ROAD SCHOLAR

James Jef­frey talks trav­els and tribu­la­tions with renowned Bri­tish writer Colin Thubron

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IN his wan­der­ings, Colin Thubron has been stalked by the KGB, quar­an­tined for SARS, shad­owed by war and sur­rounded by ghosts; he’s even tack­led Brezh­nev-era Rus­sia in a Mor­ris Ma­rina, uni­ver­sally hailed as one of the worst cars in­vented. But the nov­el­ist and travel writer re­cently de­clared one of Bri­tain’s 50 great­est post-war writ­ers by The Times , in­sists he isn’t in­ten­tion­ally mak­ing things dif­fi­cult for him­self.

I’ve al­ways rather de­spised those travel books that make dif­fi­culty part of the trip, like push­ing a peanut across Bor­neo,’’ he says with a laugh. For Thubron, who splits his time be­tween Lon­don and his girl­friend’s place in Philadel­phia when he’s not on the road, the dif­fi­cul­ties arise be­cause he trav­els in a way that is most likely to bring him into con­tact with the lo­cals.

It does have a jour­nal­is­tic el­e­ment. You feel in a way as if you have two of you go­ing: there’s the one who’s trav­el­ling, and there’s the one who’s go­ing to write about it sit­ting on his shoul­der. So you do things you’d never imag­ine do­ing if you were trav­el­ling just for plea­sure.’’

But Thubron does some­times draw the line. Dur­ing the odyssey that be­came his latest book, Shadow of the Silk Road, he tem­po­rar­ily put his tra­ver­sal of north­ern Afghanistan on hold when war erupted.

I would very likely have been kid­napped or shot or some­thing. It’s all about pro­por­tion, what you’re likely to get out of it, and how much dan­ger you are putting your­self through,’’ he says.

There have been mo­ments when he has ques­tioned his own san­ity or mo­men­tar­ily mis­laid his nerve, such as in the mid­dle of scal­ing a cliff face in the rain to reach an As­sas­sin-sect cas­tle west of Tehran. (‘‘I thought, this is stupid, I’mtoo old for this sort of thing, I’m go­ing to fall and break my head open.’’)

An­other was in Meshed, in north­east­ern Iran, when Thubron was caught up in a tide of Shi’ite pil­grims at the shrine of Imam Reza.

I was swept along and I let my­self be

Colin Thubron car­ried in, though it was a dan­ger­ous place to be caught as an un­be­liever, be­cause I was fas­ci­nated by the ar­chi­tec­ture and about what the ex­pe­ri­ence would be. I wasn’t go­ing to do it: I’d made up my mind and de­cided it was a fool­ish and per­haps un­eth­i­cal thing to do. And in the back of my mind was a story that had been res­onat­ing in my head for years (I don’t know if it is true or not, so I didn’t write it) of an Amer­i­can who was caught years ago in the tomb cham­ber there and they killed him by pour­ing scald­ing cof­fee down his throat.’’

Thubron never sits down with an at­las to pick his next des­ti­na­tion. Th­ese books come out of the gut. I just get a feel­ing I want to go to a cer­tain part of the world — I’ve never re­ally known why one part and not an­other — and build on that. In this case, I wanted to go back to many of the parts of the world that had al­ways in­ter­ested me. I’m in my late 60s and I per­haps feared I hadn’t got much longer to write, so I wanted to go back to those parts that for 40 years of my adult life have been the cen­tre of my in­ter­est: Is­lam, the ex-Soviet Union, Cen­tral Asia, China and so on.

The one thing that links them all is the Silk Road. I didn’t re­ally want to write about the Silk Road. Then when I be­gan to re­search it, quite ca­su­ally, I be­came fas­ci­nated by the whole phe­nom­e­non of it, the trans­port of ideas and in­ven­tions as much as goods.’’

The re­search gath­ered mo­men­tum, stretch­ing over 18 months as Thubron de­voured books and res­ur­rected his rudi­men­tary’’ Man­darin and Rus­sian skills be­fore set­ting off on the jour­ney he de­scribes as the most am­bi­tious I’ve done, not just in length but the com­plex­ity: so many dif­fer­ent lan­guages and cul­tures’’.

As with my last book on Rus­sia, In Siberia , I wanted to give a voice to those parts of the hin­ter­land that are not part of the eco­nomic boom. With China, there’s so much writ­ten about the boom on the east coast but you don’t hear about the re­moter parts where it’s had a psy­cho­log­i­cally crush­ing ef­fect.

