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‘If you travel with a feeling that the country has something to teach you, it will always be an act of empathy’


Colin Thubron
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

Colin Thubron, a sprightly 84, is forever trying to get away from a haunting ghost — that single white males should not be travelling to poor countries and write about it. But unwilling to be burdened by the legacy of colonialism, he has ventured out to places, the more remote the better, in Russia, China, and also to West and East Asia, hoping it will be seen as an avenue of discovery. “Travel writing at its best is an act of empathy,” he says, at the recently-concluded Samsung Tab S9 Series Jaipur Literature Festival, while discussing his work, like In Siberia, Shadow of the Silk Road, and particularly his 2021 book, The Amur River. Edited excerpts.

Aerial view of the Amur River in Russia.

Aerial view of the Amur River in Russia.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The death of the travel book has been predicted for long. Yet you journeyed along the Amur River recently and wrote about it. Why has travel writing endured?

It’s a wonderful literary form of humanism, and if you travel with a feeling that the country has something to teach you, it will always be an act of empathy. The important thing is the quest, and with the world constantly changing, priorities and sensibilities change too, and a travel writer is in a great position to chronicle the shifts.

The icy waters of the Amur River, Russia.

The icy waters of the Amur River, Russia.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images/istock

Is that why you went back to Russia and China again, and travelled along the Amur River?

The world may have shrunk, but countries are closing down and it is becoming harder to move around like I used to in my younger days, and I am not talking about my age alone. I don’t know if I will be able to travel to countries in West Asia or Afghanistan for that matter any more. I have extensively travelled in Russia and wrote about it, but I wanted to see what the situation was on the ground and how these two countries, Russia and China, reacted to each other. Also, very little is known about the Amur, which is the tenth largest river in the world; Russia had once dreamed that it would be the equivalent of America’s Mississippi River, but it was not to be for various reasons.

Protective sandbags are placed on the bank of the flooded Amur River in Khabarovsk, Russia.

Protective sandbags are placed on the bank of the flooded Amur River in Khabarovsk, Russia.
| Photo Credit:
AP

What did you find on the ground?

The situation is complicated. China feels treaties between the 17th and 19th centuries which gave lands near Amur to Russia were unequal and there’s resentment about it. The two sides don’t understand each other’s language, there is no inter-marriage, and Russians in Siberia, who feel abandoned by Moscow, are afraid of being swamped by Chinese money power. I felt a great sadness for the people, the forests (incessant logging is on) and the river, which has been ravaged by floods and seen a depletion in fish.

The Amur River in autumn.

The Amur River in autumn.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images/iStockphoto

You were thrown off a horse in marshy land near Mongolia, where the Amur originates. Why did you choose to continue with the journey?

I knew I would never be able to return to this place again if I went back. So, I did the next best thing, I ignored the pain from two broken ribs and a fractured ankle and travelled onward, hoping to make new discoveries, which I did.

A Mongolian horseback rider.

A Mongolian horseback rider.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Of all the countries you have travelled to, which was the most difficult journey, and where would you want to go back?

My most difficult journey was to Afghanistan in 2004, while tracing the Silk Road from China to the West. I entered from Uzbekistan, and the northern part of Afghanistan where I travelled was the terrain of warlords. The journey became more dangerous as I moved west until no driver would take me farther. Of the countries I wish to return to I’d name Syria: probably a hopeless aspiration at my age! But when I briefly lived there in 1965 it was beautiful, rich in history, and people-friendly. I did return to Damascus briefly, at my peril, some six years ago. There was fighting in the orchards nearby (I was woken each morning by distant gunfire). All the buildings I’d loved were intact, but the people I’d known were gone.

People at the Central Square in Damascus.

People at the Central Square in Damascus.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images/istock

Who are your favourite travel writers?

My favourite travel writers, and those who’ve influenced me most, are Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose A Time of Gifts is a masterpiece; Freya Stark, whose lyrical prose captivated me as a boy; and Robert Byron, whose The Road to Oxiana is a model of technical brilliance, although his attitudes could be brazenly colonial.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in



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