Sunday, March 16, 2014

From Heaven Lake

From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet  - Vikram Seth, 1983

Seth studied in China from 1980 to 1982. As a poor foreign student, he couldn’t afford plane tickets home to Calcutta. During the summer of 1981, he obtained an internal visa to enter Tibet, a rare document in those days. So he hitchhiked his way through Sinkiang and Tibet on his way to visit his family in India. Because he travelled overland by truck and on foot and was able to talk to people that he met on the road in Mandarin Chinese, he had experiences that are well worth reading about. His use of the present tense gives a feeling of immediacy, even 30 years after the trip.

Although he does not include much about the history of Tibetan-Han Chinese relations, he does have informal conversations with Tibetans about this sensitive topic. They tell him terrible stories of destruction of priceless cultural properties during the Cultural Revolution and human rights abuses in the years following that turmoil. It’s really unusual and refreshing to read a travel book by somebody who is not an American, a Briton, or an Australian. Seth speculates as to why India and China are strangers to each other, with the only major influence of one on the other was Buddhism and that was a long time ago.

Whether this is worth reading depends on the purpose of the reader. Readers that are looking for a book that delves into historical or philosophical questions a la Black Lamb and Grey Falcon will be disappointed. But it’s interesting for readers who love to read travel narratives or about Eastern cultures without going into the details of long-winded pedantry.

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