In early editions of the Lonely Planet Taiwan travel guide from the late 1980s and 1990s, the entry for Taitung County is suspiciously short. It describes Taitung City as little more than “a departure point for many interesting trips” and the surrounding luscious coastal area as “likely to remain a relatively quiet backwater for a long time.” The author, Robert Storey, has since retired into that relatively quiet backwater — which is also one of the most staggeringly beautiful scenic areas in Taiwan — and one suspects that Storey hopes it will stay that way.
It’s now been almost 40 years since the first Lonely Planet, and 30 years since the first Rough Guide. These travel syndicates helped define the era of the backpacker and perhaps the modern traveler, Westerners who roam from one scenic, third-world bungalow to the next, living seemingly permanent vacations funded by their good luck to have been born in a rich country. The guidebooks have also helped blaze tourist trails and facilitated a touristic variant of cultural imperialism that has brought great changes in Asia, not all of them welcome.
Guidebook writers have long been conscious of their role in changing Asia’s cultural landscape. Chris Taylor, author of Lonely Planet Guides on China, Tibet, Japan and Cambodia in the 1990s and the first features editor at the Taipei Times, looks back on this era in his debut novel, Harvest Season, a racy, chemical-fueled parable of party travelers who push things too far in tourism’s latest frontier — China. Like Alex Garland’s The Beach, it’s about Westerners on a deluded search for paradise, except the writing is better and the premise not nearly as cheesy. Though still light enough for hammock reading, Taylor’s story is a wiser, more poignant portrayal of where the endless backpackers’ party might be headed and the wayward souls who are taking it there.
Taylor has in recent years spent a great amount of time in Dali, a gorgeous high-mountain village on the lower Himalayan steppes of western China. It’s not too far from the supposed location of the mythical Shangri-La, and Taylor repeatedly invokes the irony of this pre-labeled paradise, much in the way one might invoke the reality of the Easter Bunny. The novel is set in the guesthouses, bars and other expat hangouts of a fictional variation of Dali — Shuangshan. The season is late fall, when an endless stream of ganja flows down from secret patches in the nearby mountains.
If you’ve ever stayed in a hostel or guesthouse in southeast Asia, you already know the cast of characters. There are the expats — though “long-termer” in Shuangshan could mean just 10 months — who include a couple of foreigner-friendly Chinese from metropolitan cities, a core of pragmatic Westerners who always seem to be sipping another beer or rolling another spliff, and the Chinese women they date. Taylor’s protagonist Matt, also a former guidebook writer, declares this tribe to be “refugees from the bullshit, the phony democracy, propaganda parading as free speech, surveillance cameras, the war on fucking terror. We feel freer here than we do in the so-called Free World.”
They are also refugees from “the trail,” Asia’s extended backpackers’ party circuit, which includes Bali, the full moon parties of southern Thailand, Bangkok’s Khao San Road, Manali and Goa in India, and various other outposts in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Nepal. (I’ve also heard this trail jokingly referred to as the “banana pancake trail” after one of the dishes you find on guesthouse menus throughout.)
But in the end, “the trail” catches up to these benign first-wave travelers. A piss-and-vinegar-filled Australian arrives ready to import the party scene from Thailand and Laos. Hippies and a new age cult come in tow, upsetting the delicate local balance.
Taylor doesn’t let us forget that China, after all, is not Thailand. One techno rave at a time, a conflict builds between the young Turks of the party crowd and the conservative local community, before finally exploding in a nervous showdown of violence. In the process, Matt and the other long-termers are caught between their shallow-rooted desires to remain, involuntary instincts to shield fellow Westerners, and the moral abyss of giving in to
By the time things come to a head, it is too late for any easy outcome or good decisions. Though not overly dark, Harvest Season is a cynical novel, with the barbs directed at both travelers and travel writing alike. You can get a dose of the flavor from one character’s swipe at the Peter Mayle memoir A Year in Provence. He pronounces that in “A Year in Shuangshan,” you “get wasted, end up with the wrong woman, watch paradise go to the dogs — that’s life, that’s the real world.” It’s a bleak fate for a die-hard traveler, and a warning of what might happen if the permanent vacation truly fails to end.