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Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

3.99  ·  Rating Details  ·  440 Ratings  ·  31 Reviews
Having learned Mandarin, and travelling alone by foot, bicycle and train, Colin Thubron sets off on a 10,000 mile journey from Beijing to Tibet, starting from a tropical paradise near the Burmese border to the windswept wastes of the Gobi desert and the far end of the Great Wall. What Thubron reveals is an astonishing diversity, a land whose still unmeasured resources stra ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published April 1st 2004 by Vintage (first published 1987)
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China for the non-Chinese
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,477)
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Paul Bryant
Brilliantly lovely engaging travel book about China before it became the roaring supercharged capitalist success story it is today. (Or has their capitalist dream gone bust too, like ours? It's hard to keep up these days!)

Two anecdotes from me and a quote from Mr Thubron and we're done.

Now I don't often mention HF in these reviews, on the grounds that she might object, which is fair enough. But she goes to China on university business regularly (they have a campus in Ning-Bo). And once she told
Oct 02, 2014 Billpilgrim rated it really liked it
I've been reading this book on and off, now and then, over a long period. I finally decided to just finish it. It's not that I didn't like the book. It is excellent, really. Thubron is a very observant outsider, and he is very knowledgable about China and its recent and ancient history. He reports on observed details that I know I would have missed if I had been in his place. And his writing is superb. It's just that without a continuing story, it was easy to put this one down when something mor ...more
Jan 28, 2011 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One thing I've noticed in the four Colin Thubron books I've read so far, all involving travel somewhere in Asia, is that he seems to have a knack for discovering the most unpleasant people in whatever country -- China, in this case -- he's touring.
He is in Nanjing, I think, on Page 101, when he makes an ill-fated call on the family of an acquaintance from Beijing. Here's a glimpse of what happens:
I had always conceived of the Chinese family as a stereotype of unity and closeness. But soon I real
Ralph Britton
Nov 20, 2015 Ralph Britton rated it liked it
Shelves: travel
This was written in the 1980s, just as China lowered the barriers to tourism. Thubron learned Mandarin and travelled like a Chinese rather than a Western tourist so he could get to know the country in a way Westerners had never been able to since Mao's supremacy. The China he describes is nothing like what you see now, at least in the cities. Perhaps in the countryside more of what he encountered survives, but in Shanghai, Beijing or Chonqing the tourists experience is totally different. On the ...more
Aug 01, 2008 Cecily rated it really liked it
Shelves: china-japan-asia
A travelogue around China, in mid 80s, I think (annoyingly, it doesn't specify). There are some wonderfully poetic passages, and plenty of more prosaic and disjointed encounters. He does at least speak Mandarin, so was able to talk to "real" people relatively easily and seemed good at picking out interesting ones. He covered much of the tourist trail, albeit independently, and even slept in Mao's old bed.
Sep 12, 2012 Rebecca rated it really liked it
The book I wish I'd written; an insightful journal of one man's travels around the people's republic. It brought it all back, only with a greater level of tolerance and understanding than I was left with!
Oct 02, 2007 SP rated it really liked it
Not cheerful book. But then, China in the '80s was not a cheerful book. If you must, Mr Thubron's travelogue is as good as any - sensitive, intelligent and well-written.
Published in 1987, this book describes a China that already belongs to the past. Yet Thubron's reports of his conversations with ordinary and extraordinary Chinese men and women are both moving and informative. The traumas of the Cultural Revolution of the late sixties are still vivid in people's memories, and the promises of market society have just started to unfold. In between the author provides us with his impressions of China's cultural heritage as it manifests itself in monasteries, templ ...more
Margaret McCulloch-Keeble
Oct 22, 2015 Margaret McCulloch-Keeble rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015
This book has taught me stuff, it has made me research and look information up, it has opened my eyes. For that I found it a fascinating read. I'm not sure I liked some of the language used. Some of it was unnecessarily pretentious and some felt dated, although to be fair it was written 30 years ago. It's written as though it all happened in one episode but actually the journey was made in at least 2 different stages and written up that way and so I felt a little bit guarded as to the depth/deta ...more
Justin Gaynor
Dec 18, 2015 Justin Gaynor rated it it was amazing
This is my favorite book about China, and I've read quite a few.

Thubron is an endlessly sympathetic narrator as he travels through 'classical' China, befriending people along the way and extracting their stories. His masterly writing style is evident even in his chapter headings: Where a lesser writer might have written "To the Southwest" or "Guangxi and Yunnan," Thubron writes "In the Land of Peacocks," which is infinitely more vivid.

I read this book years ago, and yet many of the stories he te
Nov 12, 2011 Maja rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 02, 2012 Edgar rated it really liked it
This book, as well as being an interesting travelogue, provides a valuable historical perspective on China after emerging from its 20th century nightmare, the Cultural Revolution, not to mention The Great Leap Forward that preceded it - which caused 35 million to starve to death.

