The roving journalist and travel writer takes on China.
In his previous two books—Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (2006) and The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific (2004)—Troost chronicled his time on the tiny, isolated islands of the South Pacific. Here, the author considers a decidedly different environment, a “massive and rapidly changing…vast and complex country.” That description proves to be an understatement, as he encounters one bewildering thing after another, from the “hermetically sealed Super Deluxe Executive Suite” at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, the world’s highest hotel, to rampant prostitution and unspeakably foul restroom conditions. “It is remarkable,” he writes, “how quickly a country like China can reduce a foreigner—this foreigner, in any case—to a state of childlike powerlessness.” As Troost travels through Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, Guangzhou and a half dozen other teeming cities, he notices the pervasive remnants of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the driving force behind the new “Chinese Model” for organizing society: “unfettered capitalism combined with authoritarian rule.” With the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, the author notes, comes a widening gap between the rich and the poor—the government is currently sitting on a $1.4 trillion reserve—in addition to increasing levels of air and water pollution, which Troost duly notes in each impossibly smog-choked city. The author finds relief in the relative order of Hong Kong, the utter barrenness of the Taklamakan Desert, the quiet calm of Lhasa (Tibet) and the staggering beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge, but he is underwhelmed by the fabled Shangri-la. Interspersing sections of cultural history—and plenty of tasty and not-so-tasty culinary tidbits—throughout his travelogue, Troost offers a serviceable primer on life in China. But uncharacteristically awkward prose too often creeps into the narrative, and the author relies heavily on bland generalizations (“It’s a complicated country, China, full of complicated people”) in lieu of thoughtful commentary.
Not as smooth or consistently engaging as his first two books, but worthwhile reading for armchair travelers and Sinophiles.