Ostensibly From Heaven Lake is a travel book. The description is both apt and limiting. It is worth musing on the idea that travel may be merely a way of collecting a pool of nostalgia for future regurgitation. But this particular description of the author’s journey through China – initially west-east and then north-south in the early 1980s – does not seem to have added very much potential fuel to future’s recollected fires.
At the time it was hardly common for an individual to travel independently in China, let alone enter Tibet via Qinghai or – even more unlikely – exit China via Tibet into Nepal. But this is precisely what Vikram Seth did, and to add icing to the achievement cake, his preferred mode of transport was hitch-hiking. It is largely the mechanics and logistics of this journey that provide most of the content of the book.
Vikram Seth had been a student in China, so his goal was to see some of the less visited parts of the country and to exit, eventually, to India to be reunited, after years in college, with his family. He did have some language without which, given the twists and turns bureaucracy forced, he would surely not have achieved his goal.
Near the start of the book the author is already in eastern China, visiting Turfan which, on the other end of an axis that starts in Tibet, must be one of the strangest places on the planet. It bakes in summer and freezes rigid in winter, is in the middle of a massive desert but makes its living from highly successful agriculture. On a visit to the karez, the ancient underground irrigation channels that bring water from the distant mountains, the author chances an unauthorised swim against his guide’s advice. The author gets into difficulty. And this seems to be very much a thread that recurs throughout the narrative of From Heaven Lake. A determined first person seems intent on asserting a rather blind individuality in the context of a society that respects only conformity and seeks to exclude anything that suggests difference. In the conflict that ensues between these fundamentally different aims, we are presented with a catalogue of travel that seems to miss much of the potential experience of the country through which it moves. Thus much of the book deals with the process of travel, rather than its experience.
Despite this, From Heaven Lake is a worthwhile read. Besides Turfan we visit Urumqi and the high altitude lake that gives the book its title. The tour moves on to Xian, Lanzhou, Dunhuang and then across Qinghai to Tibet and especially Llasa. This city occupies much of the text, revealing that visiting it was very much at the heart of the author’s consideration.
We do meet some interesting people along the way, but they are largely bureaucrats, drivers or officials associated with the author’s travel arrangements. Given Vikram Seth’s experience in the country, there seems to be a missed opportunity here, in that more people would have embroidered the text with more interesting and enduring detail than the repeated travel problems.
In its time, From Heaven Lake might perhaps have been a unique account of a trip that few contemporary travellers would have contemplated, let alone attempted. Today it still presents in interesting account of a personal challenge, but offers too little contemporary experience to motivate the general reader to stay on board.