Bibliophile reviews Border Crossing (travel)

I have always been of the opinion that in order to enjoy travel, you have to do it slowly. By slowly I mean taking your time to explore, to talk to people and enjoy being there, even if you had to fly to get there. But that is not to say that I don’t enjoy reading about fast travel. I just don’t see the point of it.

I read two such books last week, and enjoyed them in different ways. The first was Rosie Thomas’s Border Crossing: On the road from Peking to Paris. (I will review the other tomorrow).

In 1997, Thomas, a middle-aged author of women’s literature, and Phil Bowen, a thirtyish adventurer whom she had met while on a hiking holiday in Nepal, joined a rally from Beijing to Paris, which was being held to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first (and then only) such race. The book describes the 45 day race to the finish line, across 13 countries, covering 16 thousand kilometres, complete with friendships, strife, a serious health problem, breakdowns, and road accidents. Rosie herself comes across as neurotic and clinging, while Phil is alternatively seen as emotionally closed and vulnerable, or calculating and controlling. Thomas’ analogy of their relationship as a kind of (sexless) marriage isn’t far off track, starting with the courtship when Phil charms Rosie into financing the journey, to the final breakdown when he can not bring himself to reciprocate her compliments to him in a TV interview, and the “divorce”, the parting of ways when she gives him the car and they each head off to their respective lives.
Rosie’s comments on the event planners are scathing, and it is clear she thought the whole thing was badly planned, but then she had reason to: no-one in the organising committee bothered to warn her that stating in her visa application that she was a writer would in all likelihood cause her to be denied a visa to China. In the end it seems to have been because of the intervention of a British politician that she got her visa, not because the rally organisers did anything to help. I would have been pissed off too in her situation, especially if I’d had to pay 1000 pounds extra for the privilege.

First off: I think the rally was reprehensible, as it was conducted mostly on roads in full use by other traffic, causing dangers to both rally drivers and other road users. The drivers had to stay within given time limits for each stretch if they wanted to earn medals, which meant they were often driving at unbelievable speeds (even for a country like Pakistan where the locals don't exactly drive slowly or carefully). Continuing it after a worker and two participants died in accidents was unbelievable, but perhaps inevitable, considering the kind of morality and money that was involved. That said, I think the story was an interesting study in psychology and the generation gap, and it was interesting to see how Rosie saw the places she travelled through that I had also been to. The difference was the biggest in rural Pakistan, where the rally cars were met with hostile stares and thrown rocks, an area where I met mostly friendly and curious people only a year earlier.

Rating: Interesting mostly for the writing and the people. Don’t expect travel tips, unless you’re planning to participate in the next Beijing to Paris rally. 3 stars.

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