J Maarten Troost is an interesting fellow. He’s something of a citizen of the world having lived in Europe, America, and even a tiny island in the Pacific. The latter is what he’s most famous for, having written a couple books about the experience. He’s a travel adventurer – he speaks several languages, has been all over multiple continents, and seems to enjoy seeking out unique experiences – and so seems to have put China in his cross hair as the next big challenge. He writes well and has lots of interesting stories but I couldn’t help but think that his previous experiences didn’t leave him in the best frame of mind for a three month trip through China.
In Lost On Planet China by J Maarten Troost you get to vicariously live a three month adventure trip through China, experiencing everything from the biggest cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hongkong through Tibet and China’s wild west of Qinghai. Travelling by himself without the ability to speak Chinese through such a wide stretch of China is bold plan. Especially outside of the bigger cities I don’t think many people really speak English and that would definitely make things tough.
I really loved how many different parts of China Troost experiences. Yes he does the kitschy tourist stuff (while mocking how kitsch touristic it is), but he eventually gets down into the bowels of the cities and even out into the countryside. So many people focus on China’s big cities (even me) that it was really interesting to hear more about the smaller towns, the hiking spots, and even the crazy train between Tibet and Lanzhou (central China).
That said, however, Troost really seems intent on calling China out for all of their problems. The air is dirty, the cities are dirty, the people do dirty things (spitting and peeing everywhere), and everywhere the CCP white washes it all squeaky clean. These are all real problems, but I felt like he was writing for a crowd that might not have heard of the problems in China. He doesn’t go very deep into the causes of these issues. I’m not saying that he was unfair to China, but it felt like he didn’t go very deeply into the situations either.
All in all this was a great quick read. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting an evenhanded look at modern China who didn’t want to slog through the deeper, slower reads available elsewhere.