No. 23: “Behind the Wall” by Colin Thubron
Travel Blog • Tom Swick • 05.09.06 | 9:25 AM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: China
As usual, Thubron studied the language before the trip and arrived with his customary grasp of history and notebook of contacts. His encounters with people—beginning with his seatmate on the plane over, who believes he says “smile” when he asks her if the Chinese think Westerners “smell”—have the openness and the authenticity (and in this case the humor) of a great travelogue. But Thubron raises the bar with his physical descriptions, employing language that often verges on pyrotechnic, and his analytical thrusts. He is one of those rare writers who possess both the intellectual capacity to interpret and the emotional ability to connect. As a result, his writing upgrades frequently from informative and entertaining to profound and moving. This is perhaps the best book by the best travel writer working today.
Outtake from “Behind the Wall”:
By evening the restaurant quarter had eased into gossip, and people crowded to the cinemas. After everything they had suffered, after all the disorientation and self-torture, they were released now into an innocent variety of enjoyment. In the booths which lent out comic books, ranks of workers relaxed onto benches to thumb through the feats of Tang warriors or the evil doings of the Guomingdang. The pavement amusements featured conjurers, improvised shooting galleries, a man dancing on his knuckles—and passers-by could now tentatively hold hands without censure, and know that the infant in their arms was not the child of unending Revolution, but their own.
—Thomas Swick is the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the author of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was recently a guest blogger on World Hum.