Colin Thubron prepared well for this trip, immersing himself in Mardarin for some time before setting out. His descriptive powers are up to the task of conveying the full panorama of Chinese life which he encountered, fr
Feb 06, 2016 Tanzey rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyed the craftsmanship of Thurberon's writing and his interpretation of his travels and meetings despite this being originally written in 1980s just as China was becoming more accessible to the tourist. Well worth reading.
Terri Adamson
Sep 14, 2014 Terri Adamson rated it it was amazing
Another great book from Colin Thubron.
Although a little dated it still gives a good insight into how people from China viewed 'outsiders' not so long ago. Many had never seen a European before and their opinions were very varied.
Colin Thubron tells it as it is.
He tells of areas and regions with honesty, which is probably why I enjoy reading his travel books so much.
Sometimes I wish he would go back and update the stories of people he met on his travels. He leaves you wondering what became of m
Jack Ziegler
Nov 01, 2015 Jack Ziegler marked it as to-read
Shelves: china, travel
Since I decided to be a chaperone for Jenny's trip to China in the spring, I figure I should learn some more about the country. This is a recommendation from
Jul 10, 2011 Coralie rated it liked it
Authors have been writing books about their trips to China since Marco Polo and I have read a bunch of them. I should read Marco Polo's book because it seems he is the last caucasian who really had a good time there. In modern days, people go to China for an educational experience, not a vacation and all of these books about China are very serious. The Cultural Revolution left such a horrific imprint on the people and the landscape that invariably that aspect of Chinese history colors the author ...more
Jan 19, 2012 Judy rated it really liked it
The book reinforces what I have long felt i.e. a country populated by people both alien and enigmatic - and one I have no desire to visit. That said, I have great respect for Thubron, a truly intrepid traveller who mixes in with the very fabric of society. His descriptions of the land are superlative and he writes of meetings with individual Chinese that range from horrific to heart-wrenching - there are glimpses of shared values! There is certainly a wealth of information about Chinese culture ...more
Dina P.
Apr 01, 2014 Dina P. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
very engaging. I did read every single words in this book. a kind of book that make me sad when I finished reading because I still want to read more.
Les Dangerfield
Nov 02, 2012 Les Dangerfield rated it liked it
This is about his travels around China in about 1986 so sees a very different country to modern day China, I'm sure. Overall it gave me a better feel for China than I had before - including geography - but it is patchy in terms of interest. 3 stars is a bit mean - I'd prefer to work on a ten point scale in whcih case I would have given 7
Mar 24, 2016 Imbunche rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel
This account of author's travels through China in the 80s creates a rather sad and univiting picture of the country, still heavily scarred by the Cultural Revolution. Obviously it's very much out-dated now, but it's still an interesting look into the past.
Judy Beyer
Apr 11, 2016 Judy Beyer added it
Shelves: travel
Very insightful, though he does seemt o attract locals suffering with the blues...
Lovely writing.
Aug 29, 2011 Benny rated it liked it
A fine read with lots of wonderful little stories, but don't expect to learn much about the China of today. Also I have the impression that Thubron's books on Siberia and Central Asia cut much deeper than his Chinese travelogue.
Apr 15, 2010 David rated it it was ok
Not as interesting as the other two books of his I have read so far anyway. It was better toward the end. The photo is not the edition I read so maybe other editions have more maps and possibly pictures.
Mar 21, 2008 Brad rated it it was amazing
A fascinating read, set just as China opened up to the world in the brief period between the end of the cultural revolution and the beginning of the economic boom we're still witnessing today.
Qingchuan(Vivian) Lyu
It would be a good choice to read this book after lunch lying on a meadow. As a journey with no deep thoughts, the author was good enough to demonstrate China in a peaceful tone.
Laura Grant
Jul 30, 2007 Laura Grant rated it liked it
Shelves: asian
Great introduction to cities in China from a traveler's perspective. Funny stories about sympathetic acts for animals that might have been dinner! Lost before finnishing.
Nov 17, 2009 Louise rated it really liked it
Just interesting in the way he meets people and talks to them and has a look round China. It's no great literature but good if you like travel books.
Marianne Broadgate
Oct 02, 2012 Marianne Broadgate rated it it was amazing
A wonderful, engaging and in places funny book. Colin Thubron is one of my favourite writers and this is a good example of his work.
Sep 08, 2012 Kate marked it as to-read
Shelves: haven-t-finished
Post-communism China. Interesting insights, but nothing very engaging yet.
Sep 14, 2011 Alison rated it liked it
Will take to work for students to read - have dipped in and out of this
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Colin Thubron, CBE FRSL is a Man Booker nominated British travel writer and novelist.

In 2008, The Times ranked him 45th on their list of the 50 greatest postwar British writers. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Thubron was appointed a CBE in the 2007
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