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
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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."
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