Randall Payleitner

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Book Review #9: China Road

I love a good road trip book. Well, let me qualify that a bit more, I love a good road trip book that has a point. There are some pretty famous ones in the past few years that are more meandering journeys of travelers looking for solace in the open road or healing in running away—those types of road trips won’t get you too far and they usually end up right back where you started.

However, when the traveler sets out with a goal, an end date, and/or a target… the journey becomes that much more fascinating. Rob Gifford, a long-time NPR correspondent out of Beijing, was getting transferred back home to the UK. He decided to spend the better part of his last summer in China taking the 3,000 mile journey on the Chinese Route 66 from Shanghai—north and west—toward the border with Kazakhstan. Buses, trucks, cars, cabs, and walking. He wanted to see the real China.

It was the early 2000’s—before the Beijing Olympics, but after the great migration from the country to the cities had begun. Gifford’s journey, more than any other modern road trip book I’ve read, encapsulates a very specific window of a country’s history. China was rising, but how fast? Could it sustain itself? Did it want to?

As he travels from east to west, the cities get smaller, the people groups get more diverse, the Great Wall gets shorter, and the history gets more complicated.

I’ve been to China twice. I read this book in between those two trips. And my understanding of this fascinating land was expanded exponentially because of Gifford’s masterful reporting. Read it and you’ll see the whole world a bit more clearly.

 

Pivotal Excerpt:

“In spite of all the change in China, the Western world is still stuck in its dangerously outdated, black-and-white view of the country, tripping over its own breathless superlatives about unprecedented growth and progress, or retreating into old Cold War stereotypes and warnings of “the China threat.” And Western images of Chinese people are dated too. The Chinese have always been faceless masses in the Western mind… Now, though, individualism is emerging in China, as people take more control of their own lives. Chinese people, especially in the cities, have choices, and these choices are creating a whole new generation that is unknown to many people in the West” (xix-xx).

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