Monday, March 26, 2012

A Traveller in China

A Traveller in China
By Christina Dodwell

For anyone that is considering traveling in China (or anywhere in central or east Asia for that matter), you would be doing yourself a service by picking up a copy of Christina Dodwell's excellent travel book, A Traveller in China. Although the book is nearing thirty years of age, it is a wealth for information, and anecdotes by one of the world's most intrepid and fearless explorers. Furthermore, unlike many books on the subject of China, Dodwell dedicates the bulk of her journey to the more remote regions of the country rather than the well-worn tourist track of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Kunming. The book resounds as much today as it may have when it was first published.

When this book was published in 1985, China was still in the midst of its gradual transition out from the disasters of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. While it was still very much a cultural and political backwater, the machinations of things to come were already churning under the leadership of Deng, Xiao-Ping. Christina Dodwell provides a candid look at China at a crossroads: the last years prior to its Great Economic Explosion that would roll through the 1990s and continue unabated up until today.

I admire Dodwell's travel technique. She traveled China alone in the early 80s, a time when foreign travelers were a rarity, solo foreign travelers even rarer still, and solo female travelers a virtual non-entity. Having traveled through Asia extensively myself (though not China, I must admit), I can say that Dodwell was never in any real danger among the people, but certainly this trip took a lot of guts. Traveling amongst Chinese populations can be a very lonely experience if you aren't prepared.

Furthermore, Dodwell tends to stray away from the traditional hotel, restaurant, bus, hotel circuit, opting for a more granola approach. She hefts her inflatable canoe along with her and is always keen to put in along a river, lake or stream. She is also keen to stay with local people whenever it is offered, which gives her a keen insight into the lives of some of China's most misunderstood minority groups. And while she is careful not to cross paths with police or other government officials, she makes every attempt to visit places that are still "officially closed" to tourists. Dodwell makes her way to Ju Jie Shan, Lake Er Hai and Tibet.... all closed to tourists in the early 80s. In that respect, Dodwell is an intrepid, fearless explorer who provides a unique perspective on this part of Asia.

Certainly she had the pedigree. Dodwell's grandmother was a journalist during the tumultuous days prior to the Second World War and spent over ten years in China traveling and writing. Dodwell makes some effort to retrace her grandmother's path, starting in Beijing but finds that much of what existed in the 1930s had been destroyed or torn down. In her hunt for footprints left by her family, she is left disappointed.

Despite this constant flux, what Dodwell discovers on her travels through the western and southern provinces (Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Yunnan, Gansu and Tibet... not in that order) is a land that is not far removed from the 19th (or 18th, or 17th) century. Uighur people living in yurts, Hui people hunting and cultivating in their traditional ways, Miao people sporting their traditional dress and Tibetans dining on yak meat stew (with a bit too much animal hair). The presence and influence of the Han Chinese at the time of writing was still very much tenuous. This book was written long before the Chinese government got vigilant about relocating hordes of Han settlers into these territories in an effort to Sinicize them, a strategy that I am lead to believe is working, much to the detriment of these cultures. To be certain, Dodwell does encounter Han racism along the way. A truck driver who picks her up on the road to Lhasa is puzzled as to why she might want to spend time with Tibetans, calling them dirty and lazy.

Dodwell doesn't get much involved in editorializing her travels and never falls into the trap of cultural relativism, which is refreshing considering the majority of books I have read over the past few years on the subject of China have been largely condescending. She offers some cursory history and other essential information if it pertains to her travels but rarely strays from her own travelogue. She does, however, say enough to allow her readers to formulate their own opinions. That's a fine line, to say the least, and she walks it well, although she did make me laugh heartily when she made reference to a fellow European's fashion choices:

"The girl was wearing short shorts, which many of the younger Western travelers in China seem to wear, not realizing how this offends the local people's customs. What kind of Chinese woman would walk with bare thighs in public?"

Oh boy, Ms. Dodwell, how times change. The question today would read: "What self-respecting Chinese girl doesn't own at least two dozen pair of ultra-revealing short shorts and a multitude of miniskirts that leave little to the imagination?" I got a kick out of that line so much so that I woke my (Taiwanese) wife up just to share it with her. She failed to see the humor at 1:30am. Too bad, I guffawed.

While much of the book focuses on her travels through the vast expanse of nature in China's western provinces, paddling the lakes and rivers in and around the Tienshan Mountain Range and the Tibetan Plateau, it is the time she spends with the people that makes this book timeless. She is invited into yurts, eats everything that is offered to her, travels by horse, donkey, mule and camel and generally has a knack for familiarizing herself with shy communities. Her experiences truly feel as if they were from another century. It is a virtual certainty that she encountered communities who had never seen white people before (it is suspected that Dodwell is the first outsider to ever witness the Dragon Boat races at Lake Er Hai). There's something to say for that.

For those who are interested in the rapid transformation happening in China since the early 80s, this book offers an interesting bookend to the rise of China. It's a solo traveler's account of the country on the eve of major social and economic change. It is extraordinary to read about the cultural and economic values of China prior to the current variation. What's more, due to the rapid influx of Han people into these far flung areas has turned many of these populations into minorities in their own land. We only need to look at the state of unrest and displeasure in Xinjiang and Tibet to see the growing concern over the future of these populations.

In this respect, A Traveller in China is a book that couldn't and wouldn't get written today, which is a shame. It's the sort of book that reminds the reader of the travelogues of explorers such as Ibn Battuta or Stanley or Livingstone. Travelers who are treading new ground, seeing things from an stranger's perspective for the first time. In 2012, there are so vary few places and communities left on the planet untouched or unseen. It's awesome that Dodwell had the chance to cover ground so few outsiders had seen since (dare I say) the days of Marco Polo.

What's more, Dodwell has incited within me the first inclinations to travel in China, a country I had previously had no interest in visiting. I only fear that much like her attempts to retrace the travels of her grandmother, I would find that much of what she wrote about has been altered beyond recognition. Shame.

Classic travel literature. Highly recommended.


Jonathan Wilhoit said...

Sounds like an awesome read. I always love it when someone digs up an old dinosaur like that, especially when it's on a subject that is pretty much inaccessible any other way. These remote places are becoming increasingly harder to find, what with the proliferation of technology as it is (such as African villages having cell phone service but no drinkable water). Great to see that we can at least experience it through this author's eyes.

Jenny said...

These types of books can be horribly dated. I'm glad to hear this one didn't fall into that trap. Why isn't people don't think things are funny when you wake them out of a dead sleep? Hmmm.

Man of la Book said...

Sounds like a great read. One of these days I'll make it China. I traveled a bit around the world and some of my favorite places where those remote towns which you literally just stumble upon.

Linda Jacobs said...

A friend of mine travelled to China a few years ago and I was fascinated by her tales. This looks like a book I'll have to check out to live vicariously!

Re: Jodi Picoult books. If you have Nineteen Minutes, I'd go with that, first.

Thanks for visiting my reading blog!

Elizabeth said...


Stopping by from Book Blogs.

Stop by my blog if you can for a giveaway of THE DEMOCRAT.


Silver's Reviews

Ryan said...

@Jonathan, My high school history teacher used to call that cocacolonization. Not sure if that is in common usage.

@Jenny. It is dated in some ways, but it doesn't really matter. Good stories are still good stories.

@Linda. I think I have that one.

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