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Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid Hardcover – July 8, 2008

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More from J. Maarten Troost
J. Maarten Troost's funny and engrossing travelogues capture the beauty, and quirks, of some of the world's most fascinating locales. Visit Amazon's J. Maarten Troost Page.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 382 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (July 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 076792200X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767922005
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (164 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,945 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, July 2008: Maarten Troost is a laowai (foreigner) in the Middle Kingdom, ill-equipped with a sliver of Mandarin, questing to discover the "essential Chineseness" of an ancient and often mystifying land. What he finds is a country with its feet suctioned in the clay of traditional culture and a head straining into the polluted stratosphere of unencumbered capitalism, where cyclopean portraits of Chairman Mao (largely perceived as mostly good, except for that nasty bit toward the end) spoon comfortably with Hong Kong's embrace of rat-race modernity. From Beijing and its blitzes of flying phlegm--and girls who lend new meaning to "Chinese take-out"--to the legendary valley of Shangri-La (as officially designated by the Party), Troost learns that his very survival may hinge on his underdeveloped haggling skills and a willingness to deploy Rollerball-grade elbows over a seat on a train. Featuring visits to Mao's George Hamiltonian corpse and a rural market offering Siberian Tiger paw, cobra hearts, and scorpion kebabs (in the food section), Lost on Planet China is a funny and engrossing trip across a nation that increasingly demands the world's attention. --Jon Foro

Maarten Troost's Travel Tips for China

1. Food can be classified as meat, poultry, grain, fish, fruit, vegetable and Chinese. Embrace the Chinese. If you love it, it will love you back. True, you may find yourself perplexed by what resides on your plate. You may even be appalled. The Chinese have an expression: We eat everything with four legs except the table, and anything with two legs except the person. They mean it too. And so you may find yourself in a restaurant in Guangzhou contemplating the spicy cow veins; or the yak dumplings in Lhasa, or the grilled frog in Shanghai, or the donkey hotpot in the Hexi Corridor, or the live squid on the island of Putuoshan. And you may not know, exactly, what it is you’re supposed to do. Should you pluck at this with your chopsticks? The meal may seem so very strange. True, you may be comfortable eating a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, yet when confronted with a yak or a swan or a cat, you do not reflexively think of sauces and marinades. The Chinese do however. And so you should eat whatever skips across your table. It is here where you can experience the complexity of China. And you will be rewarded. Very often, it is exceptionally good. And when it is not, it is undoubtedly interesting. And really, when traveling what more can one ask for. So go on. Eat as the locals do. However, should you find yourself confronted with a heaping platter of Cattle Penis with Garlic, you’re on your own.

2. To really see China, go to the market. Any market will do. This is where China lives and breathes. It is here where you will find the sights, sounds and smells of China. And it is in a Chinese market where you will experience epic bargaining. The Chinese excel at bargaining. They live and breathe it. It is an art; it is a sport. It is, above all, nothing personal. If you do not parry back and forth, you will be regarded as a chump, a walking ATM machine, a carcass to be picked over. And so as you peruse the cabbage or consider the silk, be prepared to bargain. The objective, of course, is to obtain the Chinese price. You will, however, never actually receive the Chinese price. It is the holy grail for laowais--or foreigners--in China. Your status as a laowai is determined by how proximate your haggling gets you to the mythical Chinese price. But you will never obtain the Chinese price. Accept this. But if you’re very, very good, and you bargain long and hard, and if you are lucky and catch your interlocutor on an off day, you may, just may, receive the special price. Consider yourself fortunate.

3. Travelers are often told to get off the beaten path, to take the road less traveled, to march to a different drum. You don't need to do this in China. The road well-traveled is a very fine road. The French Concession in Shanghai is splendid. The Forbidden City is a wonder of the world. So too the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an. Indeed, the Chinese say so themselves. There is much to be seen in places that are often seen. And yet... China is not merely a country. It is not a place defined by sights. It is a world upon itself, a different planet even. And to see it--to feel it--means leaving that well-traveled road. And China is an excellent place for wandering. From the monasteries of Tibet to the rainforests of Yunnan Province and onward through the deserts of Xinjiang to the frozen tundra of Heilongjiang Province, China offers a vast kaleidoscope of people and terrain unlike anywhere else on Earth. This may seem intimidating to the China traveler. Will there be picture menus in the Taklamakan Desert? (No.) Is Visa accepted in Inner Mongolia? (Not likely.) Still, one should move beyond the Great Wall. And if you can manage to cross six lanes of traffic in Beijing, you can manage the slow train to Kunming.

4. Hell is a line in China. You are so forewarned.

5. Manners are important in China. How can this be, you wonder? You have, for instance, experienced a line in China. Your ribs have been pummeled. You have been trampled upon by grandmothers who are not more than four feet tall. You have learned, simply by queuing in the airport taxi line, what it is like to eat bitter, an evocative Chinese expression that conveys suffering. This does not seem upon first impression to be a country overly concerned with prim etiquette. But it is. True, hawking enormous, gelatinous loogies is perfectly acceptable in China. And a good belch is fine as well. And picking your teeth after dinner is a sign of urbane sophistication. But this does not mean that manners are not taken seriously in China. It’s just that they are different in China. And so feel free to spit and burp, but do not even think of holding your chopsticks with your left hand. You will be regarded as an ill-mannered rube. So watch your manners in China. But learn them first.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In his latest, veteran traveler Troost (The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stoned with Savages) embarks on an extended tour of "the new wild west," China. Troost travels from the megalopolis of Beijing to small, remote trails in the hinterlands, the fabled Shangri-La and all points in between, allowing for a substantive look at an incredibly complex culture. He does an admirable job of summing up the country's rich history, venturing to Nanjing to learn about China's deep-seated animosity toward Japan; he also visits the Forbidden City, and the tomb of Mao Zedong, still very much revered despite his horrific record of human rights abuses. Gross disparity in wealth, omnipresent pollution and the teeming mass of humanity that greet Troost at every opportunity wear on him and the reader alike; the sense of claustrophobia only relents when he gets into more remote areas. Throughout, Troost is refreshingly upbeat, without a hint of ugly American elitism; he often steps aside to let the facts speak for themselves, and rarely devolves into complaints over the language barrier or other day-to-day frustrations. Those looking for tips on Hong Kong night life or other touristy secrets will be disappointed-few names are named-but readers interested in a warts-and-all look at this complicated, evolving country will find this a rich education.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

