Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman, 320 pages.
Admittedly, I am a fan of the travel memoir. Possibly because I don't leave the east coast and most definitely because I'm the least adventurous person I know. I'm open to travel, but only if led by someone more experienced - not a chart my own course kind of girl. So this story of a post-college backpacking trip to China in the 1980s caught my attention. (Would you agree that the cover doesn't really scream travel memoir? Yeah, that bugs me a bit.)
After looking at a world map on a placemat at IHOP, the author and her friend Claire make grand plans to travel following graduation. They decide to begin in China which at the time wasn't exactly known as a big tourist destination - all the better for adventure. Susan is the more hesitant of the two from the start, especially when the accomodations and transportation are less than sanitary. Claire is an encouraging counterpart, pushing them ahead into the unknown. As the weeks progress, Claire begins showing signs of fatigue and behaving oddly. The foreshadowing is such that it doesn't take long to figure out the trip is not going to end well - but the cast of characters they meet along the way help to save the travelers from all manner of disaster. As far as I am concerned the supporting people make the story, as Susan appears to be most worried about "hooking up" and Claire is most worried about being followed by spies. It is truly unlike any travel saga I've ever read or heard about and the fact they both emerge safely is nothing short of miraculous.
A fascinating look at China in the 1980s from the perspective of an inexperienced traveler and a story that is likely to keep me safely stashed on my couch. The author was honest about her naivete and foibles, but was annoying nonetheless. Claire really couldn't help her issues, but I wonder at the wisdom in her decision to travel at all. As I said before, their fellow travelers and Chinese acquaintances keep the story moving and interesting.
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