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From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983)

by Vikram Seth

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439539,981 (3.85)14
`The perfect travel book' New Statesman Hitch-hiking, walking, slogging through rivers and across leech-ridden hills, Vikram Seth travelled through Sinkiang and Tibet to Nepal: from Heaven Lake to the Himalayas. By breaking away from the reliable routes of organised travel, he transformed his journey into an unusual and intriguing exploration of one of the world's least known areas. 'Vikram Seth is already the best writer of his generation' Daniel Johnson, The Tmes… (more)



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Showing 4 of 4
A travelogue of the author's journey in his student days around China to Nepal through Tibet during 1981, a time when travel in the region was heavily policed and restricted and unknown to the outside world. The uncertainty of travels in those days - particularly within the aforementioned context -, the boldness of Seth's actions contrasted with his everyman relatability, the nonexistent plans dictated by impromptu/unexpected connections/coincidences, all create a very heady mixture of excitement and adventure and nostalgia and exploration less common in travel these days. For self-indulgence purposes, having the Chinese name of the places pencilled in next to their phonetically transliterated English names was especially satisfying. As a constant admirer of the Seth prose, I heartily recommend this quietly unassuming travelogue to all his fans. ( )
  kitzyl | Aug 14, 2017 |
Before going on to write 'A Suitable Boy', probably the longest novel in English since Samuel Richardson's 'Pamela', and 'An Equal music' (the finest novel about music that I have read) Vikram Seth had enjoyed a lengthy and cosmopolitan career as a student. After studying in his native India he pursued postgraduate study in England and then California, before moving on to Nanking University in China in 1982.

Having embarked on an officially sponsored tour of some of Western China Seth became obsessed with the possibility of visiting Tibet, and travelling from there to Nepal and then on home to India. Tibet has the status of 'autonomous region ' but travel there required formally endorsed permits. Seth's struggle to obtain the appropriate certification proves almost as difficult as the journey itself.

Seth never quite resolves his doubts about China, and spends much of his journey comparing life there with conditions back in India. Most of his journey is spent in the cramped cabin of a large lorry, except when he is delayed by dreadful floods, or sinking into mud having deviated only slightly from the marked trail.

The writing is sparse (though he was still very young and yet to establish himself as a writer), and Seth never quite manages to stir the reader's fascination ( )
  Eyejaybee | Sep 21, 2015 |
On the face of it, it might seem surprising that the author of the longest Indian family-saga novel ever to have dominated the bestseller lists should have started his writing career with this modest little travel book that you can read in a day. But Seth is clearly someone who doesn't like to be tied down to one style or genre: remember that he’s also written a verse novel, a biography of his aunt and uncle, and a novel about a string quartet.

From Heaven Lake was written while Seth was a research student at Stanford in the early 1980s. His research involved a two-year stay at Nanjing university in China. When it was time to travel back to see his family in India at the end of his first year, in August 1981, he decided to try to travel overland via Tibet. The book describes his journey, starting with Seth and fellow foreign students on an organised trip to Xinjiang, where they visit the eponymous Heaven Lake. With a combination of charm, deviousness, and the experience of dealing with Chinese officials he's built up during his year in the country, he manages to get the necessary permit to visit Tibet, and then persuades a local security official in Liuyuan to arrange a lift for him in a truck going to Lhasa. Most of the book is taken up with his account of the epic 1800km truck journey across the desert and mountains into Tibet and of his short stay in Lhasa: the onward journey over the border to Kathmandu, which seems to have been pretty exciting too, is treated rather more superficially, and is just a sort of epilogue to the main text.

Seth is interested in the places and their landscape and culture, but his first concern, and the bulk of his descriptive effort, is always with the people he meets on his journey. Like Thesiger, he has the gift of turning random encounters into fully-developed portraits that could be characters in a novel. I don't think you would read this book for what it tells you about the temples in Lhasa, but it is definitely worth it for its account of Sui the truck driver, the Tibetan Norbu whose family suffered during the Cultural Revolution, Mr Ho of the Lhasa Foreign Affairs department, and all the rest of the many characters we are introduced to. And through them, of course, we get an idea of what life in China (in 1981) is really like. Obviously, a lot of that is down to Seth’s knowledge of the Chinese language, his patience as a listener and his ability to charm people into telling him about themselves, but clearly the novelist’s insight is involved too.

Seth is conscious that readers will expect this book to give “an Indian’s view of China”, and devotes a bit of time to discussing the differences between the two biggest Asian nations, but he doesn't really get beyond the obvious with this, and his comments sometimes seem disconcertingly sophomoric. And of course somewhat irrelevant, thirty years on. Perhaps that is one place where the book suffers from his relative naivety and lack of experience as a writer, which elsewhere gives it a lot of its appeal.

Probably not the top of the reading list for anyone going to Tibet, but definitely worth a look. ( )
  thorold | Apr 15, 2014 |
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