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on 6 April 2010
In 1986 two female graduates of Brown University in the US, empty of ideas about their future, decided to circumnavigate the globe together, starting in China. In the present day, China is such an easy tourist destination that it is difficult to imagine the 1980s when very few westerners went there and those that did were treated with extreme suspicion and monitoring by the Chinese government. The two young women, Susie and Claire, run into problems almost from the outset of their trip. They are routine problems that will be familiar to most modern travellers in China - dirty rooms with cockroaches, the unfathomable complexity of the language, over-helpful staff, necessity to buy a rail tickets days in advance of travel, toilets that defy belief and unrelenting bureaucratic problems. Their superior `we are rich American's from Brown University, and we are better than you' attitude however manages to evoke no sympathy at all from the reader. To start with therefore I disliked them, and because one of them is the author of the book, I didnt like the book either. But I realised after a while that I only felt that way because Susan Gillman is such a good writer that I was actually meant to feel this way. As the book unfolds its true nature becomes apparent. This is not a book about two Americans travelling across China having a series of hilarious travel related incidents, but rather an examination of how you cope with a travel partner who is slowly unravelling. And if you are a latent paranoid schizophrenic, then China in the 1980s is the ideal environment in which your fantasy world becomes real - because government people really are watching you, and your phone really is being tapped. If you are looking for a female equivalent of "Bill Bryson does China", this is not the book you are looking for. It does however explore a much less travelled route - the problem of coping with mental illness in a close friend, and it does so in an extremely readable and convincing way.
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on 15 February 2010
...if I'd been the parents of these two spoiled girls. They were in no way ready or prepared to be out on the open road together alone.

The writing is fine, but there are some cringe-worthy moments. And why did it take 20 years before this finally turned into a sort of travel book. And photos would have been nice - how convenient that both cameras got broken.

The book reminded me painfully of what I don't like about travelling - all those iterminable, boring, uncomfortable in-between times. And it didn't really do very well on reminding me of why it's good, interesting, illuminating to travel.
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In 1986, two college grads decide to spend a year backpacking around the world starting in China, which had just begun to open its borders to tourists. While the girls were shocked at the primitive conditions they found, they were joyfully surprised at the kindnesses they experienced from locals and fellow travelers. The trip took a different path, however, when one of the girls began showing frightening signs of mental illness.

Told with the boundless enthusiasm and naiveté of youth and the wisdom of hindsight, Gilman has created an exciting and witty book that is much more than a travelogue; it reads like excellent fiction. The people she encountered are so real and fascinating, from the humble Jonnie who wanted to defect to the West to selfless Sandy who was a life-saver. There is nail-biting tension when dealing with the rigid authorities and the frustrating language and culture differences. I was so caught up in the story that I was twice brought to tears and was sorry when the book ended. Highly recommended, especially to those who have traveled to China.
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on 7 September 2009
If you like travel you'll hate this book. I have been traveling backpacking style for years now and I can assure you that everything that happens in the book is annoying and frustrating to read. Two spoiled and rich girls (at least one of them), used to all the comforts of their parent's house decide to go traveling in China. The beginning of the book is ok (at least the first 15 pages) but the more you read the more you realize that it is just getting stupid. All small problems that normal travelers have, are seeing as a major adventure. Example: eating in a restaurant where they only serve fish. When something is not as they are used to or as they want to, they get frustrated and start insulting China and their system, instead of just getting on and take it as part of their journey. Example: buy train tickets few days in advance. One of them is even obsessed with boys so every time she has an opportunity she just go off with some random traveler. The most pathetic part is one of them travels in China (where the majority of the people is poor) with Guggi wallet and Jewelry.

If you really like a good travel story stay away from this book. There are hundreds of travel books much much better than this one.
I read a lot of books and this must be one of the worst I have ever read.
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on 12 July 2015
I'm halfway through and I'm hooked. I feel like I am travelling around communist China with a nutcase. If you've ever travelled South East Asia, this book is a gem. Makes you remember how silly you were, how excited, how beaten down and everything in between. The characters are very easy to resonate with, even the nutty one. Cannot put it down. Teenage naivety at it's absolute best - but a great read for any adult.
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on 6 July 2015
This starts off as a typical travel memoir and turns into something off-the-scale-bonkers. Towards the end, my anxiety levels were also off-the-scale (as was my pulse).

If you liked I Left My Tent in San Francisco / The Road to Rouen / The Hotel on the Top of the World - then, like me, this is most definitely your thing.
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on 8 February 2016
Loved this book and missed it when I had read it.
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on 28 November 2009
In the spring of 1986, two Brown University seniors met at their local International House of Pancakes and conceived of the impossible; an around the world trek which would begin in the remote, relatively unknown - to most Westerners then - People's Republic of China. In her latest, and finest, book to date, "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven", journalist Susan J. Gilman recounts the epic trek that she and her best friend from Brown undertook through China in the fall of 1986, venturing deep within the country, to isolated towns and hamlets in a rural countryside that had never seen Westerners before. Without a doubt, hers is one of the most memorable examples of travel writing that I have ever read, and one that should be regarded as a contemporary literary classic.

"Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven" is no mere travelogue written with the literary flair one might expect from a splendid writer like Ms. Gilman. It is substantially more; a mesmerizing account of her final ascent into adulthood as she confronts and her friend's unexpectedly rapid decline into depression and insanity. And therefore, as such, it is quite simply as life affirming as the great memoir written by her high school English teacher, Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes". While I will not compare and contrast the literary merits of both books (Mine would not be a fair assessment since I count Ms. Gilman as a friend and Frank McCourt as my Irish-American "father" who instilled in me a strong love and appreciation for great literature.), I believe that it is as memorable an example of memoir writing at its best as, of course, "Angela's Ashes" most certainly is; an example that may leave its readers with many of the same emotions felt by those who have read McCourt's legendary literary debut.
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