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.
Published: 1989
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.

For more about Colin Thubron, visit his Wikipedia page, his British Council page and his stories in Granta.

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.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

1 Comment for No. 23: “Behind the Wall” by Colin Thubron

KPRyan 03.17.08 | 11:12 PM ET

I’m surprised to see no responses to this great book’s insertion as one of the best travel books.

If you have not taken the opportunity to read Colin Thubron, you owe it to yourself to buy a copy of ‘In Siberia’ and ‘Behind the Wall’. 

Both are the finest, of their kind, 1st person travel books featuring Communist lands profiled in all their ruinous splendor.  Especially moving are Thubron’s ‘pictures’ painted with English as he describes the Gulags or Chinese waterways.

Colin Thubron is unmatched in excellence!

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