It only sometimes occurs to Colin Thubron that you may think he’s old. The 82-year-old British author, whose new travelogue, “The Amur River: Between Russia and China,” was released Sept. 21 by HarperCollins, has built a career on keen observation; deft sketches of shamans and shopkeepers he meets on the road electrify his writing. When it comes to himself, though, Thubron can be blithely unaware.
But late in his most recent journey, which took him about 3,000 miles along a river in remote parts of Mongolia, Russia and China, he fishes alongside a transitory Russian companion named Igor and imagines himself for a moment through the other’s eyes. “In a hotel mirror, I have seen with surprise an old man in his eightieth year, then forgotten him,” Thubron wrote. “Now I realize what Igor sees: a stubborn pensioner. . . . I feel a spasm of bewilderment.”
Sporadic awareness of age and fragility is a theme in “The Amur River.” By the end of the first chapter, the writer has fractured an ankle and two ribs while traveling by horse through Mongolian marshland. Hobbling on broken bones, Thubron persevered.
“[Age] doesn’t appear entirely relevant to me still, which is quite childish,” said Thubron, speaking to me by Zoom from the quiet London apartment he shares with his wife, American Shakespeare scholar Margreta de Grazia. White hair sweeps thickly back from his high forehead; he is utterly charming.
By the time the writer was fishing with Igor, he’d spent nearly two months traveling over rough terrain. After starting on horseback in Mongolia, he reached the source of the Amur River, then chased the waterway eastward to the Sea of Okhotsk, by turns hitchhiking, catching river boats and, for a time, creaking along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Thubron is not a stranger to the region or to this sort of epic journey. The author found his first major success with “Among the Russians,” the chronicle of a solitary 1980 road trip of 10,000 miles across the Soviet Union. His 1987 book, “Behind the Wall,” recounted yet another 10,000-mile trip, this time from Beijing to Tibet by bicycle, foot and train. He speaks both Russian and Mandarin. Badly, he insists.
Since those early travels, an impressive list of letters has appeared after his name. He’s a recipient of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE); a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL); and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (FRAS).
Such talismans of empire and royalty can seem anachronistic, at least to this American reader. And Thubron’s writing, too, is something of a holdout in a quickly changing genre. Travel literature on both sides of the Atlantic has grown more wary of describing cultural differences, a reaction to the genre’s own legacy of racism. In his early days especially, Thubron sometimes veered into blunt-edged stereotypes. “No Cypriot ever forgets a price,” he wrote in the 1975 “Journey into Cyprus,” describing “the terribleness of the Turk when aroused” in a later chapter.
“The circumstances of travel writing have changed around me,” Thubron said in our interview. “I was simply following a very English tradition in which people went out and described their adventures and didn’t think terribly hard about the power imbalances of what they were doing. The whole post-colonial narrative, if you like, just wasn’t there.”
But he’s not giving up on the culture gap. Thubron argued that travel writers should try to articulate the cultural divides they observe while exploring the world. Not because they have some authority beyond personal experience, but rather, precisely because they don’t.
“I believe there is cultural difference, I think it’s foolish to pretend there are not,” Thubron said. “You’re not writing an academic study, saying, ‘This is how it is, this is how a nation, a culture, a people is.’ You’re saying, ‘This is how I found it to be.’ ”
In his 2021 book, “The Travel Writing Tribe,” a kind of anthropological dive into the genre, British author Tim Hannigan noted that people have repeatedly forecast the demise of travel writing for much of the past century. But the appeal of seeing the world through the eyes, words and experiences of an outsider has staying power. In Thubron’s view, that is what keeps travel writing relevant to a changing world.
“Travel writing is the only discipline that attempts to give the sensuous feel of a country, if you like. By that, I mean what it smells like, how people speak and behave. That gives you a sense of being there,” he said. “The first-person has advantages. It acknowledges that you are yourself vulnerable and fragile.”
Thubron’s travel lays bare that vulnerability. He travels alone, wary that a companion would reinforce his own worldview. “If you’re alone, you’re the strange one in the landscape, therefore you’re more exposed,” he explained. “[When alone], we’re more quickly compelled to understand. . . . With luck, you begin to lose a bit of your own world and its expectations.” And above all, he seeks places that scare him.
“I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember,” he wrote in the opening passage of “Among the Russians,” recalling schoolboy lessons at the dawn of the Cold War. “To put a human face to them becomes increasingly important,” he told me. The maps he studies at the outset of every journey become, by the end, “full of meetings, incidents, accidents, friendships.”
His journeys feature frequent brushes with the law. Maybe police wonder at finding a foreigner in obscure or difficult places. Perhaps they think he resembles a spy: With his upper-class accent and patrician looks, the Eton-educated writer could have stepped from the pages of a John le Carré novel.
Either way, such incidents pile up in Thubron’s wake. In 2017, he traveled to Syria to mark the 50th anniversary of his first published travel book, 1967’s “Mirror to Damascus,” only to be thrown into a prison cell for taking photos. On his 1980 USSR road trip, he was tailed by the KGB. During his recent journey along the Amur River, he was arrested by Russian police and questioned by the Chinese.
In Russia, a Federal Security Service officer quizzed Alexander, Thubron’s river guide on the final boat journey to the Sea of Okhotsk, about the foreigner’s activities. (“I told that FSB guy you weren’t interested in overturning the state,” the uncowed Alexander recounted to Thubron after hanging up the phone. “You are just wandering around and fishing a bit.”)
Although Thubron’s adventures have endured passing decades, age has transformed his writing. Early books tended toward flights of wordy fancy. While lyrical and often beautiful, his recent prose is leaner. Thubron said the unsparing light of maturity has made him a more critical editor of his own work.
Maybe it’s just a matter of time. The period of enforced stillness ushered in by the early pandemic found Thubron at home with his wife, glad for a stretch of peace and isolation as he finished writing “The Amur River.” But he’s once again dreaming of faraway places, with vague plans to visit Chile with de Grazia, an enthusiastic hiker. “I’d like to go just for the fun of it,” he said. “Take a boat down that long coast and see glaciers falling into the sea. That sounds wonderful.”
Or he might just write a novel. Thubron has written eight of them, generally well-received if overshadowed by the celebrated travelogues, and noted that he would like to start again when inspiration strikes. “I have to sort of wait for it to happen,” he said, sounding calmly optimistic about that possibility. His long face creased into a wry smile. “I’m still actually waiting.”
Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Her website is jenrosesmith.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.
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