Almost every traveler I know is also an avid reader. This makes since to me because traveling, like reading, is primarily an activity done with the mind. When I started traveling I often carried two or even three books at a time. Now, thanks to modern technology I carry over 50 books at a time!
I just finished reading Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler. The book paints an incredibly vivid picture of life in China in three parts.
Following the Great Wall west, Hessler covers ground that I am vaguely familiar with from my hitchhiking trip in the area. There maybe more cars on the road now, but I can close my eyes and see the lonely stretches in Shanxi (山西) and I dream of the trip I will make out further west, returning to Gansu (甘肃) to explore, and to Xin Jiang (新疆) to eat all of the amazing food there!
Having been to the Beijing Great Wall for seven hikes so far I am familiar with the villages of the area. I have been through many of them, and can imagine how they have grown as I read Hessler’s narration of Wei Ziqi and his family. On a particularly cold day, I sat with friends for over an hour on a one of the fire heated beds that he describes as we waited for our taxi to pick us up. I can clearly picture the small towns, and know well the appeal of ‘rustic tourism’ to local Beijing’ers. I have myself noticed the city-village feel of Huairou (怀柔), the cigarette rituals, the local entrepreneurial spirit, and the look of helplessness in the eyes of the peasants.
The factories of Wenzhou (温州) in Zhejiang (浙江) are completely foreign to me, but the characters are written so well that I feel like I know them myself. If you want some insight into the economic development, and the conditions of those living in ground zero, this is a great place to start. Only God knows what the hell is going on here. Only years and years of study can offer a detailed understanding of the workings of the machine, but at least Country Driving offers at least a snapshot of the lives of a few people running the rat race.
Regardless of whether or not you have been to China, or even have any interest in China itself, Country Driving is an excellent book in it’s own right.