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Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation Paperback – May 12, 2009

3.8 out of 5 stars 197 customer reviews

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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.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (May 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767922018
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767922012
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (197 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #256,005 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover
As a China born, now California resident, I felt quite curious to read what an American had to say about my home country.

In the beginning, I will admit, I was somewhat offended by the way he portrayed us but then as I began to remember my last visit to my hometown (1 hour's drive from Bejing) and read more, I realized he was right. We do have quite a lot of pollution. We are possibly the rudest people on the planet. And the traffic is hell (what is considered good driving there, which is not crashing into someone, is quite different here.)

Some parts, like the beggars and the takeover of Tibet made me cry. I used to think Tibet was better off with China but after reading this, I realize I was grieviously blinded. Now I want to kick all my fellow Chinese out of Tibet. I do wonder though, if he gave the beggars money.

A lot of parts made me laugh. Hard. But I won't give any specifics away.

I learned a lot. Seriously, my mother didn't even know that you can bargain for taxi rides. Though we refrained from speaking english there to make sure we weren't cheated. The Mao Regimen especially was an eyeopener. I knew he was bad, but not Hitler bad. It really shows how censored China is.

And yes, it's true. We Chinese are proud. And we also hate Japan (most of us anyways - you'd be hard pressed to find someone not). And we can get REALLY crazy. One actress was told to wear pants with a picture of the Japanese flag on it for a photoshoot. Big mistake. China shamed her, crowds threw eggs at her, and people relentlessly bashed her on the internet. Poor dear. This was worse than when the Chinese actresses were shamed for being in Memoirs of a Geisha.
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