Many thanks to the original China-hand Gavin McCalla for insisting that I read Rob Gifford’s 2007 book China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power
Gavin was absolutely correct in espousing this as the best book about China
he has read.
Ostensibly a travel narrative, the book is based on a journey the author, on his last stretch in China as an NPR correspondent, made of the almost 3,000 mile long Route 312 that spans the entire length of China. Beginning his journey in Shanghai he travels as a passenger, hitch hiker and reluctant preacher to the end of the road in the dessert frontier near Kazakhstan.
What makes the retelling of the journey so interesting is the layering of personalities, place, and history that Gifford uses to construct a unique insight in the reality of the whole of China.
Gifford provides an entertaining primer on how China became China, the implications of religion and social structure on Han culture, and the path China took from the fall of the Qing Dynasty to the evolutions of the Socialist Market Economy.
More importantly through, he details the dichotomy of the two Chinas: the prosperous crust of Eastern and South China contrasted with the vast majority of the population in interior and western provinces trapped between a vanquished social support system and inaccessible wealth held by their countrymen.
This on-the-ground insight about China as a bubbling cauldron will surprise some and reinforce the perceptions many travelers form about China after they move beyond the glamor of Shanghai and the land grab vibe of Shenzhen.
In the end the reader gets a vivisection of modern China that provides a big helping of the many things that make China and the Chinese people so amazing. Be prepared to be on the phone with your travel agent the minute you put this down!
You can buy the book new or used via amazon. Some of the photos from the book and other details about the 312 trip are on Rob Gifford’s website.
The seven part NPR series Gifford produced in parallel with the book is terrific too. You can hear the segments at the NPR Webiste.
Want a little more history? I schlepped the hardcover version of The Dragon and the Foreign Devils with me during two China-Taiwan runs in 2007. It was worth it.
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