Fried Eggs with Chopsticks by Polly Evans
There has been a wonderful look back on the travel documentaries of Michael Palin. Back in the late 1980s, Michael Palin recreated Phileas Fogg's journey in 'Around the World in 80 Days'. It was a remarkable series, introducing viewers to places not widely visited. Palin was utterly wonderful. Because of his gentle and charming demeanour people were more than happy to speak with him about their lives. It sparked my love of travel and all things travel book related. I feel this spirit of travel is carried through into 'Fried Eggs with Chopsticks', the 3rd travel book by Polly Evans which can be read as a stand alone book.
Polly Evans visited China in 2005, just as the country was about to host the Beijing Olympics and which was seeing an enormous amount of building and improvement to infrastructure. She wanted to find out more about this mysterious nation that was still coming to terms with the death of its leader Mao. Along the way she discovers that technological breakthroughs have yet to meet the transport infrastructure as she encounters sleeper trains, bone-crunching buses as well as a myriad of fascinating people.
I found this to be an utterly fascinating read. It is part travel-logue, packed full of China's history and with observations about Chinese society. She achieves all of this with the same light touch as Mr Palin. At times, Polly Evans seems to struggle with some of the more maddening elements of Chinese bureaucracy; trains that depart when they please, buses that will only travel if they are fit to bursting and meals in restaurants that she finds inedible. But along the way finds her own style of travelling - choosing to point at other diners meals in restaurants as a means of ordering the most delicious food, remembering to book the top bunk in a sleeper train otherwise her bunk would end up being used as someone's socialising area. She finds the Chinese people shy yet inquisitive. Polly also travels further afield and definitely off the beaten track, she ponders the legacy of Mao whilst looking at his embalmed body, encounters a ridiculously flexible Kung-fu master debating his career options and meets the most sadistic masseuse.
She even encounters Michael Palin himself at the Chinese opera, filming his new TV series. When she tells him she is a travel writer too, he smiles gently and says 'ah competition'.
I enjoyed this book because it is a travel book about China that is not like any other. She shows China as maddening, frustrating but ultimately fascinating as it was in 2005 and on the verge of being thrust into the world's spotlight. I would happily read more by this author.