A Dusty Old Colin Thubron Interview

Yesterday Sean O’Neill tweeted about a review of Colin Thubron’s new book To A Mountain in Tibet. That reminded me of an afternoon I spent with Thubron about a decade ago in Philadelphia. He was in town to visit a friend at the University of Pennsylvania and promote his book In Siberia. At the time I was writing about books for the Philadelphia Weekly and I convinced my editor to assign me a piece about Thubron. Unfortunately I couldn’t convice him to run it once the ad pages got cut that weekend. I’ve dug up the old thing here because I think it bears repeating that Thubron is a fantastic writer. It also gives a nice shout-out to Nicholas Shakespeare’s bio of Bruce Chatwin, which never gets enough praise either. 

A good travel book is hard to find, while a good travel writer is even more rare. That’s why Colin Thubron’s latest, In Siberia, is such a pleasure. From Yekaterinburg in western Russia to the Gulag city of Magadan in the far east, In Siberia is free from the self-centered musings that fuel the genre’s never-ending supply of Peter Mayle, Robert Kaplan and their respective copycats. It’s travel writing that doesn’t piddle with the author’s personality.

Thubron’s previous travel works, a quartet centered on countries around the Mediterranean and three books about the USSR and China, are narrative maps of his search for countries’ social and spiritual landscapes. “What people trust and where they place their faith have always been a prime motive: what’s happening spiritually,” Thubron said in a pre-book tour interview in Philadelphia last month.

Thubron’s distinctive, highly personal style has few outstanding practitioners to prompt comparison. His walk through Lebanon in The Hills of Adonis is reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s own Netherlands-to-Budapest walk in the classic work A Time of Gifts. And like his late friend Bruce Chatwin, Thubron finds a definite morality in the act of traveling. But few of his contemporaries are capable of remaining so personal yet still so selfless in their accounts.

In conversation, Thubron is kind and gracious, and it’s quickly apparent why he’s able to find favor with people. “I wish to give a picture of a country in normality — how ordinary people live.” He explains. “It’s a rather different kind of search. And so I rely on the insights of ordinary people one meets by chance. When you talk to people, in the end it’s more forceful to have these chance encounters.”

Chance encounters such as his evening with a one-time Gulag exile and present pensioner living out the last of her days in a tiny Siberian apartment. In conversation, Thubron still can’t make sense of her. “Even though she was condemned by Stalin, she was still of the thought that she was doing work. She was bitter that everything she had striven for as a convict was shut down. Of course to what extent [the forced labor] worked is highly suspect. They were so crude and inefficient. But she encapsulated the large group of people who don’t have that outrage. Ethnically, the persecutor and persecuted were the same. What struck one was a terrible understanding of acceptance.”

Where Nights Are Longest, Thubron’s early-eighties journey by car through pre-Perestroika western Russia grappled with the similar theme of unflinching acquiescence to authority. “[Russians are] intent on submitting to a higher power — a willingness to subsume their own identity,” he still argues, even after more than decade and a change in government later. “With the collapse of the USSR it became a prime element of my journey there to see what has replaced this. Communism supplied a framework and rhetoric. With its vanishing I was fascinated to find out what people do. This communism leaked into their lives more than a Sunday ritual and into their personal and public personae.” For many communism had merely replaced the symbiotic relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. “Believing in things subliminally — the unseen, unproven. As if they could create another world independent of harsh facts and inhabit an ideal world.”

By Thubron’s account, the average Russian youth now shrugs at both communism and a resurgent faith in Orthodoxy. “The west has become their Mecca,” Thubron says. “Their aim is to get into business.” For the average Siberian, this isn’t obtainable. “Your ideal is to get to the big city, then western Russia, then the west. One shouldn’t stretch this too much in the case of Siberia because everyone is till so poor. It’s enough to get to Omsk.”

Thurbron plans on following In Siberia with a seventh novel. “I feel rather fulfilled. It sounds a little smug. But the objective and subjective all satisfy some part of myself.”


Nicholas Shakespeare’s eight years-in-the-making biography of travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin has finally been published in the US by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. Of course, Chatwin’s the subject Bruce Chatwin: A Life, but Shakespeare is the star. It isn’t necessary to know a bit about Chatwin for Shakespeare’s work to interest and impress you. His years of research matched with the novelist’s eye (he’s the author of the Dancer Upstairs) brought a much talked about but little known figure to life. And what he brought to life was a surprise to most.

Thubron, a friend of both Shakespeare and the late Chatwin had this to say about reading the biography: “I admired it. Chatwin was a friend of Shakespeare’s and when he started he didn’t know what he was getting into. Chatwin, to me… I saw a man that was intellectually startling and wonderfully anecdotal. And then he’d just disappear from your life. It was clear that he had many lives. What surprised us all was the squalor of his relationships.

“Nicholas says that Chatwin still has stature for him. But, still, it was a desperately sad book. If his interpretation was right, that he was living in so much concealment, then Bruce was a sadder man than the one I knew.”

Duty Free (and Shark Troubles)

The Frommers.com team collaborated with USA Today last week on a story about whether duty free will really save you money. The F.com version of the story was written by Lisa Cheng and edited by Amy Chen, who did all the heavy lifting. The takeaway from the story is pretty basic: There are so many loop holes and product inconsistencies that the only people who really save by buying at these shops are cigarette smokers who live in U.S. states that tax their purchases heavily.

I could explain all the ins and outs, but luckily Amy appeared on Rudy Maxa’s travel show on Saturday and did it better than I could.

