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Tuesday, February 15, 2005


A book I’d coveted since my school days, mostly because at that time it represented a misty, elusive Shangri-La replete with fresh dewiness and intrigue. Also, been awhile since I read a travelogue—my Michener and Pico Iyer days almost behind me, although am flummoxed as to why that should be the case. My ineffable jealousy at those excellent writers who somehow make one feel ignominiously inadequate and wretchedly penurious, has only been exacerbated in the past days—Wow, One writes as one travels and earns a visibly decent livelihood, what could be better !

The author is a resident student of Nanjing University, who fitfully conceives a plan to reach Delhi, his eventual destination from Beijing by hitch-hiking his way through China and Tibet. Set in the late eighties, it speaks of a time which might seem verily distant and forgotten now—the spectre of xenophobia-dotted Chinese landscapes, the contrast of bureaucratic bungling with affable amity, the surging and wistful aspirations of a people learnt to be repidiated by long years of domineering Big Brothers are some of the themes of this book. In the same breath, once can add that it is far less a guide than a personal and factual narration of the quaint, fleeting and moving experiences of the author.

The tale is for most parts descriptive, again less a raconteur than a tell-it-lie-it-is , which seems deliberate as his musings on the differences and similarities and his semi-wise philosophical observations are tinged with his understanding and memories of India. Names like Turfan, Urumqi, Tatlan roll of the tongue easily enough and one gets glimpses of the Hans and the Uzgirs. I did not know that there were so many Muslim/Turkish influences manifest in China. A rich variety of culinary dishes dot his every journey, and there is an array of resting places too. His friends who accompany him range from the simplistic, to the suppressed, to the seedily spiritual. Language infirmities are taken care warily, as are etiquette and manners. Well at home in discomfiting conditions and in the absence of creature comforts is our author !

On a hunch, he decided to take the trodden path through Lhasa, and this causes him and other assorted helpful officials some sleepless nights but he does what he attempted with a little help. Careful attention to and painstaking reverence for detail exemplify each chapter, juxtaposed with a here-and-now verse contrived ever so often. As he himself says, his agreement and affirmation with many aspects of Chinese ways of living have withered over the years, with some serious doubts about the sustenance and strengths of Chinese realpolitik, but he comes across as a warm, insightful and caring individual, not pedantic or pontificating.

He misses out on less perceptible, less uttered sentiments but is none the worse for it, Perhaps, it was not meant to be a heavy book. Makes light and easy reading, and always the mark of a good book, makes you yearn for the places described.

A 7 on 10 !


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