My Life In Travel: Colin Thubron, writer
'I've learnt that Britain is extremely peculiar'
Saturday 05 February 2011
First holiday memory?
Just after the Second World War, my parents took me to Cornwall. Having grown up in inland Hampshire, I had never seen the sea before. The beach was lined with miles of anti-landing craft defences but beyond them were glistening rock pools. I remember crabs and anemones, a sort of underwater world, which was beautiful. It was pure magic.
Sulawesi, Indonesia for relaxation and sheer beauty of landscape. I went about 20 years ago and I remember a pair of volcanoes in the north that were almost like a bad-tempered couple: when one was erupting the other went quiet. It's a beautiful place. I went scuba diving and the beauty of the underwater world matched the beauty above water.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
The west coast of Scotland, preferably in winter for that rather subdued northern light. You can't really imagine that you're in Britain at all.
What have you learnt from your travels?
I have learnt about my own country and also that other cultures are deeply and interestingly different from my own. Some people travel and find similarities but I think I have learnt something more reflective of Britain. You lose that sense that perhaps I had as a young man, that Britain is the norm and realise that Britain is also extremely peculiar and strange.
Ideal travelling companion?
Myself – he is big-headed, and brash and tiring but he does what I want and I can't go without him. Otherwise it would be my partner who has a tremendously vital take on everything she sees. We travel together a lot for holidays but not for my work – that's too unpleasant to impose on anybody else.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
Anything but the beach, I'm more of an underwater person if I'm near the beach, looking around and discovering things.
Greatest travel luxury?
An opera house, if I can find one. I have discovered some pretty funny ones in Russia and also in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, there's a large, grand, Soviet opera house covered in native Uzbek decoration, but performing really good-standard Russian opera and ballet.
I usually find I haven't the time to read, even on long and monotonous train journeys. When I am travelling to write, I'm anxious to make contact with people and to be able to understand the landscape outside the window. I like to read anything that relates to where I am that offers cultural insight. Nobel Prize- winner Gao Xingjian in China and Chingiz Aitmatov in Central Asia are favourites.
Where has seduced you?
I'm a geographic philanderer. Every one of these seductive places, whether it's a Chinese desert or Siberia, has its peculiar allure.
Better to travel or arrive?
There's a visceral excitement about the actual process of travel that nothing else provides.
Worst travel experience?
Returning from India overland in mid-winter in the 1970s in a car that was slowly dying and with no money. However, nothing more drastically exposes you to the kindness of strangers – it's a real test of the country you're in. It was a pretty good nightmare.
There have been so many I can't select. One of the better things about travel is that the good hotels are boring and the bad ones have an individuality which may be fun and striking and then you write about them.
The lovely Bedarra Island resort on the Great Barrier Reef. It's very tropical, very quiet, very secluded with gorgeous sea – everything is right.
I rode by camel for a couple of days into the Taklamakan desert of north-west China to a Buddhist stupa, which was half-buried in the sands; it was very unearthly. It's not much fun riding a camel, you have to get used to the rhythm of the beast. Mounting and dismounting is a very jerky and unceremonious business, too.
Best meal abroad?
A seafood risotto in Venice, for the setting and the food. I have never been able to find it again.
I have been very spoilt. The Karnali river in Nepal is a very deep tributary of the Ganges which you can follow on foot over into Tibet. It's in a part of western Nepal that used to be overrun by Maoist guerrillas but recently it's been possible to travel in and you have it to yourself. The lovely, forested tributary journeys out into the Tibetan plateau which has its own strange lunar beauty – and there you find yourself in Tibet.
Damascus, for its dense, ancient Islamic culture and personal nostalgia. I settled there for a few months with an Arab family when I was 25, to write my first book. I have only gone back once and I'm worried that it has mushroomed into too much of an international city since then.
I plan to write a novel and stay put, at least for now.
"To a Mountain in Tibet" by Colin Thubron is published by Chatto & Windus, £16.99
The My Life in Travel column is produced in association with Andalucia Tourism. See www.andalucia.org
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