Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a roller coaster ride that begins with a landing at the old Hong Kong airport and then takes us on a ride that twists and dives and soars all over the place. If you've never heard of the old Hong Kong airport, it involved landing between mountains and skyscrapers, and pilots literally had to dive down into the thick of things at the last minute. I've heard many stories from people who landed there, but I never landed at that airport. I landed at the new Hong Kong airport the same year it opened, twelve years later. I've been to every city (and most of the places) Ms. Gilman traveled except for Dinghai. So for me, reading her experiences was doubly interesting, as the China I visited twelve years later had already greatly evolved in the time between her visit and mine. Just as it has continued to evolve in the 12 years since my first visit. My most recent visit three years ago felt in some ways like the Afterwards in the book.
My husband and I are pretty good at finding the non-touristy venues when possible, though. Instead of Badaling (now a carnival-like section of the Great Wall) we went to a lesser known section so we could hike it without others around. In that vein, we had a similar experience to Ms. Gilman's almost spiritual experience while on the Great Wall (though it was our fifth wedding anniversary, not my birthday).
And Lisa? I don't know if I've met her or not, but I had a meal in Yangshuo that made me cry. After eating Chinese food for weeks, it was so nice to sit down to a Western meal. Who knew food could be so important to our heart and soul?
What I'm trying to say, is that what made the book for me were the descriptions of China and of China's people. And even of the lack of sanitary conditions in the hospitals (not a pretty story), and of the Military Police (yeah, I've had my own run in with them, though perhaps not as involved as her second experience with them, it was just as scary at the time).
Ms Gilman is a gifted author and storyteller who managed to make even the smells of China come back to life for me. I read parts of the book out loud to my husband and we both laughed and remembered together, and began the process of making plans for our next trip to China.
But there is also a plot to this story, and the story is one of adventure, and of tragedy. The ending is both happy and bittersweet, and I found myself wanting more closure, more answers. But this is real life, and in real life I guess you just don't always get that.
Here is the official blurb, as I find I'm having trouble giving details without risking a spoiler:
They were young, brilliant, and bold. They set out to conquer the world. But the world had other plans for them. Bestselling author Susan Jane Gilman's new memoir is a hilarious and harrowing journey, a modern heart of darkness filled with Communist operatives, backpackers, and pancakes. In 1986, fresh out of college, Gilman and her friend Claire yearned to do something daring and original that did not involve getting a job. Inspired by a place mat at the International House of Pancakes, they decided to embark on an ambitious trip around the globe, starting in the People's Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent travelers for roughly ten minutes. Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche, an astrological love guide, and an arsenal of bravado, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads. As they ventured off the map deep into Chinese territory, they were stripped of everything familiar and forced to confront their limitations amid culture shock and government surveillance. What began as a journey full of humor, eroticism, and enlightenment grew increasingly sinister-becoming a real-life international thriller that transformed them forever. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a flat-out page-turner, an astonishing true story of hubris and redemption told with Gilman's trademark compassion, lyricism, and wit.
What do I rate Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven? For the actual plot, probably a 9 of 10. For it's humor, its brutal honesty, and its beautiful prose, I rate it a 10 of 10. For the descriptions of China and the walk down memory lane, I wish I could give it an 11 of 10.
Book Rating: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven: 10 of 10
Part of this book is available online, you can go here to read the first chapters of it.