To receive a lifetime award brings a qualm of unworthiness along with a glow of pleasure. There’s also a touch of the obituary about it. You have a sinking feeling that this may be the end. But travel habits die hard. So you set out, oblivious of age and frailty, then find that Indian children greet you respectfully with ‘Grandfather!’ and the Chinese train-ticket-seller automatically assigns you to ‘soft-berth’.
Old travel writers like me (but I am only 79) may be assigned to a double irrelevance. The travel book is dead, it is said, along with the printed word itself. One theory has it that the internet allows such access to the universe that travelling has become irrelevant for anything but holiday pleasure. Another affirms that the globe has shrunk, that all is familiar now, that tourists have blanketed the world and that nothing is left to astonish us.
All this is illusion. The world is the size it always was, much of it unvisited, and a little human enterprise (with a dash of obtuseness) can take you into pure wilderness. Such is the watershed of the Amur, the 10th longest river in the world, which I recently followed from its source in Mongolia towards the Pacific. For 2,826 miles it flows east through Siberia, and creates the long, formidable border with northernmost China. Yet I quickly realised that scarcely anyone I knew had ever heard of this river and, apart from a lone group of trekkers in Mongolia, I met only a single Westerner there in two and a half months.
Mongolia is a country of stark solitude. Its immense voids of steppe and Gobi Desert make it, after Greenland, the most sparsely inhabited nation on earth. But I am entering one of its most enclosed and impermeable regions.
A hundred miles north-east of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, the mountains of the so-called Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area rise in massed folds, with the most distant source of the Amur lost among them. You must take horses here through marshland valleys impassible in high summer, but a specialist travel agent secured me a permit, a guide and two local horsemen, who thought they knew the river’s source.
Nobody lives in this forbidden reserve of almost 500 sq miles, and rangers are few. Even poachers are rarer now, although they sometimes still cross from the nearby Russian frontier, killing for any product they can sell to a voracious Chinese market: bears’ paws for cuisine, musk deer pods for medicine.
For a week we travel this wilderness with five packhorses carrying tents. The only person we see is an old man gathering pine nuts. The land is empty, and austerely beautiful. The mountains around us make low, forested silhouettes by which we find our way. The river’s source, when we come upon it, emerges out of marshland and moves eastward in a valley of birch scrub and yellowing autumnal grasses.
The rains were heavy last midsummer and now, in late August, the swamplands shudder and sink under our hooves. Our stocky Mongolian horses are better at trotting over the steppes. In these deep marshes they flounder into sink-holes, the water rising above their withers, then they panic as they try to kick and buck their way out.
The horsemen emerge like centaurs from these morasses, cigarettes still dangling from their mouths. The guide and I are less lucky. Our horses roll under us. I break an ankle. The only piece of furniture we see for a week is a rough-hewn bench abandoned by a hot-water pool, and I manage to fall here, smashing my ribcage.
Next day, my horse drops into a quagmire, rolls, and drags me through the undergrowth, my feet still in the stirrups. We have all underestimated the terrain, and the aftermath of the early summer floods.
But every evening, we camp on higher ground, where larch trees offer a sheltering canopy and the horses can be tethered. Then a hypnotic silence descends, and the sky is brilliant with stars. We wonder if bears are about, or moose. One of the horsemen can imitate a wolf calling, and sure enough he is answered by wolves invisible in the thickets, too wary to approach our campfire. At dawn, the mist rises on herds of deer grazing beyond the river.
There is nothing human in this land but memories, and the invisible graves of unknown Mongol chiefs that a Japanese archaeological team identified by aerial surveillance with ground-penetrating radar. Yet the past is still potent. For somewhere along the river is the birthplace of Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror who founded the largest contiguous empire the world has ever known, and whose early life was spent in these hidden valleys, sometimes as a refugee, sometimes fighting tribal battles. We cannot know the precise hillside where his mother dug up roots for her son’s survival, nor where in the river he immersed himself to elude enemy pursuers. But the whole watershed is haunted by the precarious youth of this fearsome and prodigious man.
