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From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet by Vikram Seth

How different was the China in the 1980s and the China of today? A lot, you may think, and that will be true in terms of the country’s technological advancements, but is it a lot different in terms of how the country treats its citizens (the minority and the majority), in terms of restrictions that the officialdom imposes on a variety of matters? The difference may not be so much. But what do I even know of the China of today apart from what I have read in the news (and from the news I have learned that it is very difficult to get some real news of China, being a secretive country that it is).

How worthy are the accounts of people who only seem to criticize China? I would have never known how good the people of China are without reading the travel book From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet by Vikram Seth.

Vikram Seth is an Indian writer who lives in the United Kingdom. He has written a number of books and his most famous being the humongous novel published in 1993 called A Suitable Boy, which runs over 1000 pages. There seems to be a touch of poetry in the prose writing of Vikram Seth (be that the biography he has written or the present travel writing book we are reviewing or other works, and that could be because he is also a poet apart from being a very fine Indian novelist).

So, what’s the book about? The book From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet is based on the journal that Vikram Seth maintained while undertaking a hitch-hiking journey to Delhi (his hometown) from China via Tibet and Nepal. The book is a mix of travelogue, memoir, and cultural commentary.

Seth was a student at Nanjing University in China from 1980 to 1982. In the Summer of 1981, the university organized a three-week tour for its foreign students. Although the trip was well organised and everything seemed smooth, but Seth had two problems with this tour: first was about discipline and punctuality: every time one participant was late (in the case of Vikram, he often was), the whole group had to suffer, but by following the time-table set by the supervisor of the school, Vikram could hardly savour and appreciate what he looked at; the second problem Seth mentions is that ‘The movement of foreigner is tightly controlled in China’, therefore, he knew that this group travel was restricted to the famous scenic spots (that the officials had no problem in showing the foreigners), but many other areas (the whole of rural China and more) were out of bounds. Furthermore, a foreign student could only see what the guide wanted them to see.

In his own words (which I find quite humorous), Seth states:

The status of a ‘foreign friend’ or ‘foreign guest’ in China is an interesting if unnatural one. Officialdom treats the foreigner as one would a valuable panda given to fits of mischief. On no account must any harm come to the animal. On the other hand, it must be closely watched at all times so that it does not see too much, do too much on its own, or influence the behaviour of the local inhabitants.

These limitations were too much for Seth to tolerate, and he wanted to leave them for a few days, to which the teachers agreed.

The book starts with the group’s visit to Turfan, after which they go to Urumqi and visit Tian Chi or Heaven Lake, which is what has become the title of the book. Seth states the following about the lake:

Heaven Lake is long, sardine-shaped and fed by snowmelt from a stream at its head. The lake is an intense blue, surrounded on all sides by green mountain walls, dotted with distant sheep. At the head of the lake, beyond the delta of the in-flowing stream, is a massive snow-capped peak which dominates the vista; it is part of a series of peaks that culminate, a little out of view, in Mount Bogda itself.

While doing the trip, he makes up his mind to come back through the same route and see more of what China had to offer while going home for the summer holidays to Delhi. Most importantly, he had to get Lhasa stamped (capital of Tibet) on his travel pass. After crossing Tibet, it would be easy to get to India from Nepal, he thought. Thus, he starts his arduous journey through many scenic, muddy, flooded, hot and cold spots.

His family was expecting him to come home by a flight from Hong Kong, so to give them a hint about his plan, he wrote a cryptic note stating that he was going to return ‘by a more interesting route.’ He could not say more, since it was (and perhaps still is) an open secret that foreigners’ mail is read in China.

Through his unique journey, Vikram Seth offers us a captivating glimpse of the tough landscape and the beautiful Asian culture. The travelogue shows the difficulty of traveling to many parts of China due to bureaucratic interference and suspicion of the foreigners and also due to natural obstacles. When I read the following lines ‘The Chinese officialdom is easily disturbed by too much contact between Chinese and non-Chinese. They are horrified by affairs between Chinese and foreigners, especially if the woman is Chinese.’ I felt, from my experience in the north-eastern parts of India (Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram), the same statement can hold true for those places.

Vikram Seth writes about the challenges of travel in many parts of China. For instance, travel passes are required by foreigners and often officials abruptly begin questioning the foreigners. However, he also talks about the kindness and hospitality of the people he meets. Almost everyone in his journey helped him; the help was in the form of showing directions, giving advice, meals or simple encouragement. He was touched by the warmth and goodwill of the drivers of the trucks (in which he hitchhiked), by the people in the mosque, by the Tibetans, by the Nepali Consul-General in Lhasa. No matter how strict the Chinese officials were, they were also keen to help him, and for that Seth writes:

What is ironic is that the same obstructive bureaucrat who drove you to tears of frustration about an obscure regulation or a minor detail on a form may in his private life be so hospitable and generous as to bring you to tears of gratitude.

The book is filled with vivid descriptions, insightful observations about the people and their culture. It is a testament to the power of travel to broaden our understanding of the world and of ourselves and it will captivate readers from start to finish. Apart from the beautiful prose, the book also contains nineteen photos of various people and places, and‌ one can relish some beautiful poems as well.

The travel book From Heaven Lake won the Thomas Cook Travel Award in 1983.

Vikram Seth’s next novel A Suitable Girl, which is a sequel to the monumental novel A Suitable Boy is due to be published in the future (which is behind schedule), and I look forward to reading that as soon as it comes out.

Copyright © 2023 RAMU DAS


English: A stack of copy paper.
English: A stack of copy paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beautifully it holds our words, our thoughts we put in it
This light weight thing has immense power
For a man of letters the paper is always fit
And in it writers scribble and doodle at every hour

Generations have passed, but the words haven’t
Inscribed in it are many, many events
It never discriminates between the rich and the poor
Knowledge is the same; one seeks less and one more.

Copyright © 2013 RAMU DAS