Journalist/translator and intrepid traveler Porter (Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China, 2008, etc.) takes readers on another virtual journey into the China few Westerners know.
On his latest, Porter traveled to Yunnan, in southwestern China, a place opened to foreigners way back in Marco Polo’s day—courtesy of the invading Mongols, the author points out—but not much visited even so. The narrative opens in the frontier city of Wuchou, fairly new “as Chinese towns go,” having been built 1,400 years ago, “back in the T’ang dynasty, when the Chinese decided they needed a more permanent presence in order to control the trade goods that poured forth from that region.” The Chinese have been seeking to control the place ever since, as Porter quietly points out while traveling from one ethnic enclave to another, telling tales of amity and enmity. As a reporter, he’s a font of oddities, noting which towns are renowned for snake recipes, which cater to the tourist trade, and which are best avoided altogether. Mostly, he writes with good humor (“Kuelin…now featured the standard overpriced tourist facilities and services that catered to large tour groups, which were okay if you don’t mind being treated like a sheep”), and he’s inclined to laugh at himself for getting into odd situations—e.g., perched on a high cliff over the Yangtze River, with only himself to blame for the predicament. The book has a slightly scattershot feel, without the keen sense of goal and direction that marked Porter’s Road to Heaven (1993), but the journey is absorbing all the same, a tale of precarious mountain passes, forbidden borderlands, and mostly lovely people, to say nothing of a statue of a “two-foot-high vulva.”
As satisfying as any trip by Paul Theroux but with a much less prickly and much more forgiving narrator.