Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Not judging the book by its title, which might lead you to believe it is quite a sexy book (it’s not), I really just expected this to be another backpacker’s account of her jaunt through Asia. As someone who, like many others, has “done the jaunt” herself, I found a lot to relate to so, excuse me as I write this review from a very personal viewpoint. The book is set in China in the mid-eighties, a couple of years before my own first, brief encounter with mainland China. Susan Gilman and her not-very-well-known friend, Claire Van Houten hatched a plan on the back of a paper placemat while out late one night of conquering the world on a trans-planetary trip. They decided to start in China and the descriptions Gilman writes of encounters with bureaucracy, once grand but now falling apart ships and other transport barely held together with spot welding, hotel and travel agent staff who tow the party line as far as only presenting what was allowed to be presented…and no more, not to mention other backpackers, is spot on. Anyone who travelled to China in the late 1980s right up to the mid-late 1990s will relate to this book on some level and probably really enjoy it for the nostalgia factor. Places too, ring true from freakishly tiny and sparse, swimming pool tile-lined guesthouse rooms in Chunking Mansions, a backpacker icon that is still existing in that ‘state’ as far as I know. If you haven’t been there or read the book yet, I don’t want to give anything more away as her expectations versus reality play-by-play about the place is brilliant. And this is just the first part of the journey.Yangshuo is another centre of the backpacking world in China and, in those days, was one of the few places foreigners could go and decompress from all the experiences had during travel in China. To have been struggling, quite out of your depth, with renegade bus drivers, unknown animal parts served up in soup, and language barriers for weeks on end then, finally coming upon the then little village of Yangshuo with its rows of cafés serving Western-style food from English, French, and German menus just seemed like a godsend. I really liked how Gilman placed their visit to Yangshuo in the story as sort of the beginning of the end as that is exactly how the place feels to many who’ve travelled there. You get a sense of having slogged your way round in relative hardship and this is the intrepid backpackers’ reward…banana pancakes all around! Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t just the reminiscing factor that I enjoyed about the book. There is also the storyline of what it is like being with someone you barely know, 24/7, for weeks on end. In this case, the increasingly bizarre relations between Gilman and her friend Claire whilst travelling in a country with a high difficulty rating, as far as backpacking goes, make for an interesting thread that runs throughout.Call me non-imaginative, but I do like books that go back and tie up lose ends. Gilman does this in her Afterwards chapter really well. For readers who haven’t travelled to China, you could easily get a sense that what the book describes is how it still is to travel around the vast country. In some places it really is still like that, but China has been hurtling towards a developed travel infrastructure at an alarming pace. Even 10 years after the book was set, it was sad to my Western nostalgic sensibilities to already see beautiful old temples crumbling or being replaced by white tiled square boxes of buildings. In fact, the first time I went to Shen Zhen on the mainland near Hong Kong in 1989, it was a small village with dirt roads. I remember an old man pulling his cart full of pigs past me. The next time I went there in 1998, it was full of gleaming white sky scrapers. I actually had to check my journal to see that I was indeed thinking of the right place. I was. In 9 years the place had become unrecognisable. Gilman’s modern description of the places her and Claire had been to really expresses the changes that have taken place. Changes that would have to be seen to be believed otherwise.In short, although I had low expectations of the book, I was pleasantly surprised. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in travelling independently in China. And I would strongly recommend this to those who have already participated in the backpacking rituals associated with travel in China. You will be reliving much of that experience!
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