Finding Compassion in China: a bicycle journey into the countryside by Cindie Cohagan

If you are planning a cycle trip to China and you want a sense of just how demanding it might be, this might be the perfect primer.  Or, it just might put you off going!

China seen from behind Stars and Stripes

Cindie Cohagan and her husband Tim had been cycling around the world for some years before they arrived in China.  They were hardly novices therefore, but by this account the author found China a great challenge.

Most of the content deals with the nitty gritty of the daily grinds of their cycling. As the author has a clear and very accessible writing style, she gives a vivid account of the people they meet, the food they eat, the places they stay and their continuing struggles with petty regulations and the officials charged with ensuring compliance with them.  As a source of first impressions of China the book makes for a lively read therefore.

Other faces of modern china

Woven through the content are three main themes.  The first and second are counterpoints: the warmth and friendliness of the poor of the rural areas they find on the one hand and the petty, but threatening presence of the police and communist party officials on the other.  The third theme is the slow, but steady disintegration of the author’s relationship with her husband.  This last theme casts a shadow over the book, although their final separation is apparently achieved reasonably amicably.

The author’s sympathy for the ordinary Chinese she meets is clearly heartfelt and genuine.  She struggles hard with the language in her determination to connect with the people she meets. Notable too, is her gratitude for the kindnesses they show to her and Tim.  From these beginnings spring an interest in Buddhism that grows and becomes a sustaining passion – hence, perhaps the title of the book.

Future uncertain but full of hope

The wider perceptions of China reflected in the book rang less than true with me. Within days, for example, they find themselves in trouble with the police for photographing a military complex and a squad of prisoners on a working detail.  This they see as entirely unreasonable, but I could not but compare their quite reasonable treatment by the officials with what they might have expected if they had taken such photos in say, Greece.

Similar over-reactions arrived when they tried to order chicken without its head or feet in a restaurant. Or, in what for me was a pivotal incident, when presented with the gift of two apples by a farmer, her insistence in cleaning them by soaking in iodine before eating them.  Other examples include outrage when forms are not filled in in hotels or party officials monitor their comings and goings in small towns.

All of these build a picture of some level of paranoia. Then the penny drops for the reader.  The author appears to have no wider appreciation of the nature of the Communist regime or of Chinese history and culture.  People eat every bit of everything because they know what starvation means.  Government struggles with the delivery of services on a scale we can hardly imagine.  And, yes, it’s true, it is a totalitarian regime and a police state.  Why did the author expect to find something else on her travels?  Perhaps the most amazing and hopeful thing is that they were allowed to make the trips they did and that rules and regulations were waived as often as they were.

Finally therefore, this is a book that promises rather more than it delivers.  It is a good light read and will certainly help the would-be China cyclist prepare for a trip.  However, deeper insights into  Chinese society, culture and history are sparse and to my eye, unreliable.

In the epilogue to her book, the author suggests she has found a new community and purpose for her life after leaving Tim and her travels.  I am sure all readers of her book will wish her well on this new stage on her journey towards enlightenment.

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