Even our horsemen emerge from these swamplands exhausted. This is the wrong season to travel here, I know, but I plan to trace the Amur through Siberia and north China, and I cannot delay. (Even at its widest, the river freezes solid in winter.)
So this is a cautionary tale: a story of longing and presumptuous impatience. But I will not forget those wheeling night skies, nor the haunted mountains rising around us, nor the excitement of seeing bear tracks, nor the mist rising over the treacherous marshes to reveal deer grazing in the dawn light.
Such journeys are beyond politics. If you meet or harbour prejudice, it is diffused by human intimacy. After crossing into Siberia, at a moment when Moscow’s hostility to the West had hit a new peak, the Russians I met were blithely welcoming. Moscow, after all, was far away, but I was close, and joked with them, and shared their food and drink.
To speak the language, however poorly, eased my way. (I have struggled half my life to learn Russian and Mandarin.) In China, I travelled for a while with an unemployed print salesman, following the southern bank of the Amur towards the Pacific. Whatever thoughts we may have nurtured about our two nations smoothed away.
In the evenings, he shared his domestic troubles. Would his single child be able to support her parents’ old age? Would he ever find a job again? He insisted on speaking mispronounced Russian to me, while I practised my toneless Mandarin; eventually, we developed a polyglot combination — an atrocious hybrid — and imagined we understood each other perfectly.
In 60 years of travelling, I look back on a galaxy of such strange encounters, and sometimes feel that by describing them I have betrayed some unspoken trust. (I rarely confess to being a writer.)
But the more remote, and perhaps hostile, the context of the encounter, the more important it seems — as I fumble across the gulf of culture, politics and geography — to realise even a drastically mediated portrait.
But to sit for a while in a Baghdad cafe or a Chinese cottage is to inhale the feel and smell and taste of the place in a way that only personal experience can give. You are more present and vulnerable than someone trying to travel via the computer screen — let alone those consulting maps in the Pentagon or Whitehall — and in a world of fake news and the compromised internet, it’s a visceral thrill to be physically there.
Travel books, more than most genres, become history, which is perhaps their prime value in the end. I entered China at a time when private cars did not exist — there are now more than 200 million — and travelled in Russia when the Soviet Union seemed set to last forever. It is the travel book’s fate and strength to fix the fleeting moment in time. You know that your stay is too short. You visit a country at a moment of transition — its own and yours. You may even start to believe that old cliche about travel broadening the mind, although you converse in mangled Russian, or fall off a Mongol horse.
A writer’s life
Colin Thubron CBE is the recipient of the 2019 Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing. One of Britain’s most celebrated travel writers, Thubron was born in London in 1939. His first travel book was Mirror to Damascus, published in 1967, and this was followed by The Hills of Adonis: A Quest in Lebanon and Jerusalem. After travelling in Russia and China in the eighties, he wrote Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, which won the Hawthornden Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and In Siberia, followed by perhaps his most celebrated travel book — Shadow of the Silk Road. Published in 2006, it describes the colourful 7,000-mile journey from China to the Mediterranean.
Reviewing To a Mountain in Tibet in 2011, The Telegraph described Colin Thubron as ‘our finest modern chronicler of Asia’. He is currently writing a book about his journey along the Amur river.
Magic in Mongolia
Watch: Mongolia has more than 50 annual celebrations, from camel racing and polo in the Gobi Desert, to mingling with reindeer herders, artists and shamans at the Lake Khuvsgul Ice Festival (pictured). July sees the Naadam Festival, where men compete nationwide to be the best wrestler, archer or horseman.
Listen: Mongolians love to sing. In the hoomii (throat singing) of urtyin duu (long songs), a 10-word song may last four minutes. Tumen Ekh Ensemble perform one-hour shows daily (outside winter months) in Ulaanbaatar.
Eat: The Mongolian diet can seem a limited mix of meat, a few greens and noodles, but specialities include khorkhog (strips of meat cooked over hot stones) and buuz (steamed dumplings filled with meat, onion and garlic). Modern Nomads 2 (modern nomads.mn) on Amar Street serves them all.
The Sunday Telegraph