have children. His manner is sympathetic, curious and direct. If he were the great Etonian explorer poking around my village, I think I’d warm to him.
Thubron has left the end of the wine for me. I swig deep, and tell him that, on environmental grounds, I have given up going on holiday by plane. Does he think I’m mad? “Absolutely I don’t. I feel accused by it, quite honestly. This is yet another strike against travel writing. My only defence is that I think mainly my books put people off travelling.” Certainly, readers will not be honeymooning on the Amur.
Alongside his 11 travel books, Thubron has written eight novels. His next task is another one. By the time he finishes, he’ll be 85. “An atrocious thought!” He has spoken with his wife about visiting the melting glaciers of Chile, but has no subject for a book. “I tend to be obsessive, and if I get fascinated by a place, an area and a topic, my energies go to that and I’ll do it. It’s foolish of me, but if the spirit is willing, it drags the flesh along with it.”
We shake hands and Thubron’s spirit drags his flesh towards the exit, while I, filled with curry and complacency, feel an inexplicable urge to stay and marinate in the muggy afternoon.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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