Welcome to Paul Theroux's idiosyncratic brand of travel writing. The opening chapters are hilarious - Theroux joins a tour but spends most of it trying to avoid his fellow travellers, whom he dislikes. They become suspicious of him in turn when he is constantly seen to be writing.
There are many moments of dark humour, such as when Theroux answers the call of nature on a train at midnight, only to find a bucket of dead eels on the floor next to the (very dirty) toilet. The next day in the dining carriage he asks what's on the menu, and receives the disturbing reply: "Eels!"
It should be remembered that this book was written back in 1988, but while dated it provides an interesting and perceptive snapshot of a country on the threshold of change between Maoism and capitalism.
The book contains many interesting insights, for instance: "One of the weirder Chinese statistics is that 35 million Chinese people still live in caves. There is no government program to remove these troglodytes, but there is a scheme to give them better caves. It seemed to me a kind of lateral thinking. Why rehouse or resettle these cave-dwellers? The logical solution was to improve their caves. That was very Chinese."
Or: "Mao was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution, and replied: "It's too early to say."
Other insights are more humorous: "Perhaps John Maynard Keynes to [the Chinese] was like D.H. Lawrence for us, and I tried to imagine what forbidden, dark, brooding supply-side economics might be like."
Or disturbing: "It is the belief of many Chinese I met that animals such as cats and dogs do not feel pain. They are on earth to be used - trained, put to work, killed and eaten."
The differences between northern and southern China strangely parallel those of northern and southern Germany; northerners are stereotyped as "imperious, quarrelsome, rather aloof, political, proud noodle-eaters", while southerners are "talkative, friendly, complacent, dark, sloppy, commercial-minded and materialistic rice-eaters."
But Theroux find the emptiest parts of China the most beautiful. He journeys to the far north of Heilongjiang in Manchuria, because he heard there was wilderness there: "real trees and birds." The most interesting parts of the book deal not with China itself, but these outlying areas it has attained sovereignty over: Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang and especially Tibet.
Theroux's trip into Tibet is a mixture of sublimity and farce, as he is forced to take over the car from his inept Chinese driver, who nearly gets them killed. Theroux clearly admires the Tibetans (although not their enormous and rabid mastiff dogs). "The Tibetans found a way of distancing themselves from the Chinese, and in the most effective way, by laughing at them."
But Theroux was unfortunately wrong in his assertion that Tibet would be safe from the ravages of mass tourism because it had no railway. In fact, the railway went through in 2006, some eighteen years after this book was written.