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on 10 March 2012
Ostensibly From Heaven Lake is a travel book. The description is both apt and limiting. It is worth musing on the idea that travel may be merely a way of collecting a pool of nostalgia for future regurgitation. But this particular description of the author's journey through China - initially west-east and then north-south in the early 1980s - does not seem to have added very much potential fuel to future's recollected fires.

At the time it was hardly common for an individual to travel independently in China, let alone enter Tibet via Qinghai or - even more unlikely - exit China via Tibet into Nepal. But this is precisely what Vikram Seth did, and to add icing to the achievement cake, his preferred mode of transport was hitch-hiking. It is largely the mechanics and logistics of this journey that provide most of the content of the book.

Vikram Seth had been a student in China, so his goal was to see some of the less visited parts of the country and to exit, eventually, to India to be reunited, after years in college, with his family. He did have some language without which, given the twists and turns bureaucracy forced, he would surely not have achieved his goal.

Near the start of the book the author is already in eastern China, visiting Turfan which, on the other end of an axis that starts in Tibet, must be one of the strangest places on the planet. It bakes in summer and freezes rigid in winter, is in the middle of a massive desert but makes its living from highly successful agriculture. On a visit to the karez, the ancient underground irrigation channels that bring water from the distant mountains, the author chances an unauthorised swim against his guide's advice. The author gets into difficulty. And this seems to be very much a thread that recurs throughout the narrative of From Heaven Lake. A determined first person seems intent on asserting a rather blind individuality in the context of a society that respects only conformity and seeks to exclude anything that suggests difference. In the conflict that ensues between these fundamentally different aims, we are presented with a catalogue of travel that seems to miss much of the potential experience of the country through which it moves. Thus much of the book deals with the process of travel, rather than its experience.

Despite this, From Heaven Lake is a worthwhile read. Besides Turfan we visit Urumqi and the high altitude lake that gives the book its title. The tour moves on to Xian, Lanzhou, Dunhuang and then across Qinghai to Tibet and especially Llasa. This city occupies much of the text, revealing that visiting it was very much at the heart of the author's consideration.

We do meet some interesting people along the way, but they are largely bureaucrats, drivers or officials associated with the author's travel arrangements. Given Vikram Seth's experience in the country, there seems to be a missed opportunity here, in that more people would have embroidered the text with more interesting and enduring detail than the repeated travel problems.

In its time, From Heaven Lake might perhaps have been a unique account of a trip that few contemporary travellers would have contemplated, let alone attempted. Today it still presents in interesting account of a personal challenge, but offers too little contemporary experience to motivate the general reader to stay on board.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 September 2015
Before going on to write 'A Suitable Boy', probably the longest novel in English since Samuel Richardson's 'Pamela', and 'An Equal music' (the finest novel about music that I have read) Vikram Seth had enjoyed a lengthy and cosmopolitan career as a student. After studying in his native India he pursued postgraduate study in England and then California, before moving on to Nanking University in China in 1982.

Having embarked on an officially sponsored tour of some of Western China Seth became obsessed with the possibility of visiting Tibet, and travelling from there to Nepal and then on home to India. Tibet has the status of 'autonomous region ' but travel there required formally endorsed permits. Seth's struggle to obtain the appropriate certification proves almost as difficult as the journey itself.

Seth never quite resolves his doubts about China, and spends much of his journey comparing life there with conditions back in India. Most of his journey is spent in the cramped cabin of a large lorry, except when he is delayed by dreadful floods, or sinking into mud having deviated only slightly from the marked trail.

The writing is sparse (though he was still very young and yet to establish himself as a writer), and Seth never quite manages to stir the reader's fascination
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on 22 July 2013
What is the best way to experience another culture? Learn their language and then promptly hitch hike your way across. This is precisely what Vikram Seth has chances upon. It is a gem of a travelogue, and what has won my admiration is that he is a Hindu pilgrim. Vikram captures the emotions of his friendship with the Chinese people, especially the tension between the majority Han and minority Uighars, mogols and the Tibetans. The travel abroad a truck as it crisscrosses across Sinkiang and Tibet brings about a constant stream of challenges, from police checks, bartering to frequent unwarranted stops when the truck gets stuck in mud. These occurrences produce the best phrases out of the author like....
'A mind clouded with rage is fearsome even to itself.' I agree with Vikram's analysis in the end though when he compares India with China and the way both have progressed under different system of governance. According to his observation if you are dirt poor than you are better off born in China as compared to India. On the other hand if you are on the upper end of the poverty scale, than India offers a better prospect for future.
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on 16 December 2017
This exquisite writer has been around for a long time but sadly, his sequel to the admirable A Suitable Boy never got written. Diving deep in his earlier works unveils this little gem, a description of his voyage from Nanjing to his home town Delhi one Summer in the early 80ties, hitchhiking through the remote provinces of North Western China, visiting Tibet en route. Respectful but not a victim to any illusions of the political realities of China at that time, Seth is your perfect guide. His journey, seen from the outside, appears impossible, but he pulls it off, and he and we are all the wiser from it.
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on 23 March 2016
I could not get into this book although us description is excellent
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on 29 August 2015
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on 12 October 2016
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on 5 August 2015
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 January 2012
From Heaven Lake is Vikram Seth's first non-fiction book. First published in 1987, it tells the story of his travels through China, Sinkiang and Tibet in the summer of 1981. Seth was a graduate student at Nanjing University and decided to hitchhike home to New Delhi via Tibet and Nepal. He kept a journal during his travels, and this book is the result. With his command of the Chinese language and his garb, he was able to journey through places not usually accessible to tourists. His observations of the people, customs and modes of travel and his encounters make very interesting reading.
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on 9 August 2010
beautifully written; and still very interesting nearly 30 years after it was published. I imagine both China and Tibet , and the journey described; would be very different now. A classic
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