More About the Author

J. MAARTEN TROOST is an international traveler whose essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and The Prague Post. He spent two years in Kiribati in the Equatorial Pacific and upon his return was hired as a consultant by the World Bank. After several years in Fiji and Vanuatu, he recently relocated to the U.S. and now lives with his wife and son in California.

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Customer Reviews

It would be a good book to read before traveling to China.
C. Havens
I have read all three of Maarten Troost's "travel" books and loved every one of them.
The book is a little bit funny, though I often felt the author was trying too hard.
taylor storey

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

68 of 76 people found the following review helpful By World Traveler on August 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I like Maarten: he's half Czech, I'm half Czech; he's actually lived in Port Vila Vanuatu with his wife, I've actually lived in Port Vila Vanuatu with my wife. In addition, he is much funnier than I am. His books about the South Pacific ("The Sex Lives of Cannibals" [SLC] and "Getting Stoned with Savages" [GSWS]) were hoots, and very accurate from what I can attest to from having spent time in some of the same places (Vanuatu and Fiji).

In "Lost on Planet China" (LPC) Maarten is still funny, but much less so in this book than in his two previous works. I counted five personal "laugh out louds" from LPC, as opposed to the dozens and dozens of "laugh out louds" I experienced from both SLC and GSWS. I found his personal opinions usually reasonable (having spent some time in China, I disagree with some of those other reviewers apparently offended by Maarten's honesty), but some of his jokes began to become repetitious (example: by the time he is blaming George Bush for not getting served meatballs in Xian I actually closed the book for a day - this was approximately tenth time a similar "W" attempt at humor was clumsily inserted). But mostly, the editing of LPC is horrible. He mentions at the end (in his Acknowledgements) that his editor was giving birth during the time she was editing one of his chapters. Actually, it reads as if she was giving birth during the last 1/4 of the book. This end section is disjointed, confusing (example: a reference is made to something that apparently happened earlier during Maarten's trip, but which seems to have been redacted out of an earlier chapter), and frequently just plain boring.

This book is like we've started on a very interesting trip of discovery together with a person you know with a reputation for being funny.
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72 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Tamela Mccann TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
J. Maarten Troost has taken us to a small atoll in the South Pacific and to the volcanic Vanauatu in his previous books, Sex Lives of Cannibals and Getting Stoned With Savages. Now he turns his wit and observational skills on that great unknown,China, in his latest endeavor, Lost on Planet China, and what a marvelous travelogue it is!

Told with his trademark wry humor, Lost on Planet China follows Troost as he starts off in the big cities of Beijing (which has given me a whole new perspective on the 2008 Summer Olympics), Shanghai, and Hong Kong. I was flabbergasted at the amount of pollution in China; it seems its entry into the twenty-first century is coming at a very high price. But like Troost, it was the western travels through Tibet, Leaping Tiger Gorge, and Dunhuang that I found the most informative and interesting. Troost's writing is such that I could feel the thin air and experience the death-defying trails seemingly first hand; his interactions with the peoples of China were fascinating glimpses into lives that I doubt I'll ever experience. I love that Troost chose to visit not just the obvious tourist stops such as the Terra Cotta Warriors and the Great Wall, but also smaller islands like Putuoshan. I came away with a real flavor for the history and the feel of China.

I enjoyed this book immensely, though I do wish Troost had told me two things that continually popped into my mind throughout the reading: Where did he get the money for such an extended trip (not that it's actually my business, but I'm curious), and what was his reunion with his wife and two young sons like once he finally left Planet China?
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By R. Getter on November 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Troost is funny, observant and an extremely energetic traveler. He not only avoids the "beaten path" but seems to avoid entire regions that have them. His trips are well researched yet he retains a good bit of flexibility as he travels. This is the first of his books that I have read and, based on other readers' comments, may check out another before I pass any final judgments.

I'm a sucker for any book that has a map on the inside covers and love travelogues where the author actually travels rather than simply visits. There's no denying that Lost on Planet China covers a tremendous amount of territory. What bothers me about most of the book is that Troost often prefers to criticize rather than understand. It's obvious from the start that he has little affection for Chinese cities or their inhabitants. It's not until he reaches Tibet that we see any glimmer of pleasure in his commentary. Even though I heartily agree with his disdain for the Chinese government's conquest and destruction of Tibet, I am not very comfortable with his ongoing expressions of distaste for modern Chinese culture and customs. A lot of the book's best laughs come at the expense of the people he is observing. After a while, the jokes about flying loogies, his ongoing dismay that signs and transit information in Chinese cities are so inconsiderately written in Chinese and his frustration with the massive crowds and dense pollution gets a bit old. It's often hard to see where the humor leaves off and personal bias takes over.

You may want to write this off as a minority opinion, but I just can't escape the feeling that virtually all of Troost's humor comes at his subject's expense.
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