'Vastly entertaining' Woman and Home
'Unlike that terrifying breed of die-hard travel writers, Evans is one of us. Makes for a refreshing read' Sunday Times Travel
'Funny and astute, this is an engrossing portrayal of one of the world's most fascinating countries' Wanderlust
'Alternately funny and informative..Evans is a hands-on kind of travel writer. She likes to try new things and hang out with new people, and she writes travel lit at ground level: noisy, colorful, and entirely delightful. Comparisons to Bryson, Cahill, and Theroux, while obvious, would not be unwarranted' Booklist
'British travel writer Evans takes an extremely courageous solitary trip around the People's Republic of China..Her tales are amusing and truly fun to read, and the book gives readers a firsthand look at the world's most populous nation' Library Journal
'Funny and fascinating.Evans includes history, legend and many, many wry observations. One thing's for sure, this isn't the China that visitors to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing are going to see' Atlanta Journal-Constitution
'Very entertaining and insightful' Courier-Journal
'Evans reprises the light, kooky formula she adopted with her debut travelogue (It's Not About the Tapas: A Spanish Adventure on Two Wheels) in this account of her solo trip across China .... Evans's sophomore effort will make an entertaining companion for armchair travelers who enjoy women's magazine-style writing' Publishers Weekly
'Highly readable...Fried Eggs with Chopsticks is gutsy, funny and rarely self-indulgent' South China Morning Post
'Offering a fresh take on travel writing [Fried Eggs with Chopsticks is] honest and a lot of fun' Trip
'A charming, insightful and humorous view of life on the roads and rails in the PRC' That's Shanghai
'An entertaining story' Manchester Evening News
'A gem of a book' AND Magazine
When she learnt that the Chinese had built enough new roads to circle the equator sixteen times, Polly Evans decided to go and witness for herself the way this vast nation was hurtling into the technological age. But on arriving in China she found the building work wasn’t quite finished.
Squeezed up against Buddhist monks, squawking chickens and on one happy occasion a soldier named Hero, Polly clattered along pot-holed tracks from the snow-capped mountains of Shangri-La to the bear-infested jungles of the south. She braved encounters with a sadistic masseur, a ridiculously flexible kung-fu teacher, and a terrified child who screamed at the sight of her.
In quieter moments, Polly contemplated China’s long and colourful history – the seven-foot-tall eunuch commander who sailed the globe in search of treasure; the empress that chopped off her rivals’ hands and feet and boiled them to make soup – and pondered the bizarre traits of the modern mandarins. And, as she travelled, she attempted to solve the ultimate gastronomic conundrum: just how does one eat a soft-fried egg with chopsticks?
I gazed with ghoulish fascination at the withered, waxen corpse. The infamous domed forehead and rounded cheeks looked weary and wrinkled, a far cry from the jubilant, plump jowls of the propaganda posters. The embalmed cadaver of Chairman Mao lay swaddled in military uniform, his hands crossed over his chest. An orange lamp beamed through the semi-darkness onto his shrivelled, death-stiffened skin. His face glowed like a ghastly, candle-lit pumpkin.
A hushed awe filled this inner chamber of the mausoleum. Nobody spoke above a whisper. The room quivered with palpable excitement. My heart was beating faster than usual; a perverse thrill tickled my skin. I felt a morbid compulsion to stop and stare at the macabre spectacle, at the mortal remains of this man who had, to such catastrophic effect, held absolute power over the most populous nation on earth. A few decades ago, a single suggestion from that formaldehyde-plumped mouth could have spelt the slaughter of a man; the disastrous economic strategies that evolved in that glowing amber head had dealt a tortured death to tens of millions. Yet beneath that taut, unyielding skin had also breathed a man who had, against incredible odds, inflamed such passion and loyalty in his people that a vast and diverse country had united and, with almost no material resources, had overthrown the foreign superpowers that threatened it.
The embalming of Mao’s corpse had been an anxious affair according to his personal physician Li Zhisui, who recorded the procedure in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao. The problem was that neither Li, nor anyone else in China, had attempted to preserve human flesh before. Li himself had visited Stalin’s and Lenin’s remains some years previously and had noted that the bodies were shrunken. He had been told that Lenin’s nose and ears had rotted and had been rebuilt in wax and that Stalin’s moustache had fallen off. The medical team played for time by pumping Mao’s corpse full of formaldehyde.
‘We injected a total of twenty-two litres,’ Li wrote. ‘The results were shocking. Mao’s face was bloated, as round as a ball, and his neck was now the width of his head. His skin was shiny, and the formaldehyde oozed from his pores like perspiration. His ears were swollen too, sticking out from his head at right angles. The corpse was grotesque.’
The terrified medics – who could have been executed for desecrating the semi-divine cadaver – tried to massage the liquid out from the face and down into the body where the bloating could be covered with clothing. One of them pressed too hard and broke a piece of skin off Mao’s cheek. In the end, they managed to restore his face to something approaching normal proportions, but then the Chairman’s clothes wouldn’t fit on his body and they had to slit the back of his jacket and trousers in order to button them up.
Before carrying out the permanent preservation of the body, Li sent two investigators to Hanoi to find out how Ho Chi Minh’s body had been treated. When they arrived, however, the Vietnamese officials refused to divulge their secrets and wouldn’t allow them to see the corpse – though someone revealed confidentially that it hadn’t been a great success. Ho’s nose had already decomposed and his beard had fallen off.
In the end, Li worked out a method whereby he removed Mao’s internal organs and filled the cavity with cotton soaked in formaldehyde, while another group worked day and night building a pseudo-corpse out of wax just in case it all went wrong and they found themselves in need of a fake.
