Colin Thubron is a President Emeritus of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Lost Heart of Asia, Shadow of the Silk Road, and, most recently, Night of Fire, a novel. (July 2019)


Our Guide to the Underworld

A potash mine, Berezniki, Russia; from Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a documentary film by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky, 2017

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

by Robert Macfarlane
There is an old mistrust, even a primeval fear, of what lies underground. The preference for height over depth, light over darkness, is embedded in our language. Rising is preferable to falling, high spirits to low, enlightenment to depression. Robert Macfarlane’s remarkable Underland: A Deep Time Journey celebrates an ambivalent …

Reveling in Discomfort

‘Mandarin’s wife and two daughters with bound feet’; from Isabella Bird’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond

The Yangtze Valley and Beyond: An Account of Journeys in China, Chiefly in the Province of Sze Chuan and among the Man-tze of the Somo Territory

by Mrs. J.F. Bishop (Isabella L. Bird), with an introduction by Dervla Murphy
Ever since the Romans imagined an empire of elysian peace at the eastern limit of the world, China has been the repository of Western fantasy and delusion. More than three centuries ago Leibniz marveled at the country’s rumored enlightenment, and Voltaire cited its secular governance as a desirable model for …

A River Runs Through It

Fishermen on the Okhotsk Sea, at the mouth of the Amur River, which separates Russia and China

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires

by Dominic Ziegler
The Amur is the ninth-longest river in the world, but to Westerners it may be the least known and most remote. It evokes no ancient culture, as the Nile or the Indus does, nor does it occupy a nation’s heart, like the Mississippi. Instead it creates a little-known and potentially …

Where Globalization Began?

Young Cubans crossing the Malecón as tourists drive by in antique American convertibles, Havana, May 2016

Island People: The Caribbean and the World

by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
In his travel book The Middle Passage (1962), V.S. Naipaul notoriously claimed that “history is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Ironically the provocation in this statement was a display of typically Trinidadian picong, or goading insult; but the dyspeptic Nobel laureate was …

A Different Vision of History

‘The Dutch delegation of Johan Josua Ketelaar to the Maharana Sangram Singh in Udaipur’; detail of a tempera painting on cotton, 1711

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

by Peter Frankopan
More than a century ago an obsessive Englishman tried to calculate the geographical heart of Asia, and erected a now-vanished monument where the Greater and Lesser Yenisei rivers meet in southern Siberia. The concept that the world, or its hugest continent, possesses a heart (or a womb or a memory) …


Lost in Arabia

The 1761-1767 doomed Danish expedition to the Middle East was little known for many years. In Felix Arabia, an account of the expedition recently published in a new edition, Thorkild Hansen sometimes doubts the expedition’s influence. But since, its reputation has burgeoned. Despite the losses and decay suffered by its findings, the maps, studies in zoology and botany, and other discoveries were a gift to the future. In 2011, the 250th anniversary of the expedition’s departure was celebrated with pride.

When the Ruins Were New

Francis Bedford: The Colossi on the Plains of Thebes, March 17, 1862

In February 1862 the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, embarked on a four-and-a-half month journey through the Middle East. Among the party was the photographer Francis Bedford, who in over 190 prints produced one of the earliest photographic records of the region. The torpor of the declining Ottoman empire is palpable in his rare group photographs—unreliable Ottoman mercenaries or ragged Albanian water-carriers—as it is in the empty-looking villages of Hebron or Bethany. Even the streets of Cairo appear deserted. And there are no Jews.