Rough Guide to Chile

… planning for my 4 weeks travelling in Chile with Hazel. 33 days to go. I can’t wait – I’ve really had enough of my projects right now, the takeover one in particular. If it wasn’t for Phil, I honestly think I’d be pondering heading off for longer.

None of which has *anything* to do with reading the Rough Guide!! I’ve spent some of this evening mapping the transport routes south of Puerto Montt using Phil’s Omnigraffle – the Mac equivalent of Visio. It all looks increasingly enticing, but I can’t spot a way of getting between Coiahaique/Puerta Aisen and Punta Arenas/Puerto Natales and Tierra del Fuego. I really wish the guide books would show transport routes on a single map….

River Dog – Mark Shand

This book is Mark Shand’s tale of his walk along part the Brahmaputra river, which rises in the Himalayas and flows through Tibet before turning south into India and Bangladesh, where it flows out into the Bay of Bengal.

The tale takes you from the expedition’s the genesis in a meeting with one of his explorer/adventurer heros, Charles Allen, to suffering altitude sickness in the Himalayas and 2 years of working relentlessly through British and Indian bureaucracy… and that’s before he even starts his walk.

The epic is dented rather by the long Tibetan stretches of the river being made out of bounds to foreigners by the Chinese, but the tale changes tone and focus somewhat when the river walk does begin, high in the mountains of Assam, where Mark meets Bhaiti, who becomes his River Dog.

An enjoyable tale, with lots of characters and lovely photos in the centre section. Mark Shand does not mince his words or mask his emotions, particularly where bureaucrats or officials thwart his plans. At times he can come across as a rather arrogant, imperious Gentleman Traveller, but perhaps those are required characteristics if such travels in Asia are to succeed.

Buy it: Amazon link

Frontiers of Heaven – Stanley Stewart

A Journey Beyond The Great Wall

Another traveller’s tale recounting their adventures in the vastness of China that lies beyond Beijing. This time, it’s a westerner (although one who seems to be able to converse and communicate to a sufficient degree for independent travel), and Stanley Stewart’s route takes him by boat, train and bus from Shanghai to Taxila, Pakistan, following the Great Wall and the Silk Road, in a 20th century take on the fabled Journey To The West.

Fascinating, pleasantly unpatronising, a lovely final paragraph, and, if i’m honest, it’s got the China-and-the-‘Stans travel bug agitating again….

Buy it: Amazon link

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.