China’s had a tra­di­tional re­spect be­tween the gen­er­a­tions and sud­denly you have th­ese very fast gen­er­a­tional changes. You have all th­ese vil­lages where a lot of young peo­ple have just gone away, and it’s hap­pen­ing in Rus­sia as well, leav­ing th­ese psy­cho­log­i­cal ca­su­al­ties, peo­ple who feel re­dun­dant and left be­hind by his­tory. I want to give voice to peo­ple ig­nored by jour­nal­ists and un­seen by tourists.’’

His nov­els — in­clud­ing A Cruel Mad­ness and Fall­ing — tend to have static set­tings: an asy­lum, a prison and inside an am­ne­siac’s head. They’re al­most the op­po­site of travel books. They’re books of in­car­cer­a­tion. I get to curl up inside my­self in a way I can’t in a travel book, where I’m look­ing out­ward all the time and re­spon­si­ble to an­other cul­ture.’’ Nov­els al­low him to ex­ca­vate a dif­fer­ent part of his per­son­al­ity, but by the end of it he says he’s sick of him­self and ready to launch into the out­side world.

My ca­reer’s been like a pen­du­lum. I think if I were only writ­ing travel books or only writ­ing nov­els, I would run dry.’’

De­spite a cen­tury of pre­dic­tions of the death of travel writ­ing, Thubron sees a healthy fu­ture.

The world’s chang­ing all the time, so it needs new in­ter­pre­ta­tion. The ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the world’s chang­ing all the time. In the 1970s I did a jour­ney by car across Le­banon, Iran, Afghanistan and into Kash­mir and north Pak­istan; you couldn’t do that jour­ney now. But in those days, it was unimag­in­able that the Soviet Union and China would open up in the way that they have.’’

New gen­er­a­tions will also see things dif­fer­ently, trav­el­ling with their own val­ues and ex­pe­ri­ence.

There’s al­ways this in­ter­play be­tween the trav­eller and the place he’s go­ing to. As long as the world keeps chang­ing, there’ll be room for travel books.’’

Thubron’s books res­onate with the past as much as the present, most nakedly in Shad­owof theSilkRoad , in which Thubron imag­ines con­ver­sa­tions be­tween him­self and the ghost of a long-dead Sog­dian trader (‘‘just me talk­ing to my­self’’), the most nov­el­is­tic tech­nique to sur­face in his travel books and, as he ex­plains, a way of over­com­ing his dread of be­com­ing repet­i­tive.

Con­tem­plat­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of time travel, Thubron’s wish­list of des­ti­na­tions is a long one, os­cil­lat­ing be­tween 8th-cen­tury Da­m­as­cus and the dawn of the Is­lamic age; be­ing Marco Polo at the court of the Mon­gol dy­nasty in 14th-cen­tury China; visit­ing an­cient Rome in the 2nd cen­tury AD.

Oh,’’ he says in a tone of sur­ren­der, like to go ev­ery­where.’’

In the mean­time, Thubron is main­tain­ing his mo­men­tum.

I have the idea for a rather dif­fer­ent kind of travel book: some­thing more slim and fo­cused. So I am plan­ning to take the Hin­duBud­dhist pil­grim­age to the holy moun­tain of Kailash in Ti­bet, trav­el­ling in from Nepal. I’ve hardly re­searched this yet, so I don’t know how fea­si­ble it is. But that’s the idea at the mo­ment.’’

Given that his mother was still hot-air bal­loon­ing across Eng­land well into her 90s, it’s hard to imag­ine that Thubron, for all his wor­ries about his age, doesn’t have time on his side.

I still feel the vis­ceral thrill of be­ing on the move,’’ he says. The cu­rios­ity hasn’t left me yet.’’ Colin Thubron is ap­pear­ing at the Perth Writ­ers Fes­ti­val. His latest book is Shadow oftheSilkRoad (Ran­dom House, $24.95).

I’d

Give­away

Cour­tesy of Ran­dom House, we have 12 copies of Shad­owoftheSilkRoad to give away to read­ers. Put your name and ad­dress on the back of an en­ve­lope and tell us in 25 words or less why you’d like to win a copy. Send to: Silk Road Give­away, PO Box 215, East­ern Sub­urbs MC, NSW 2004.

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