Published: July 8th 2008, Broadway
Pages: 304 pages, paperback
Acquired: Sent as part of the Book Read ‘Round the World
Summary (from Goodreads): Maarten Troost has charmed and entertained thousands of readers with his tales of wandering among the remote islands of the South Pacific. When the travel bug hit again, he decided to go big–time, taking on the world’s most populous and intriguing nation. In Lost on Planet China, Troost escorts readers on a rollicking journey through the new beating heart of the modern world, from the megalopolises of Beijing and Shanghai to the Gobi desert and the hinterlands of Tibet.
With his trademark edge and self-deprecating wit, Troost deciphers restaurant menus (offering delicacies such as garlic cattle penis); visits with Chairman Mao (still dead, very orange); and hikes (with 80,000 other people) up Tai Shan, China’s most revered mountain.
He learns to “fish for tigers” by dangling live chickens over Siberian tigers gathered in a pit below; studies Mandarin with a woman who may or may not be a “take-out girl;” and experiences the booming Chinese economy through its belching industrial towns—before North Korean border guards send him packing for home. Lost on Planet China brings China to life as you've never seen it before, brilliantly confirming Troost’s status as the Bill Bryson of a new generation.
My review: For somebody who has never visited China, I imagine setting foot in the country for the first time is somewhat of a culture shock. I’ve never visited China myself (I’d love to, though) and I can only imagine how out of my depth I’d feel during my first few weeks in a country so different from my own.
Troost manages to sound absolutely terrified at being in a strange country, all alone, knowing nothing about the place but also charmed at the same time, which I think is a great strength. At the beginning of the book we get the feeling that he loves China but still isn’t quite sure of the place, like he doesn’t want to relax too much just in case something goes wrong.
What I love about Troost’s writing style is that he’s completely unpretentious and doesn’t make the reader feel at all inadequate. I do love travel writing but I often come away from a travel book feeling like a terrible person because I haven’t yet managed to visit enough exotic places, like the esteemed authors of so many classic travel books.
Troost’s style reminds me somewhat of Paul Theroux, who is hands down my favourite travel writing of all time. It’s relaxed, anecdotal and he includes so many tiny details that really helped me get a feel for the place. By the time I’d finished Lost in Planet China I felt as though I really knew a lot about the country and now I’m even more desperate to visit than I was before reading the book.
I’ve read a few reviews of Lost in Planet China that criticised Troost for being too cynical and disrespectful of the Chinese culture and the country as a whole – however, I must stand up for the author here and say that this is just Troost’s trademark style of humour that has made him one of this generation’s most popular travel writers. Sure, it’s not going to make everybody laugh but it certainly had me in stitches throughout the book and I’d definitely recommend this one to fellow cynics and travel lovers.