A Chinese Adventure Gone Wrong

"The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped." --Graham Greene

With a title like Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, you’d expect a racy tale of international romance. What you get is very different, but still a page-turner. Shortly after the Chinese borders opened to Western tourism, the author, Susan Jane Gilman, and her college friend, Claire, plan to use the country as a starting point for a year-long round-the-world backpacking adventure. When they reach China, Susan writes, “We were now truly here, on the other side of the earth. All that remained was for us to step out onto the glistening tarmac and into the gloriousness of our lives.”

That rosy-eyed outlook quickly changes. Neither girl is prepared for the reality of China in 1986, where they are constantly watched by the government. They deal with bouts of stomach trouble and dirty hotel rooms. They slowly become indoctrinated into backpacker life, where the cheaper (and according to the backpackers, more authentic) your hotel room, the cooler you are. They experience a few idyllic days at the Green Lotus Peak Inn, eating stacks of banana pancakes.

However, Claire’s increasingly strange behavior makes Susan realize that she has to take control of the situation, abandon her vacation and get her friend back home. From beginning to end, this story kept me reading, wanting to know if Claire would keep it together or if China would get the best of the two travelers. If you’ve ever been on your own rough trip, or if you are an armchair traveler who wants a little excitement, then this is the book for you.

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