Route 312 The Chinese Route 66
A Book Review
It’s getting to that time of year again when we start planning our next trip to China. What better way to get back into the swing of things than by reading a couple of great travel books?
And China Road by Rob Gifford definitely fits the bill. Gifford follows route 312 – the Chinese equivalent to America’s famous route 66 – as it crosses the country from East to West. All in all, he covers 4824 km from Shanghai to the border with Kazakhstan, passing through an amazing variety of landscapes, from the sub-tropical areas of the Yangtze Basin to the harsh deserts of Western China.
For most of his epic journey, Gifford travels as a hitchhiker, which brings him into contact with people from all walks of life: from rich urbanite Sunday drivers on a day’s outing from Shanghai, to rough truckers heading across Gansu Province and into Xinjiang, or even a mobile phone wielding hermit monk on Hua Shan.
Along the way he gets involved in some unusual situations. Some are tragic, like the time when he sneaks into the slowly dying aids villages in Henan Province to talk to the victims of the blood-selling scam. Others are just completely bizarre; at one time he has to officiate as a priest in a small Christian Church in a forgotten corner of Gansu because the waiting congregation’s real priest couldn’t make it.
I enjoyed the fact that the book follows a route from beginning to end; something that we like doing too (see our maps). Moreover, it is evident that Gifford knows his China. He speaks fluent Mandarin and he worked as a China correspondent for the US network Public Radio for many years. One of the most interesting parts of the book is his observation that route 312 is a reflection of an entire country on the move, as people leave their villages ‘en masse’ and hit the road, in search of a better life in the burgeoning cities. Throughout the book, Gifford draws comparisons with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath which describes how almost 75 years earlier the rural population of the United States of America did the same.
My only gripe is that, occasionally, he leaves an interesting situation too early, like when he declines a meal with the Church- going grannies in Gansu to eat with his driver instead. I also found that some of his predictions and analyses about China’s future erred too much on the side of caution and became rather repetitive towards the end.
However, on the whole, China Road is an enjoyable read and a must for anyone heading west from Shanghai towards Xinjiang.