Colin Thubron sheds light on the seven wonders of his well-travelled world ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
Best known for his travel writing, which tends to look east for its subjects (Russia, China, the Silk Road), Colin Thubron is also an award-winning writer of fiction and president of the Royal Society of Literature. His latest book, "To a Mountain in Tibet", is an account of his journey to perhaps the holiest mountain on earth, the peak of Kailas in Tibet, which had never been climbed before. Chatto & Windus has just published it in Britain; Harper will release it in America in March.
Here he tells Rebecca Willis about the seven wonders of his world.
BUILDING: HAGIA SOPHIA, ISTANBUL
To me this is the peak of Byzantine architecture. As you approach you see a not very promising-looking building with fat minarets. Then you go in and it’s absolutely staggering—a vast, now-empty space with galleries leading into nowhere and that extraordinarily shallow dome. St Peter’s in Rome is twice as high, but they’re almost the same diameter, so it gives a feeling of floating. It’s typically Byzantine: all the beauty is internal. There are a few magnificent 14th-century mosaics; a wonderful Christ with the Virgin and the Baptist, tremendously well preserved. You can imagine the building clothed like that, the mosaics canted in the same way, the candles underneath and shafts of light coming in...there’s a great feeling of consecrated space, like a huge forest clearing.
HOTEL: THE RENMIN, CHONGQING, CHINA
I’ve opted for the Renmin in Chongqing, in the province of Sichuan, because it was fascinatingly awful. Chongqing is a grim but interesting industrial city built on a precipitous peninsula sticking into the Yangzi, and the Renmin was—as a reflection of it—the perfect place to stay. It is a colossal, ochre-and-green, pseudo-Ming palace, built in 1953 at a time of Soviet-Chinese accord (and thus pure Stalinist). Behind the fantastical façade, the accommodation when I visited was terrible, and I gather it hasn’t much changed. Twenty-five years ago I remember rats trapeze-ing across the bathroom washing-lines. I shared my dormitory with them, and three sick Japanese students.
BEACH: OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON STATE
The beach I’ve chosen is for walking along rather than lying on. It’s magnificent, about 80 miles of beach around a peninsula, and virtually deserted. If you go inland there’s a wonderful forest with elk and a kind of marmot only found here. The trees go right up to the beach and indeed inhabit it, because the beach is full of enormous chunks of driftwood, piled up. The sand is beautiful and there are lovely black rocks sticking out, covered in brilliantly coloured mussels. Occasionally you see a face in the sea, and it’s a Steller sea lion looking at you.
WORK OF ART: BUDDHA, KYOTO, JAPAN
I’ve chosen a gorgeous 7th-century wooden Buddha, which is in the Koryuji temple, the oldest in Kyoto. This is a strange, delicate, “listening” figure, a little under life-size. It is probably Korean—the Japanese and Koreans were wonderful wood carvers. I imagine the statue was once painted, but now you can see the grain of the red pinewood. He probably represents the Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, who contemplates the world’s salvation. Rodin’s “Thinker” was a variant on the same theme, the contemplative figure in art, which is ancient in Far Eastern culture. To my mind this is the most beautiful version of it.
JOURNEY: THE SOUTHERN SILK ROAD, CHINA
The Taklamakan in north-west China is sometimes called the most dangerous desert on earth—its name means “you go in but you never come out”. You skirt it either to the north or south: the north is the regular Silk Road that is rather developed now, but the south is almost untravelled—strange and empty and rather lovely. The journey, from Dunhuang to Kashgar if you go with the silk, is some 1,500 miles. This route was flourishing 2,000 years ago, but over time the sands have shifted and its cities are now stranded about 40 miles into the desert from the modern track. Here and there you can travel in to glimpse their ruins. From Hotan you can go many miles by camel to the Buddhist stupa at Rawak.
VIEW: MY GARDEN, LONDON
A little bit narcissistically I have chosen the view from the back of my house. It is in part a self-made view, since the garden was a desert when I arrived four years ago. The putti were already in place, however: part of an Italian series representing the arts, I think (I seem to have painting and music). At the end of the garden is the Victorian church of St John the Baptist, which has been partially given over to the Eritrean community, so occasionally you hear Coptic singing, very faintly. I love the dense layers of green and the fact you’re completely private. I’m often asked which country I’d like to live in, but I’ve always felt I belong in a garden in England.
CITY: SAMARKAND, UZBEKISTAN
On the face of it Samarkand is not beautiful. It’s a Soviet-built city in many parts, with dour, functional architecture, but you find some magical historical monuments. Its apogee was in the time of Tamerlane, who died in 1405, and it was the capital of the world for a good 35 years. He was an uneducated monster, but passionate about the city. He brought back the craftsmen he captured, whether Indian silversmiths or Persian mosaicists, and shoved them into Samarkand to work. The surviving monuments—there aren’t many of them—are extraordinary. There’s the lovely vale of tombs which is almost like a lexicon of Islamic architectural motifs of the time, with the most beautiful tile work.