At the end of a six-year stint in Beijing as the China correspondent for NPR, Rob Gifford sent his wife and children ahead to London to start their new lives. Gifford, who first arrived in China as a language student in his early 20s, embarks on a two-month, 3,000-mile journey across China’s Route 312 – not unlike U.S. Route 66 – which joins Shanghai to the western Chinese border with Kazakhstan. “For twenty years, my life has been entwined with China, and my experiences here have shaped the person I have become,” he writes. “And this road trip is a way of saying goodbye.”
Gifford’s two decades of on-the-ground experience, and even more importantly his fluency in Mandarin, allow him privileged access. To call his subjects diverse is beyond understatement; they are fascinating, unique, shocking, inspiring, exasperating, eloquent, opinionated … and many of them, patriotic and proud.
China’s international rise, as presented by the western media, has predominantly been centered on the meteoric metamorphosis in its major cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai. More recently, the “yellow threat” is back in the news again and often – from the superiority of Chinese students (at least in test scores) to the looming threat of China’s growing economic power as western debt rises. In spite of the lightning changes, reading Gifford’s already four-year-old book actually couldn’t be more timely. Beyond the numbers and statistics, Gifford introduces you to the actual people.
Traveling on sleek trains, bone-rattling busses, hitchhiked trucks, lovers’ taxis, friends’ jeeps, Gifford’s journey is, of course, most memorable because of the people he meets along the way: a cave-dwelling hermit with a cell phone who lives up a sacred mountain; a city doctor who travels to small towns enforcing the one-child policy, who speaks so matter-of-factly about the late-term (even live birth!) abortions she must sometimes perform; a small Christian congregation whose members insist that he preach an impromptu sermon when their traveling pastor does not arrive; a roomful of dying men infected with AIDs after a monstrously disastrous government-sponsored blood-collecting scheme that wiped out whole villages too remote to make international headlines; and perhaps the most chilling of all, a Chinese language teacher who explains that to hold on to his Tibetan heritage is to remain enslaved in poverty although he draws the line at taking a Chinese wife.
With his sharp, questioning journalism background, Gifford effectively weaves in Chinese history, politics, economics, and culture that give his masterful stories a deeper context and insight beyond the details of individual daily lives. From Genghis Khan’s invasion to unparalleled empires, to the shameful destruction resulting from western colonialism, to the genocidal Japanese invasion, to the ruthless control of Mao’s regime, to today’s Communist/capitalist conundrum, Gifford presents a China of unlimited contradictions.
Join Gifford on his mesmerizing cross-country trek– whether on the page or take it along on your iPod (the latter highly recommended, crisply read by Simon Vance). This is one journey you won’t hear – or even think! – ’are we there yet?’ even once!