…”You see,” says Li… “We want to live. Right now we are just shengcun. We are just surviving. We want to shenghuo. We want to live! You know? We want to really live!”  — from China Road pg. 193 Random House trade paperback ed.

China Road; A Journey into the future of a Rising Power, is a fascinating and illuminating travel memoir by NPR correspondent Rob Gifford.  Gifford, who has spent years studying and reporting from China, takes the ultimate Chinese road trip, 3000 miles along Route 312 from Shanghai on the Pacific Coast, west to the border with Kazakhstan. Along the way he engages a cross section of inhabitants, including servers and patrons at Shanghai Hooters, Amway reps in the Gobi, cave dwellers and Tibetan monks, truckers and taxi drivers, prostitutes and karaoke hostesses, yurt dwellers and Christian church ladies…

Although the subtitle suggests a political bent, the book’s focus is much more personal and anecdotal, which makes it immensely readable. The author strikes up conversations with ordinary Chinese, Tibetan, and Uighur people he meets on his journey (It helps that he is fluid in Mandarin). It’s not so much a journey into “the future of a rising power” as a journey through present day China with glimpses into the past and many disturbing questions about the future.

Five thousand years of history is daunting. Gifford interweaves historical references concisely, along with statistics, here and there. (Did you know China has the highest rate of  female suicide in the world?) What comes through most is the author’s curiosity about the people he has spent so much time among — as a student, as a news correspondent, and as a traveler. Less disdainful and opinionated than Theroux (and more current), breezier than Peter Hessler, Rob Gifford writes with understanding, humor and curiosity for his subject — the people of modern day China.


“So what is your dream?” I ask Ren.

“My dream is to be like you,” he says…

— from China Road.