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Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment Hardcover – March 13, 2001

3.6 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
Great Tales of History
The Silk Roads--the crossroads of the world, the meeting place of East and West--perhaps more than anything else, have shaped global history over the past two millennia. Learn more | See related books

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In 629, a Chinese Buddhist monk named Hsuan Tsang left the Tang dynasty capital Chang-an (current-day Xian) and set off to India to see the principal shrines of his religion. His path was arduous, involving the passage of vast deserts and towering mountains, and the record he made of his years-long voyage served generations of travelers along the Silk Road until, finally, it was forgotten.

Richard Bernstein, a former New York Times correspondent in China (and now a book critic for that newspaper), follows Hsuan's trail in this outstanding narrative of his overland journey into the heart of Central Asia, a journey that takes him and the fortunate reader into places that few travelers are privileged to see--places, such as Kashgar and Samarkand, that have storied associations but that remain remote even in the age of CNN and fast jets. Though not without his fears and not without getting into a little trouble, Bernstein talks to just about everyone he meets along the way, pokes into little-known corners of history, and spins a wonderfully literate story of difficult travel that recalls such books as Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana and Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines. Anyone who has ever dreamed of seeing the Ganges River and the Taklimakan Desert will find much pleasure in Bernstein's pages. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Bernstein, a New York Times book critic and former Time magazine Beijing bureau chief, traces the famous travel route of the seventh-century Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang in this self-absorbed spiritual travel odyssey. In 629 C.E. the well-connected Hsuan Tsang decided to defy his emperor and travel to India in his quest for greater knowledge and enlightenment. His 15-year epic journey has provided inspiration for Chinese writers and schoolchildren for centuries, although it has not been as influential in the West. Bernstein, a nonpracticing Jew, admits he has only a mild interest in Buddhism, but Tsang's route had not been retraced for several centuries, so Bernstein seized the opportunity. Unfortunately, his lack of focus dulls the book's impact. Given the great travel, religious and political descriptions such a story could generate, Bernstein seems more concerned with understanding his own loneliness and lack of commitment to relationships than describing his adventure fully. The narrative floats along, occasionally stopping for a detailed description of history (as a former student of the late historian John King Fairbank, Bernstein knows his history) or of traveling companions such as Brave King. Readers who are keen on Asian travel and the historical roots of Buddhism will find this book of mild interest, but others will agree with Bernstein's own assessment in the introduction: this is "a story of a man whose biggest problem was an inability, having gotten to a certain point, to get further."

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (March 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375400095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375400094
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.7 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #775,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Richard Bernstein's ULTIMATE JOURNEY is a splendid account of his recreation of the extraordinary pilgrimage of a legendary seventh century Buddhist monk named Hsuan Tsang, arguably the greatest traveler in history. Retracing the monk's steps through western China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and finally to India, Bernstein traverses seemingly impassable deserts, crosses formidable mountain passes, and meets a whole cast of colorful characters along his route. With the eye of a practiced journalist, Bernstein shares with the reader the experience of visiting out-of-the-way ancient ruins, traveling on primitive trains and sleeping in flyblown cheap hotels, producing in so doing a hugely entertaining read. What makes ULTIMATE JOURNEY truly outstanding is the manner in which Bernstein contrasts his own experience with that of his seventh century hero. Because Bernstein speaks Chinese and possesses an impressive familiarity with Chinese culture and history, he is able to bring the legendary Hsuan Tsang vividly to life, transforming even the more abstruse corners of the monk's Buddhist beliefs into page-turning reading Carefully researched and elegantly written, ULTIMATE JOURNEY is a work that can be favorably compared with such classics of travel literature as Paul Theroux's THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR and Peter Matthiessen's THE SNOW LEOPARD. It deserves a place on the shelf alongside such splendidly-written evocations of the Chinese past as Jonathan Spence's THE DEATH OF WOMAN WANG and THE DREAM PALACE OF MATTEO RICCI. For anyone who loves loves Chinese history, cares deeply about the triumphs of the human spirit and loves a good old-fashioned page-turning read, ULTIMATE JOURNEY is a trip not to be missed.
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Format: Hardcover
Writing books is harder than reviewing them. Richard Bernstein is a book reviewer for the New York Times, and with "Ultimate Journey," he tries to write a book about a journey he took in Asia retracing the steps of Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang). A Chinese Buddhist monk who was one of the world's greatest explorers, Xuanzang travelled over 16 years in the 7th century A.D. from China through Central Asia to India and back to China to bring back numerous Buddhist scriptures. Bernstein, a China "scholar" in his graduate student days and former New York Times correspondent in China, tried to recreate that journey in 1999. However, the book is a major disappointment, as it is MORE about Bernstein's own Manhattan-aging-yuppie-midlife crisis than about Buddhism, Xuanzang or Asian travels. To start with, he mixes transliteration systems (pinyin and Wades-Giles, and even Grousset's unorthodox system, i.e., Hiouan-Tsang), going back and forth among all three with no consistency. He is careless about spelling, using Urumqi and Urumchi alternatively, and careless with people's names and places. The whole book, although chronological, is disjointed, as it digresses about his childhood, his current life in Manhattan, his love life (or lack of), spiritual and philosophical musings, and other assorted subjects. One comes away with very little understanding of Xuanzang's life or what was the importance of his travels. It works better as a travelogue, but ultimately all those digressions about Bernstein's life, rather than the places he's visiting, make this a very unsatisfying and annoying read.
For more on the life of Xuanzang, Sally Hovey Wriggins' "Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road" is a far superior book.
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By A Customer on April 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Bernstein's entire preparation for India seems to have been a glance at a Lonely Planet and a chat with Tavleen Singh. He makes no further serious attempt to find anyone who can help him understand today's India or the India Hsuan Tsang saw over 1,300 years ago. As a result, he has undermined his credibility with cliches, want of understanding, and dyslexia with Indian names.The misspellings are ubiquitous, from Srinigar to Potiala and from Gorokhpur to Indori, from the superfast Sabhathi Express to Delhi's historic Red Ford. At one point, he takes a photograph of a Mr Yado (Yadav), carefully writes down his address and, later, posts it to Merjaphur (Mirzapur). He wonders if it ever arrived. So do I.It's sad that in 2001, someone of Bernstein's standing is still writing that Kolkata's 'most famous image is a black hole', and that it 'summons up images of medieval plagues and suffering'. He must also have been using an old guide book, as he opines that the only place to stay, apart from the Grand and the Tollygunge Club, is Sudder Street. Varanasi, which for his compatriot, the scholar Diana Eck, was 'The City of Light' is for him merely 'a city of the dead'. He doesn't talk to Veerbhadra Mishra, the mahant of the Sankatmochan temple, about his struggle to keep the river clean. Even Clinton was impressed by Mishra, but Bernstein knows that no religious leader is interested in keeping the Ganga clean as he's consulted Tavleen Singh. He dismisses the late Kashi Naresh, who devoutly maintained the centuries-old Ram Lila at Ramnagar, as a 'has-been maharaja'. Perhaps he was wise in refusing an interview for fear of being misquoted.Hinduism is beyond Bernstein's ken-he is a self-confessed 'secular non-Buddhist sceptic'. He hasn't realised that it is more than simply 'a religion of worldly renunciation'.Read more ›
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