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.
Question: You are very old now. How long can you go on traveling?
Answer: Oh dear. I didn't know I looked so old. As to your question, I don't know. I still feel young (a common delusion of the old). I'll probably travel until I run my wheelchair over a cliff somewhere.
Question: What was your most dangerous moment on this trip?
Answer: I was afraid only of mountain sickness, which is no respecter of age, fitness, gender, etc. I was going above 18,500 feet. In the end my Sherpa started getting headaches, but I was OK. Strange.
Question: Where will you go next?
Answer: I'm planning a novel. So I'm staying put for now.
Question: Are you married?
Answer: No, but I have a long-time partner. She is very beautiful and intelligent (and will read this).
None of this may quite dispel the romanticism that clings to travel writers (despite the countervailing view that we are post-colonial imperialists). But fifty years ago the patron saint of travelers, St. Christopher, was formally decanonised by the Vatican. Apparently he did not exist.
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Colin Thubron is an acknowledged master of travel writing. His first books were about the Middle East — Damascus, Lebanon, and Cyprus. In 1982 he traveled in the Soviet Union, pursued by the KGB. From these early experiences developed his great travel books on the landmass that makes up Russia and Asia: Among the Russians; Behind the Wall: A Journey through China; The Lost Heart of Asia; In Siberia; and most recently, Shadow of the Silk Road. Colin Thubron is an award-winning novelist as well as, arguably, the most admired travel writer of our time. He lives in London.
Books mentioned in this post
Colin Thubron is the author of To a Mountain in Tibet