Vikram Seth, From Heaven Lake (Vintage Departures, 1987)

From Heaven LakeSeth is best known as the author of the sprawling novel of Indian family life, A Suitable Boy, which I loved despite its messiness.  From Heaven Lake is an entirely different beast, a taut travelogue of a hitchhiking journey through China in the early 1980s.  Seth was a graduate student in China, and near the end of his stay he decided to travel from Nanjing to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, and then back south through Tibet and across the border into Nepal.  Much of the journey took him through remote and officially inaccessible territory, but he encountered assistance from fascinated Chinese and Tibetans all along his route.  Fluent in Chinese, Seth becomes an interpreter of proud and diverse peoples, while struggling smilingly against the Chinese bureaucracy.  I was amazed to compare the China of only 30 or so years ago to the sanitized version experienced by travelers in the major cites today.  You will probably never want to ride in a truck after reading this wonderful book.