Sun, Mar 24, 2002 - Page 18 News List

A pedestrian account

Bill Purves' tale of his many months spent walking from Hong Kong to Inner Mongolia is useful to China-trek aspirants, but lacking in literary luster for the casual reader

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

This is a record of a hike from Hong Kong to Inner Mongolia. The author, a Canadian engineer, took three and a half months over it, and the whole jaunt cost him NT$17,000, plus the price of an air ticket back south to Hong Kong again. He slept rough and carried a tent fly-sheet but no sleeping-bag.

Starting in late spring, he steered clear of cities as much as possible, making due north from Guangzhou, keeping west of Wuhan, and ending up at the provincial capital of Hohhot. When the going was good he covered 6km an hour. His usual sleeping place was anywhere away from prying eyes, wearing all his clothes, and wrapped in his tent fly. Sometimes people invited him to stay in their houses.

Purves describes himself as "one guy with a small knapsack and a few bucks in his pocket wandering through the countryside" and that sums him up pretty well. He wore Adidas trainers and had a poncho in case of rain. He says he met about 200 people every day, none of whom had ever met a Westerner before. They all asked him the same litany of questions, where he came from, wether he was married, and so on. He contemplated having the answers printed out in Chinese characters and pinned onto his backpack.

Purves is essentially an easy-going, open-minded people's friend. He dedicates his book to "the peasants," and has few hard words for anyone. In return he finds hospitality, mingled with astonishment, on just about every hand.

He was treated with remarkable tolerance. Almost everyone was happy just to leave him alone. People were usually most interested in his maps, correcting errors before pointing him in the direction of his next destination.

This book confirms a view I have long held -- that people almost everywhere are basically friendly and unlikely to cause a stranger trouble. The problem for the humble wayfarer lies with government agencies. Purves kept these at arm's length and encountered no serious problems.

Publication Notes:

China on the Lam

By Bill Purves

389 pages

Asia 2000

He does point out, however, that most of China is still technically off-limits to foreigners, though anyone visiting the tourist sites would never discover this. As a result his unplanned trek through the countryside inevitably led him into closed areas, albeit undistinguished places no previous foreigner had ever dreamt of visiting. On one occasion he is stopped by the police and told he is in a restricted zone, but they prove sympathetic when he points out there was no way he could have known this, and end up giving him a ride to the start of a more acceptable trail.

He was able to speak Mandarin and Cantonese -- he once helped manage a Chinese factory, an experience he recalled in Barefoot in the Boardroom (1991). He's incidentally also the author of a book comparing aspects of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Three Chinas (1994).

This is not in any way a literary read. Some people will find it rather boring and pedestrian (no pun where none intended, as Samuel Beckett once quipped). Nevertheless, it does give a certain insight into Chinese rural life, even if the drabness of much of it turns out to be the dominant impression.

For my taste, this book is too easy-going for its own good. The problem is that nothing really interesting ever happens to the author, and when this is added to the generally undramatic nature of the terrain, and the gentle and unassuming nature of the people, lack of fire is the inevitable result.

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