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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Author Archive: "Colin Thubron"

Why the Travel Book?

Promoting a travel book in the United States — even one like mine, on Tibet — is to promote a minority genre. Enter a bookshop in New York or LA, and you'll find travel narratives lurking among guide books somewhere at the back, or perhaps not there at all.

In Britain, on the contrary, the travel section may occupy pride of place. Numerous talented British writers have excelled at the travel book. Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Jonathan Raban spring to mind. Even top US travel writers such as Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux started their careers in England.

Why should this be so? What is it about my country that should generate both a love of armchair travel and the writers to supply it?

Various explanations propose themselves:

  1. That we British haven't yet understood that we've lost an empire and travel on as if we owned the world.

  2. That we have realized all too well and are making up for it by writing arrogant travelogues.
  3. That


The Art of Travel Writing

Travel writing is a demanding genre. It requires both the toughness to make a hard journey and the sensitivity to record it. They don't often coexist. There are travelers who write, and writers who travel. Some can make crossing a suburban street fascinating; others bore you while describing a feat of exploration in the Amazon.

People say that the world is shrinking, that there is nowhere left to go. They are quite wrong. The world is never constant. Some thirty-five years ago I drove overland from London to India. It was fairly easy to do then, cruising through eastern Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Pakistan — a beautiful journey, and only dangerous by chance incident. But you could not do it now.

Yet in those days virtually the whole of the Soviet Union and China were inaccessible. So as the curtain rises on one part of the world, it falls on another. And every change needs travelers to witness it: not only because the world is in flux, but because the tastes of travelers ...

The Lives of Others

As I start on a promotional tour for my travel book To a Mountain in Tibet, I find I am traveling with the ghosts of others: the writers who have affected me — and those whose books I have just read, with others waiting in my luggage.

Among these last I can't help mentioning Gregor von Rezzori, who died in 1998 (published by the New York Review of Books). His provocatively-titled Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is in fact a grand and beautiful Central European novel of a kind barely possible now, and his more recently published The Snows of Yesteryear (I have only just started it) is building into a masterpiece of oblique autobiography.

Then there is The Hare With Amber Eyes, a strikingly original memoir by Edmund de Waal, based on the fate of his family's unique Japanese collection: a book that has taken Britain by storm. ...

The Romance of the Travel Writer

I have never grown used to the way readers respond to my books. In Britain travel writers (and I'm principally a travel writer) get romanticized. I suppose it's something to do with being a character in your own book — this first-person "I" journeying in some region of the earth where the reader is (very sensibly) not going to go. It smacks of old-fashioned heroism.

My just-published To a Mountain in Tibet will probably do little to dispel this image. I've just been promoting it in England, and however much I talk about Tibetan Buddhism, the audiences invariably ask, What's in my rucksack?, or What was my most dangerous moment?, or Why do I travel alone?, etc. etc.

Travel writing classically deals in broad horizons, yet it incites a deluge of questions about the author. Here are some answers:

Question: What's in your rucksack?
Answer: Almost nothing. The only thing I'm sure to take is a compass, since I have a very strong sense of direction, which is always wrong.


To a Mountain in Tibet

Once a book is published, it seems to take on a life of its own. As its author, you lose control over it. It's a bit like a grown-up child. What will happen to it? How will it make its way? Will anyone love it?

My book on a journey to Tibet (just published) had a strange beginning. Most of my travel books have started in fascination with distant regions of Asia. Sometimes the writing has proved unintentionally healing, since I've traveled in the countries that I was brought up to fear — the old Soviet Union, China — and experience of them has made them human to me.

But To a Mountain in Tibet was different. I started the journey trekking up the valley of the Karnali river in Nepal — the highest source of the Ganges — then over the frontier to the sacred mountain of Kailas in Tibet. I was unsure if I would write about it. By my standards the journey was short and ...

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