Having learned Mandarin, and travelling alone by foot, bicycle and train, Colin Thubron set off on a 10,000 mile journey from Beijing to the borders of Burma. He travelled through the wind-swept wastes of the Gobi desert and finished at the far end of the Great Wall.
What Thubron reveals is an astonishing diversity, a land whose still unmeasured resources strain to meet an awesome demand, and an ancient people still reeling from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution.
Like a classical Chinese scroll, this book follows a meandering, atmospheric course through China's landscape. Thubron ( Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car Through Western Russia ) rambles from exuberant urban centers like Canton and Shanghai through intensively tilled farmlands to such lesser-known sites as the elegant canal city of Suzhou and through countless small towns and villages. With impressionistic color, vitality and immediacy, he creates images that linger in memory: monks performing a nocturnal candlelit ritual for the dead; Mao's birthplace, once thronged with Chinese pilgrims, now eerily deserted; the flamboyant beauty of tribal nomads. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, Thubron often breaks cultural barriers, talking candidly with and even visitng the homes of the people he encounters. Most express contentment with the relatively relaxed policies of their government, and their aspirations are openly materialistic. The author also visited a prison, a hospital, an art school where only Ming-dynasty painting is taught (``as though whole Western academies were to devote themselves to the style of Giotto . . . ''). The overall impression is of a pragmatic, complex people, engaged in a quiet stampede toward capitalism, rediscovering parts of their past and ready to forge their own future.