A superbly realized account of travels into Asia Incognita.
These days, it seems, more and more travel narratives follow in the footsteps of long-ago wanderers, as latter-day writers follow the trails of Melville, Stevenson, Marco Polo, or even Bruce Chatwin. One-time New York Times foreign correspondent and Time magazine Beijing bureau chief Bernstein (Dictatorship of Virtue, 1994, etc.) selected a more obscure predecessor than most: a seventh-century Buddhist monk named Hsuan Tsang—“or Xuan Zang, or Hiuen Tsiang, or Hiouen Thsang, or Huan Chwang, or even Yuan Chwang (depending on the system used to transcribe Chinese into Roman letters)”—who traveled from the T’ang dynasty capital of X’ian west across Hun-ruled Central Asia and thence southward to the holy cities of India. Having written critically of the Chinese government, Bernstein feared official interference at every turn; he happened to be in China in the aftermath of the supposedly accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia; and his route, following Hsuan Tsang’s, passed through lands troubled then and now by all manner of ethnic and religious conflict. Even so, he encountered few difficulties anywhere along his course, even in the most fantastically remote corners of Asia. His story is full of adventure and misadventure all the same, mostly involving miscalculations and cultural misunderstandings that the author cheerfully admits were usually of his own doing. He lets Hsuan Tsang go unmentioned for long stretches of the book, but the trail never goes cold, and Bernstein’s memoir supplies not only travelogue of a very sophisticated (and often humorous and poetic) order, but also ample asides on history, politics, economics, geography, and Buddhist doctrine.
Literate and witty, full of memorable moments and keenly observed details: both wonderfully entertaining and highly instructive.