A Bend in the Yellow River – Justin Hill

Planning to start this on the tube home tonight – the blurb claims to offer “a first class introduction to contemporary China” – albeit pre-SARS.

Verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed it! Read the review below….

Buy it: Amazon link

The edited diary of Justin Hill’s 2 and a bit year stint as one of 2 VSO volunteers in a remote Chinese teaching training school makes for fascinating reading. The day to day events and accompanying emotions recounted in Justin Hill’s diary provide the reader with a window into the world of the VSO volunteer in China, as an alien looking LaoWai, 5 years after the Tiannamen Square massacre. The record also gives glimpses into both the lives and the characters of the people Justin and fellow VSO volunteer, Marco, meet, through work, through bureaucracy, and in the course of everyday life in Yun Cheng.

Looking at the sketch map provided at the start of the book, Yun Cheng doesn’t look that remote. But it doesn’t take many pages before you realise that Shanxi province is a million miles away from any image or expectation of China most of us would be able conjure up – 6 hours by ytrain from Yuncheng to Xian. 46 hours from Xian to Guanzhou, 1 hour from GuanZhou to HongKong. The distance, and the cultural and social isolation, is brought home at the end of the book, at a point where thre narrative had shifted from observing Yun Cheng and its people through the eye of an outsider and has begun to look deeper, raising questions of how much control the state, both cental organs and the local party, has over people’s lives and aspirations.

And yet for most people Justin Hill met during his time in Yun Cheng, “a small town where the people have narrow horizon’s between mountains and chimney stacks”, this town was the most exotic place they would see. For a reader living in a city where where people fly to New York or Paris, Istanbul or Iceland for the weekend, the differences are stark indeed; and all the more fascinating for that.

Red Dust – Ma Jian

Beyond Beijing in the mid 1980s
In all likelihood not to everyone’s taste, this autobiography cum travelogue provides insights into life in the greater China, the 99.9% of the country which lies beyond Beijing, during the mid-1980s. Ma Jian’s story takes place in the 3 years to 1986, when the Coal Miners were striking in the UK, Reagan was president in the US and Gorbachev was on his rise to power in the USSR, and with the Tiananmen square massacre still to come.

Ma Jian doesn’t explicitly provide much by way of deep and meaningful perspective on himself as he describes the 3 years he spent walking the length and breadth of his country, most of it in search of himself, and some of it on the run from the authorities. But as you follow him on his long walk around China and his self, you travel through scenes which leave you with another insight into a man who can’t find his place in the all pervasive system, be that political or religious.

Perhaps that is the main message of the book – that someone as apparently innocuous – to Western eyes at least – as Ma Jian, whose reaction is – usually – flight rather than fight, was regarded as enough of a threat to merit police surveillance and, in due course a police hunt in the farthest flung corners of China.

However my enjoyment really stemmed from the fact that Red Dust is a documentary, providing a first hand account of China in the mid-80s at the time when I was in my teens, gorwing up at B91 2DL in affluent suburban Solihull – an experience which contrasted greatly with Ma Jian’s life of work units, official (and unofficial) documentation, vast waterways, open plains, rough and ready accommodation, ennui and enterprise.

Fresh-Air Fiend – Paul Theroux

Pot Luck Paul Theroux

Louis’ dad isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this collection gives you a taster of Paul Theroux’s travel writings from the years running up to Y2K.

Snapshots of the lives and lifestyles of people from all around the world, not only of the individuals Theroux encounters but also of the writer, his family and friends, including Bruce Chatwin.

With stories of sailing off Cape Cod, luxury cruising down the Yangtze a mere 4 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and surf-kayaking off Hawai’i’s North Shore, there’s a definite bias towards water-borne exploration.

Whether you are seeking inspiration for holiday destinations or, like me, feel the occasional need to relive travels of your own (or to undertake fresh ones, albeit on a vicarious basis), ‘Fresh-Air Fiend’ fits the bill.