An informer sent me a book. He said he thought I’d like it - it’s travel writing by a guy who makes his way across China on his own. Which rather confused me. Why on earth would I enjoy reading travel writing by a guy making his way across China on his own? This is not a genre with which I’m familiar, I have to admit.
The book, Allein unter 1,3 Milliarden, is by Christian Y. Schmidt – now there’s a man who’s changed his name since the advent of the search engine. That raised my hackles slightly more, as the author is described as Senior Consultant for the Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur (“Operation Enduring Freelance”). This is, I gather, a loose affiliation of creative types for whom the term “digital bohemia” seems to have been invented. They write, they edit, they blog, they organise parties and events, they market things, they produce things, they think deep thoughts about the most humane way for us to work, they feature in Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Diesseits des Van Allen Gürtels, they know all the right hands to shake and are generally hip and groovy people. In short, I’m deeply envious. Another key player, Kathrin Passig, took the Klagenfurt literary competition by storm in 2006 with a short story precisely tailored to the event, Sie befinden sich hier (You Are Here, trans. Lucy Powell). It was her first piece of fiction – and her last, as far as I’m aware. You can read an extract from a non-fiction book by Passig and Sascha Lobo, How to Get Things Done without a Spark of Self-Discipline – a translation that actually demanded a fair amount of self-discipline, to be brutally honest.
So there were a number of hurdles for the book to overcome. But the informer in question is usually pretty reliable, so I gave it a reluctant try.
You know what comes next, right? Yeah yeah, I genuinely enjoyed the damn thing, no matter how much I wanted to hate it. Schmidt starts out as an ex-pat in Peking, married to a Chinese woman and speaking very little Chinese. Plagued by self-loathing and boredom, he decides to set out on his own along the country’s longest road from Shanghai to Kathmandu. By bus. Part of the plan is for Schmidt, a former Maoist from Bielefeld (Germany’s second most boring placeTM), to assimilate along the way, learning the language and actually becoming Chinese. On the road he battles with torrential rain, explores and rejects Buddhism in a single day, hears a million hellos, meets polite punks and bare-chested “Xitele” fans and faces hallucinations and near death by yak.
The author hits just the right note between banal blogger-style commentary and traditional travel writing. He frequently refers back to previous European travellers in China, from Marco Polo to Edmund Hillary. OK, the descriptive passages of landscapes viewed out of bus windows are nothing to write home about. But the character sketches are worth their weight in gold. And maybe it’s just me, but his self-deprecating humour really makes the book. Like when he is appalled to run into a group of German pensioners in the wilds of Tibet, as they spoil the exclusivity of his adventure. Or when he chuckles over the fake US press reviews on a condom packet, explaining: “as semi-barbarians, we (Caucasians) enjoy an excellent reputation in the sexual sector.”
Part of the appeal is the sheer bizarre nature of the author’s quest and the oddities he comes across. But there is more to the book than funny re-hashes of Engrish signs and tales of curious characters (although they’re in there too). Schmidt may be a traveller who doesn’t really speak Chinese but he’s spent some time living in China and Singapore, he’s done his research and he knows his stuff – better in fact than his guide in Tibet. With a certain ironic distance to his former political allegiances, he frequently seeks out traces of the Long March, Chairman Mao and sites of historical events and achievements. And often enough they’re impossible to find between tower blocks and shopping malls, especially if you don’t speak the language. What I found absolutely delightful was the irreverence with which he treats the Dalai Lama, otherwise so unquestioningly idolised by aging pop stars and politicians alike. Daoism is much more his cup of lapsang souchong, with handy hints picked at random from the Dao De Jing guiding his path in indecisive moments.
All this with a reflected, thoughtful and undeniably witty modus operandum:
Through the haze, a shrivelled skeleton staggers towards me. It must be the mummy. In fact, it’s only an incredibly skinny old beggar… So I give him something, partly because I’m already ashamed that I will later use the poor guy in this book for a cheap effect.
My informer was troubled by Schmidt’s uncritical attitude to the ruling party in China. And in fact, the author does seem to have become over-assimilated by the end of the book. Like many an enthusiastic settler, he whitewashes negative aspects of the country’s politics. The trip took place in 2007 during the run-up to the Olympics, and Schmidt faced numerous bureaucratic hurdles while travelling through Tibet. Foreigners need permits to enter Tibet and to leave Lhasa, access to Mount Everest is blocked off for several days – and why? According to the author, because a group of US students unfurled a “Free Tibet” banner at the foot of the mountain. Admittedly perhaps not the most effective form of protest, but Schmidt blames the students for stirring up trouble rather than the Chinese government for overreacting. Alright, the guy wants to carry on living with his wife in Peking, but there are ways and means of expressing criticism that might not get you expelled.
At the end of the day, though, Alone Among 1.3 Billion is about the people rather than the country – the Chinese and Christian Y. Schmidt. And as such, it's well worth reading.