This is a memoir of a year I spent off the beaten track in China. From the Pacific coast to the dusty heart of Central Asia, I travelled 10,000 miles through virtually every region of that vast country. My backpacking adventures were so much more than a normal young mans solitary wanderings. I taught myself Mandarin so that I could communicate with anyone and everyone I came across. My book is a personal account, yes, but it is also reveals China through the eyes of the Chinese. I spoke to people in every part of the nation, from politically-disillusioned artists in Shanghai to poverty-stricken farmers in the mountains of Tibet. As my book moves through vastly-varied encounters, the reader joins me on my journey and emerges with an enriched vision of China.
The extraordinary social and economic changes of today are transforming China more profoundly than Mao's Great Leap Forward or even his Cultural Revolution. My aim in this book is to convey what these changes mean for ordinary people across the country. The potential rewards on offer at this time may be great but the upheavals are creating a complementary array of strains and stresses. My personal experiences often led me to question the cohesion of Chinas great empire.
A hallmark of my travels was that I sought out the lower rungs of society. You can learn a lot about a state by how it treats the people at the bottom. Away from the white heat of Chinas industrial boom, in areas that few foreigners ever visit, I spoke with people who were gaining little and losing much because of Chinas growth. However, in this book I do not simply offer a clichd account of how Chinas authoritarian government is oppressing its people. My encounters were often surprising and I have tried to present all of them faithfully in my narrative. The priceless experience of being lectured about the Chinese Space Program by a boastful Tibetan shepherd- a man I had imagined would be fiercely opposed to Chinese rule- is one of many thought-provoking anecdotes I share with the reader.
Despite the increased interest being paid to it in the West, China remains an enigma to most. Both its population and the land itself are mind-boggling in terms of size and diversity, and few Westerners- either tourists or journalists- ever go further than scratching the surface when trying to grasp its essence. While I cannot claim to provide all the answers, my book does offer a fresh, insightful and sensitive perspective on what will potentially be the 21st centurys most important world player. China is a topic about which people are fascinated and my book looks at it from a new angle.