Book Review: A Journey Down China’s Route 66

Since it’s the May Labour Day holiday in China this week, lots of Chinese are out traveling, and since I hate crowds I am not. What I did spend my first day of the three day holiday doing was finishing up Rob Gifford’s great book China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (Bloomsbury Publishing).

Gifford’s book isn’t your typical story about China’s rise. There isn’t a lot about Shanghai and there isn’t really anything about Beijing in the book. Gifford, who was National Public Radio’s Beijing correspondent from 1999 to 2005, decided that right before he left China he was going to take a major road trip down China’s route 312. Route 312 is China’s major cross-country highway and that means that it is a major roadway for migrant workers and goods that travel from west to east and vice versa.

Gifford decides to start his trip in Shanghai and travel west all the way to the end of the highway in Xinjiang at the border with Kazakhstan. That for me was the real unique feature of the book and what kept me reading. Through the jobs that I’ve had during my five years in China, I’ve been able to see a lot of the places and factories where migrant workers end up first hand. What I haven’t been able to see so far is the areas where they come from. China Road allowed me to encounter them — at least through the printed page. But since Gifford is a radio reporter his writing is extremely descriptive and really brings forth the image in a person’s mind. I guess I really have a vivid imagination but it made me feel like I was almost there. Add in the fact that Route 312 also covers much of the old Silk Road and you have a journey that is not only about a changing society and economics, but one that’s also about a rich history of a dynamic people.

China Road is primarily a travel book, so its focus is on Gifford’s journey and his time in China. Gifford does inject his opinion into a lot of the stories he tells but this isn’t a political piece about what is wrong with China or saying that China needs to follow a certain path if it is expected to succeed. Gifford really follows the journalist’s motto of just telling what he sees and explaining the situation. If there is anything that he praises it’s the development of Western China and how though life is still hard for the Laobaixing — the common people — in the region, things have gotten a whole lot better than they used to be and that’s a good thing.

Gifford has a lot of love for the Laobaixing. They are the main characters of his adventure — I only recall him speaking with one or two government officials the entire trip. He is constantly hopping out of taxis to talk to farmers and people by the side of the road — at one point he even ends up leading a church service.

Gifford also loves China and it’s evident through China Road, but don’t just take my word for it, go download his speech from this year’s Shanghai International Literary Festival and see for yourself.