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on 7 March 2000
I visited China three years ago - the usual tourist routes around Beijing, Shanghai and Xian - but the bit I enjoyed most was the Yangtze cruise. Perhaps because I had been there, I was able to relate to this book. More importantly, I wish I had read in before I went. There is so much that I missed - both tangible and atmospheric. But even if you have never been or intend to go, the author paints a picture more vivid than a thousand photographs. The style is amusing and anecdotal but also deeply knowledgeable - history without the boring bits. It will have you crying at the Rape of Nanking, and laughing at Dr Ho of the mountians ( nice bloke , crap tea ). It's a riveting good read and I thoroughly recommend it
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on 24 July 2003
When I bought this book I was actually looking for a different book by the same author but this one caught my eye – I wasn’t disappointed.
The book tells of the efforts of Simon Winchester to travel all the way along The Yangtze river from east of Shanghai to the mountains of Tibet. There’s none of the humour of Bill Bryson or Peter Moore; instead this is more the sort of book you could imagine Alan Whicker writing.
At the start, Winchester explains some of the background to the book, notably explaining upstream and downstream, and introducing his travel companion whose real name we are not told for the risk of endangering her safety with Chinese authorities. Clearly, you’re reading a serious travel book. As the journey progresses he describes in detail Shanghai, Nanking, The Three Gorges (before the completion of the hydroelectric dam being built there) and Shigu (an astonishing place a long way along the Yangtze where the river undertakes a quite astonishing turn).
The book is written against the background of bureaucracy and officialdom which at various points threaten the continuation of the story.
As someone who has travelled only very briefly in China, I was absolutely fascinated by this book which perhaps in some way provides a little insight into a country which has so very much to offer.
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on 31 January 1999
I would recommend this book not just as an enthralling voyage of discovery but also as a sharply observed insight into modern China. It gives you a sense of the great geographical size of the country and its great potential for good or evil for the future, as well as informing us with lots of interesting stories from the past.
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on 1 December 1999
To begin, an exbedition of this scale is ambitious. To complete it and document it so thoroughly is an outstanding piece of travel writing.
The book gives its readers a comprehensive view of the history of China through the eyes of the river that runs through it. That in itself is a fascinating story. The view of the river through the eyes of a Western writer is every bit as interesting. We may never understand China or the Chinese but the evidence to start doing so, be it anecdotal or otherwise, is all here.
The pace of the book reflects what I imagine the pace of the journey was like: fluctuating. Yet the action and the descriptive narrative are as engrossing as each other. There is never a sense at having to work hard at reading the book. The imagery is vivid, the characters each unique. No one book has made me want to visit a country more.
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on 5 June 2002
... but it doesn't accomplish what it purports on the cover! We do not travel back through Chinese history as we journey upriver. Most of the historical vignettes are of late 19th century and 20th century. I was looking forward to reading about the different dynasties that ruled China and the colourful events prior to the arrival of the Europeans, but I was most disappointed.
Nonetheless, once I got over the disappointment, I did enjoy the book albeit in a mirthless fashion. The author seemed to rediscover his wit and sense of humour at Li Jiang and carried them with him to journey's end in Tibet. Perhaps this is a just reflection of the depressing reality of traveling through modern China. It is a shame, but now I no longer want to go.
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on 19 July 2005
If you are interested in China, and the Yangtze in particular, this is a fascinating read. It is cram packed with information on the Yangtze and and the countryside it travels through on its journey from its source. I have one major reservation, though: if you read between the lines it may not be all that it seems. At the outset he makes clear how much he owes to Lily, his 'guide and mentor' without whom he could never have made the journey. It turns out that the journey is long and arduous; they are frequently uncomfortable, and find themselves in serious danger on more than a few occasions. Throughout, Lily proves a tower of strength, even though sometimes fearful and, especially when dealing with Chinese officialdom. At the end of what seems to have been an epic journey Winchester leaves his companions, Lily among them, and walks off to view the 'source' of the Yangtze on his own: and that's the end of the book. From what I could make out about Lily I hardly think she would have stayed behind and not travelled those last few yards with Winchester to see, what we are told is to the Chinese, the 'cradle of China'. Something fishy seems to be going on.
Similarly, he gives the impression throughout the book that he stops and 'chats' with the locals as they are passing through. Now, unless he's a linguist of some note this seems highly unlikely. Especially, when you consider that Chinese accents and dialects can be mutually incomprehensible within relatively few miles of each other. And especially when he arrives in the land of the Yi, Naxi and Yao peoples who speak languages that are Tibetan-Burmese linguistically. Of course, he never says he is or he isn't a remarkable linguist: but why leave readers with this impression? Does he think it adds kudos to his account?
With these reservations I am left wondering how much of the journey he actually did himself and how much he constructed from the many interviews and considerable research he carried out. After all, Lily must remain conveniently anonymous, and so we are left to take him at his word. In a review by his publisher he is described as curious, urbane, witty and knowledgeable - nowhere are significant linguistic skills mentioned, even in passing.
These reservations take the edge off the book, but it is still an interesting and thought-provoking read.
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on 22 March 2012
It took me two attempts to get into this book, I gave up at the tedious preparation stage the first time around. A decent enough tale but the author spends too much time showing off. Having travelled extensively in China since 1988 I struggle to fully believe some of the things he says about officials or the difficulties of his journeys. The author also comes out with a number of extraordinarily judgemental statements eg 'The British all but ruined China...' Overall the book doesn't really do much for me, it is a good adventure story but disappointing in many respects. Might be quite a good read if it was half as long or if you are planning to do a tour of China, but don't let him put you off the Three Gorges Cruise, it is a spectacular river cruise, warts and all, I have done it twice.
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on 7 June 2012
This book is more than a travel log. It provides a glimpse of China's past, present and future. I had travelled along the Yangzte in the mid 1990s and found myself agreeing or chuckling at things that were written in the book as I found myself relating to them all. It's a wonderful and outstanding piece of work that is packed with important historical and technical information as well as providing wonderful snapshots of the psyche of the Chinese common people. A must have for any Sinophile and China book collection.
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on 24 July 2010
I chose this book with a lot of anticipation having read such other books as Colin Thubron's 'Behind the Wall', Peter Hessler 'River Town' and other books on China, however I was quite disappointed. It seems like there are two books in this one book, the first being a travelogue with the author and his female Chinese assistant and the second a historical study of the most important (from a Westerners p.o.v) events on the yangtze.
The travelogue is dull and doesn't evoke half as much atmosphere as the above writers or a Theroux but is ok and the historical snippets are interesting but so unconnected and disjointed (despite having the yangtze as their subject) that the book has a disjointed and stuttery feel, sort of stop start.
Having said that it is an averagely interesting book about the yangtze river and it's history from a western perspective. There are many much better books about China though and I'm not sure why this one is quite so popular.
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on 27 October 2008
This book contains a wondrous selection of linguistic oddities - those that could do with the attention of a proof-reader (bindles, decoctions and similar), spellings that illustrate trans-atlantic schizophrenia (dike/dyke) and lack of confidence with prepositions (`raft the river' and `raft on the river'. There are the obscure phrases(.. sealed his letter with a huge red chop), the peculiar (.. gun his engine, .. jury-rig the radiator) and the occasional reference that I feel is simply wrong e.g. `Tibetan bibles' (Bibles being Christian Holy Script, not Buddhist.
Apart from these obstacles, the rest of the language is beautifully crafted and descriptive. It is an excellent `Starter Kit' for those interested in China but with little or no previous knowledge - informative but it doesn't batter you with too many facts.
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