Travel: The past really is a foreign country, if you know where to look - just pick your century and get out your guidebook

Jeremy Atiyah
Saturday 11 September 1999 23:02

The land that time forgot. The land frozen in history. The land unspoilt by the ravages of modernity. The land where locals still practise their ancient arts of bread-baking, hat-wearing, wife-beating, sheep-tending, roof-thatching, wheel-fashioning, spear-hewing, maggot- eating, flint-chipping, etc., etc.

Yes, I like the sound of these places too. When I'm leafing through the guidebooks I can't help it. I instantly zoom in on the unique old quarters or the crumbling medieval cities or the faded colonial gems.

Don't believe those boffins who say time travel is impossible. Ask any American why they enjoy riding London black cabs. It's because they feel they're riding a close relative of the hansom cab. Americans come to Britain because they want to find out what their country looked like in the year 1975, and we go there to see what our country will be like in 2015.

There are lots more examples of this. Britain of the 1970s is alive and well in parts of Spain. Britain of the 1960s is represented in Bulgaria. Britain of the 1920s, meanwhile, turns up in certain small Russian towns a few hundred miles east of Moscow, where people grow their own potatoes and stare into camera lenses as though they've never seen a camera.

If you want to get into the nineteenth century, I suggest a trip to north- eastern China. For cast-iron stairways, Dickensian smokestacks, wild staring faces, blast furnaces, steam trains on the line, boots, frock-coats and urban proletariats, I cannot think of many better places than Manchuria in mid-winter.

I am yet to find any place in the world where the people still wear Charles II wigs, so perhaps the seventeenth century is truly out of bounds. But the mountain villages of Yemen certainly remind me of fifteenth-century Tuscany, with latter-day qat-chewing Medicis and Viscontis still locked in bloody feuds.

Meanwhile, down in south Asia, patches of the ancient world are still alive. Entrail- gazing, heffer-slaughtering, goddess-adulating, ash-daubing: they're all out there, if you know where to look. Imperial Rome might seem like a remote country but you can still get there if you can envisage Alexander the Great smoking an Indian cigarette or riding a motorised rickshaw.

So in the end it turns out that you can visit any epoch of human civilisation you like. I am told that to travel through the jungles of Irian Jaya in search of the lost tribes of the interior is comparable to visiting Europe 50,000 years ago.

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