Another read covering two of my November challenges, Novellas in November, because it’s under 200 p long (and yes, non-fiction is allowed there!) and NonFiction November, because it’s a true travel narrative. I bought this one in April this year when my friend Jen alerted a few of us that there were lots of Virago Women Travellers books in the window of the Moseley Oxfam Books – I bought a load of them (haul post here) but of course the shop had Other Books, too, and Other Books were bought. I love Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” of course (though don’t seem to have read it since I started book blogging), and have read other fiction, but this one was new to me.

Vikram Seth – “From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet”

(6 April 2022, Oxfam Books, Moseley)

I convince myself that to exit from Tibet will be just as valid as to fly out from Shanghai. I am to discover that I am wrong. (p. 35)

In the early 1980s, when Seth was studying in China, he decided to return home to India for the summer overland, hitchhiking in lorries through Sinkiang and Tibet to Nepal, travelling through the Himalayas, even. His journey was uncomfortable, awkward, sometimes a bit alarming but always entertaining, and he makes it so here. This edition starts with an introduction written seven years after his trip to China had ended, where he decries the public clampdown and horror of Tiananmen Square.

As he travels, we meet his companions, the lorry drivers and other passengers, and he also discourses on the differences and similarities he sees between India and China, which is very interesting, given the context of 40 years ago. Both stifle innovation and both have slow governmental bureaucracy, often with one department not knowing what the others are doing: I feel like innovation is there more in both countries now, but still with repressive and complicated regimes.

There are some lovely asides, too, for example of course he meets lots of people who speak different languages, and can often manage to communicate with the Uighur minority – sadly so much in the news now – in Urdu as they are a Muslim population, but he comes across all sorts of barriers and language difficulties. But as he says, and as a language-learner at the moment, I can see this is true, …

those who don’t know a language properly are often most expressive in it. I remember an Italian friend who once asked me whether I planned to go by road or ‘by the fluvial way’. (p. 169)

So a lovely read with beautiful descriptions of people and places, where we’re alongside him all the way, discomfort and all, and rejoice with him when he finally makes it home!


This was Book 3 for Nonfiction November and Book 3 for Novellas in November.