The British historian and author talks to The National about how travelling keeps his curiosity alive
Travelling Life: Peter Frankopan
The past is both fun and illuminating in the hands of Peter Frankopan. The British author and historian has managed to conjure the grandeur and extremities of various eras of human civilisation through acclaimed books examining medieval Greece, Mediterranean, Russia and the Middle East. His last release, the 2015 opus and bestseller The Silk Roads, looked at how the network of trade routes is more than an exotic locale, but an important meeting point linking East and West, and how it was geographical treasure fought over by warring empires. Frankopan was recently in the UAE as guest of the Sharjah International Book Fair, in addition to visiting UAE schools, where he discussed the importance of understanding history to make sense of our present times.
How often do you travel?
At the moment, I’m travelling a lot. I’m on a plane more or less three or four times a week.
Do you combine business trips with leisure, or is it separate?
Those barriers between work and leisure don’t really exist. Even when I’m on what would be called a holiday, I’m always looking for objects, for buildings and for histories. I’m not really a type who goes and sits on the beach. I want to engage with the culture and the people wherever I am.
Has travelling affected the way that you see the world?
Absolutely. I think for lots of reasons. First, when I was a boy, my love of history inspired my love of travel. The more that you see the world, the more you realise, in many ways, how very different we all are to each other, but at the same time how very similar. There are lots of common traits we have, whether you’re in the UAE, or Russia, China and South America. Travelling gives you respect for humanity; it gives you tolerance; it opens your mind and opens your eyes. That’s how you experience new tastes, new fashions, new ideas, new languages and so on.
Where was your most-recent destination for a holiday?
Well I’ve just been in California for three weeks a visiting professor at [Los Angeles-based arts organisation] the Getty Centre. While I was there, we went to Palm Springs for a weekend. Referring to your earlier question, that feels to me the perfect combination of business and leisure.
Do you prefer to relax or to be active when on holiday?
I like to see things that I haven’t seen before. I like to go to places I haven’t been before and I like to feel that I’ve learnt something new. I’m quite sporty as a person and I play lots of sports at quite a high level. So I’m quite active, but my natural instinct isn’t to get on a mountain bike and cycle through the forest and worry about whether my muscles are properly toned. I would rather go to the museum, libraries, buildings and walk through the streets to go see the shops and see where people are.
Do you find it difficult to switch off when you go on a break?
Watching cricket and tennis calms me. Those are both things that I find great fun and also I’ve got quite a busy home life. We have four children, my wife and I, so that’s quite a good way of disconnecting from the day job. But I think I am a naturally inquisitive person. I’m constantly on the go. A lot of people can’t stand their work, and the minute they get home, they’ve switched the TV on – that’s it. But I love what I do, it’s a privilege.
What’s your current favourite place?
I might say southern India. I was in Tamil Nadu earlier this year, which is a long journey from Chennai down to Madurai. It is part of the world that I don’t know well at all. Seeing those inscriptions, the temples and the way in which the past has connected the eastern coast of India through to South East Asia and to China, and also through to the Gulf, was fascinating.
Do you prefer luxury or simplicity?
Can I not have both? I think some of the best luxury that I’ve ever experienced is absolutely because it’s simple and no one’s wearing any shoes, you’re on the beach and you have a coconut that’s just fallen off the tree. Luxury and simplicity don’t have to be rivals.
If you could travel back in time, where would you go?
I’d stay where I am right now. I wouldn’t move from the 21st century. This is the single best time in human history to be alive. Where you can have medical care, dental care, women don’t die in childbirth, children survive from infancy – so I think you’d be crazy to go back in time. And if you were to go back in time, the only sensible thing is to go to a place where you are a free person and also as a man. You know, if you’re a woman or if you’re poor in history, life, I think, is pretty miserable, whatever period you choose. So today, even though I’m a historian, I’d stick with what we have.
What do you love most about travelling?
Everywhere that looks, feels, smells and sounds different. We sometimes forget, because we’re all bombarded with the same films and the same music and so on, that the joy of travel is being able to stop and see new things. So everywhere is different in its own different way and everyone does things in a different way. If you travel a lot, you start to realise that you shouldn’t judge people and how they do things and you should learn to understand and accept it.
What do you hate about travelling?
People who are intolerant, close-minded and not willing to engage with others. People are very busy wherever you go, and it’s not always the right time to ask questions, but so far when I move around it’s very rare that I find a place that I don’t like. But when I feel uncomfortable it’s normally my fault because I don’t understand the people or the culture and it tells me I need to work a bit harder.
Where do you call home?
Two places: my physical home is in England, in Oxford, but my other home is wherever my wife and my children are. We’re very adaptable, we do travel around and we’re very good at putting down roots quickly.
What is the best travel advice you have received?
That you cannot have enough coffee. Coffee defeats all kinds of problems of jet lag and so forth. Coffee is able to defeat all kinds of ailments. It makes you fit, healthier and keeps you awake.
Where are you going to next?
I’m back in England for a day and then I’m off to Mumbai.