If you read of my death in a tragic shark incident, know that it was pre-meditated. In a moment of misplaced bravado, I told Forbes.com’s John Giuffo that “Sharks are chumps.” I attempted to retract the quote out of fear that sharks would be offended, but John pointed out that I had bigger things to worry about if sharks ever learned how to read.

Boingo is Smart

At the airport this morning, Boingo offered me the chance to log into Wi-Fi using my iTunes account. No hassling with credit cards, no worries about someone looking over my shoulder while I typed. Great idea.

Summer Vacation Tips: Cheap Trains, National Parks & Depressed Economies

Here’s a very quick summer travel story that you can easily digest in either video form from ABC.com or easily digested nuggets (below). As a side note, almost all the still images (except Amtrak and the National Parks) are from last year’s cover photo contest. We launched a new cover photo contest on June 1

Summer Bad

Airline fuel surcharges between $250 and $500 
Gas north of $4/gallon

Summer Good

1. Trains

This quarterly update of Amtrak discount codes is a regular hit on Frommers.com. Before you start clicking links, make sure to check Amtrak’s Weekly Specials, on sale between Tuesday and Friday each week.

Example: Vermont really wants people to come by train. If you’re visiting Vermont from outside the state, book here for 20% off any trip through Oct. 31. But if you’re traveling within the state, book here for a flat $12 fare on any in-state trip, through Dec. 31.

We recently covered scenic train routes under $25 throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was an enormous hit. Here’s one example from that article:

New York State: New York City to Cold Spring/Beacon, from $12.25/$14 each way

The humble Metro-North Hudson Line — one of the greatest bargains in American railroading — cruises right up the Hudson River at least once per hour. From the left side of the train going north and the right side going south, you get to see the river, the New Jersey Palisades, and some grand bridges. About an hour north of the city you’ll encounter two great little destinations one stop apart: Cold Spring, well-known for its antique shops, and Beacon, with a gigantic contemporary art museum (Dia:Beacon) and a scrappy, slightly scruffy main street of quirky restaurants and stores,

2. Parks

U.S. National Parks had one of their best years in a long time in 2009, and 2010 is looking good already. The best rooms in the best lodges are going fast, but parks offer accommodations at multiple price points (from campsite to suite), so you can find something to suit. Also look at special themed packages (hiking, birdwatching) — they come with rooms that have been blocked off. Another plus: Wyoming and Montana have lower gas prices.

Always look at the rates of official providers. Xanterra is the biggest, but you can find the right one for every park at the National Park Service’s website, www.nps.gov.

3. Flash Sale Websites

For travelers who can make last-minute adjustments, these sites offer excellent choices this summer. There are so many of them these days, that they’re fighting for customers. Best ones are TripAdvisor’s Sniqueaway.com and Gilt Groupe’s Jetsetter.com. Great for couples w/o kids.

4. Think Local

Hotels.com Price Index: U.S. hotel prices are still low: They’re right around at 2004 levels. Short trips within your region can help you save on transportation. Visiting regional vacation spots (SFO or LAX to Hawaii) is a better idea than cross-country trips.

5. Use Protection

This winter had serious weather interruptions that ruined many vacations. If you’re going anywhere that could be hit by a storm — hello, Gulf of Mexico — get trip cancellation/interruption coverage. That way you can enjoy a shoulder/low-season deal to the Caribbean with some protections.

Major travel insurance brokers, as covered on Frommers.comInsureMyTrip.com,TripInsuranceStore.com, and QuoteWright.com.

6. Accommodation Price Drop in Europe

Ireland is cheapest country in the Eurozone. Fly-drive packages there combine a car rental and stays in four- or five-star hotels, where before you stayed in less posh places. Sceptre Tours has six-night trips with air/land for under $1,200 this summer.

Spain has Madrid, Barcelona, and Europe’s best high-speed rail system. Rates are flat from 2009, and you get good value for the dollar.

Eastern Europe is cheaper than any time since it became “hot” in the early nineties (down 15-20%). Only downside: flight time (12+ hrs) and higher ticket prices ($1,300 and up).

7. Perennial U.S. Deal

Washington, D.C.: The nation’s best collection of free museums. Fantastic for a family. Multiple lodging options in the District, and VA, and MD. Just don’t go in August, or you’ll melt.

Smokin’ Side Dish

I spent last week driving with my father from New York City to Atlanta for PCMag.com‘s fastest mobile networks project. We ate well, from Standard Tap in Philly to Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. to Zada Jane’s in Charlotte. On our way to Nashville, we stopped in at Asheville’s 12 Bones for lunch.

Outside of saying it was delicious, I’ll just add that the smoked potato salad is now my favorite side dish. I’d like to be able to link out to a good recipe for it but the first few Google search results are from eHow, and I can’t bring myself to use them. Instead, I’ll link to this very un-North Carolina take on the salad courtesy of the London Times and foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsey.

Smart Money (and Bootleg Russian Version)

A few weeks ago I talked with Kelli B. Grant at SmartMoney.com about financial crisis tourism in European destinations like Iceland, Portugal, and Greece. To prep for the interview, I turned to Hotels.com‘s annual price index, which always does a good job telling us what people are paying for rooms these days. My favorite stat from the report is that U.S. hotel prices have gone back to 2004-2005 levels this year — an improvement over last year’s numbers, but still low. It’s one of the main reasons that we’ve been recommending U.S. vacations this summer (and the fuel surcharges certainly help, too). 

The story has been either licensed or “licensed” by a Russian outfit that has it na russkie yazik: Финансовый кризис на руку путешественникам”