I wondered whether the body that lay before me was, in fact, the real cadaver or the waxen substitute. It was nearly thirty years since Mao’s death; the pickling process had clearly been experimental at best. It seemed entirely possible that the real corpse could have long since rotted away and been quietly replaced with a skilfully crafted effigy.
But I wasn’t allowed to linger. A dark-suited official insisted that the line of pilgrims kept moving. Silently, I filed with the coachloads of fellow tourists out of the dim mausoleum of the past and into the bright white light of contemporary Tiananmen Square.
‘ Follow me! Quick-a-ly!’ A Chinese man dressed in a slightly soiled tracksuit top, baggy black jogging pants and scuffed pumps hollered at a white-haired Western tourist who stood in the queue that snaked around the cubic, concrete mausoleum. Amid the bedlam of loudly jabbering, camera-wielding day-trippers, the tourist nervously clutched his bag to his hip. The Chinese clasped the shoulder of the tourist’s jacket and tried to pull him out of the queue. The tourist looked terrified.
He needn’t have worried; I had been through the same charade just a few minutes earlier. Bags were forbidden in the mausoleum and the left-luggage office was on the other side of one of the busy roads that flanked the square. Seeing my bag, this man had grabbed me.
‘Follow me! Quick-a-ly!’
We had hurtled through the square, dodging anorak-clad couples and fraught family groups. I was already struggling to keep up when Pumps had thrown himself into the multiple lanes of traffic that thronged along the perimeter road. I had baulked.
‘Quick-a-ly!’ Pumps had shrieked across the belching fumes and honking horns. Fearing for my life, I had followed as speedily as I could until, a few metres further on, we had reached the ‘checking room.’
Pumps had grabbed my bag.
‘Ten yuan,’ he had said, ‘Quick-a-ly.’
I had fished it out.
‘And ten yuan for me,’ Pumps had commanded.
This was the new China, a place where you had to move fast because time was money. It was a world that Mao, had he woken in his mausoleum a few metres away, would never have recognized. Gone were the communes; the ‘iron rice bowl’ – the state system that guaranteed life-long employment – had been melted down and sold for scrap. In its place came ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ where the entrepreneurial spirit was not only permitted but actively encouraged. ‘To be rich is glorious,’ Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping had pronounced. After the famines and fear of recent years, the Chinese had leapt at the opportunity to create wealth.
I often receive emails from readers asking for more details about the places that feature in my books. How can they, too, find themselves squashed onto a cramped, smoke-filled, clattering Chinese bus for hours on end? How can they experience the extraordinary pain of cycling through the Pyrenees with no training, the humiliation of dropping their motorbike in the middle of the road and being too feeble to pick it up again, or the fright of finding themselves on a bolting horse with their hat fallen over their eyes and no feet in the stirrups? For anyone who really wants to do it themselves, here's my DIY guide to Fried Eggs with Chopsticks. Destinations are in the order in which they appear in the book.
Guy and Nancy's company, Imperial Tours, offers ultra-high-end, super-luxury visits to China (with a price tag to match). If you can afford the whole package, book immediately. If you can't, at least take a look at their website as it has a terrific amount of information about many Chinese destinations as well as history and culture.
I highly recommend the guesthouse I stayed in in Pingyao. It was called the Tian Yuan Kui Guesthouse, and is located at 73 Nan Dajie. It's recommended by Lonely Planet so it gets booked out – it's a good idea to phone ahead for a reservation. They speak English.
I took my kung fu class at the Shaolin Monastery Wushu Institute at Tagou. You can enrol a day, a week or a year. It just depends on how seriously you take your headflips. The accommodation in the foreign students' quarters is comfortable, with ensuite Western bathrooms. My single day cost RMB100. It's well worth doing as it gives a whole new insight into Shaolin and the martial arts education. Call +86 371 274 9627.
Guy and I took our pilgrimage to Khawakarpo with Yeshi's company Khampa Caravan. They offer really interesting tours into parts of the Tibet region that would be very difficult to reach without a guide, e.g. to the ‘Wild East' where the herdsmen and nomads roam, and following the routes of the overland caravans to Lhasa.
The overnight trains are a good way to travel. I was recommended to take hard sleeper rather than soft, partly for security reasons (the hard sleeper is open plan, whereas the soft sleeper has a door) but ended up preferring soft: the bed is little different, but you get to control your own light switch which means you can read and sleep when you want to, not when the train authorities dictate.
This is just a handful of books on China that I enjoyed the most.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. This is probably my overall favourite book about China. Hessler lived in a town on the Yangtze for two years working as a Peace Corps volunteer. His insights are fascinating and funny.
The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Zhisui Li. Written by the man who was his private physician (and who now really holds a grudge!) this is a very subjective, gory and gossipy account of the Chairman. It's both fun and shocking.
The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave. The Soongs were China 's answer to the Kennedys in the first half of the twentieth century. This is not only an interesting look into their family dynasty, but also into Shanghai and China as a whole during those very colourful years.
Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn. The ‘Another' of the title is Ernest Hemingway, to whom Gellhorn was married for a time. Gellhorn was a war correspondent, travel writer and novelist, who in the course of her work travelled to China 's front line during the war with the Japanese in the early 1940s. (NB Only one section of this book is about her travels in China .)
Shanghai by Harriet Sergeant. A highly readable portrait of Shanghai in the 20s and 30s.
Forgotten Kingdom: Eight Years in Likiang (John Murray Travel Classics)by Peter Goullart. A good read for anyone travelling to Yunnan . Goullart lived in Lijiang from 1939 to 1947. It's a wonderful portrayal of life among the Naxi before the days of Communist rule.