Behind the Wall review ☆ 100

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Y a land whose still unmeasured resources strain to meet an awesome demand and an ancient people still reeling from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution I ve visited China on numerous occasions since the late 90s I ve watched the downtown areas of its cities morph into malls full of Chanel and Cartier and its inter city travel become a network of comfortable high speed rain links Colin Thubron travelled the length and breadth of China in the mid 80s He writes about another planet a desperately poor country still putting itself back together after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution train carriages flecked in spittle and cigarette ash but slowly painfully slowly beginning to open up to the world As others have observed here Thubron lets his subjects do most of the talking He asks ordinary people simple uestions about their lives and with a bit of poetic flourish tells their stories He s erudite but eager to engage with people and not beyond self deprecation as the towering lumbering foreigner who is inexplicably to the locals traveling alone One of the best books I ve read this year It left a deep impression on me of what China was like in the mid 80s and how much it s changed except for the smog

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Behind the Wall

Having learned Mandarin and travelling alone by foot bicycle and train Colin Thubron sets off on a mile journey from Beijing to Tibet starting from a tropical I ve been reading this book on and off now and then over a long period I finally decided to just finish it It s not that I didn t like the book It is excellent really Thubron is a very observant outsider and he is very knowledgable about China and its recent and ancient history He reports on observed details that I know I would have missed if I had been in his place And his writing is superb It s just that without a continuing story it was easy to put this one down when something plot driven came along and caught my interest But everytime I d pick this one up again I would be amazed at how good it isI kept looking for something placing Thubron s China trip in a particular year but I could not find it It is sometime in the middle part of the 1980 s the copyright is 1987 so probably shortly before then Thubron travels all over China starting in the Northeast then he travels South down the coast to Hong Kong and winds his way through the interior of the country to the far Northwest where the Great Wall ends There is a map showing his route at the front of the book which I went back to freuently He travels by train mostly sometimes a bus He meets locals and other travelers along the way he speaks Chinese and some locals speak English He is primarily interested in the people the religious sites the natural beauty and the effects of the Cultural Revolution and other major historical and political events I read another of his books a few years ago To A Mountain in Tibet which I enjoyed and led me to pick this book up at a library sale I have another of his which I also got at a library sale but I think I ll try to read it straight through I expect that I will get out of it that way

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Paradise near the Burmese border to the windswept wastes of the Gobi desert and the far end of the Great Wall What Thubron reveals is an astonishing diversit This is my favorite book about China and I ve read uite a fewThubron is an endlessly sympathetic narrator as he travels through classical China befriending people along the way and extracting their stories His masterly writing style is evident even in his chapter headings Where a lesser writer might have written To the Southwest or Guangxi and Yunnan Thubron writes In the Land of Peacocks which is infinitely vividI read this book years ago and yet many of the stories he tells are still lodged in my brain A man collapsing with exhaustion in a flowerbed after having a gash treated by a local uack a mother and daughter competing for the author s admiration with an impromptu fashion show his visit to Mao s childhood home One of the best stories appears very late in the book about an indomitable statuesue Chinese girl and her American husband Just as he s concluded that her husband didn t stand much of a chance he extends the story a bit and hits us with a surprise endingThis is a book about people in all our sadness joy and glory That it happens to be set in China in the mid 1980 s is almost beside the point


10 thoughts on “Behind the Wall

  1. says:

    Brilliantly lovely engaging travel book about China before it became the roaring supercharged capitalist success story it is today Or has their capitalist dream gone bust too like ours It's hard to keep up these daysTwo anecdotes from me and a uote from Mr Thubron and we're done Now I don't often mention HF in these reviews on the grounds that she might object which is fair enough But she goes to China on university business regul

  2. says:

    Interesting but dated view of China as seen through the eyes of a British traveller in the 1980's Not only has the country changed enormously since then but also the way the West looks at China The condescension and borderline racist statements by the author would be strange and unacceptable in a contemporary book about China

  3. says:

    I've been reading this book on and off now and then over a long period I finally decided to just finish it It's not that I didn't like the book It is excellent really Thubron is a very observant outsider and he is very knowledgable about China

  4. says:

    This is my favorite book about China and I've read uite a fewThubron is an endlessly sympathetic narrator as he travels through 'classical' China befriending people along the way and extracting their stories His masterly writing style is evid

  5. says:

    A travelogue around China in mid 80s I think annoyingly it doesn't specify There are some wonderfully poetic passages and plenty of prosaic and disjointed encounters He does at least speak Mandarin so was able to talk to real people relatively easily and seemed good at picking out interesting ones He covered much of the tourist trail albeit independently and even slept in Mao's old bed

  6. says:

    When I first opened this book I was afraid a 30 year old tome would perhaps not be worth the effort and time What could Colin Thubron possibly write about China and the Chinese that was still relevant today But I was soon reassured and highly impressed here's a man who really earns the accolade travel writer erudite fearless and sensitive Thubron patiently and poetically describes the numerous landscapes and cities he sees during his mon

  7. says:

    I was completely and utterly taken in by this book From he first little annecdote that had me laughing aloud on the trainway to school

  8. says:

    One thing I've noticed in the four Colin Thubron books I've read so far all involving travel somewhere in Asia is that he seems to ha

  9. says:

    I've visited China on numerous occasions since the late 90s I've watched the downtown areas of its cities morph into malls full of Chanel and

  10. says:

    A fascinating and beautifully written account of a journey around China as it recovers from Chairman Mao’s policies the Cultural Revolution It is a book of poetry humanity and clear eyed observation