In his travelogue, Stevens wryly recounts what he and his friends encountered while attempting to travel by train across a China only newly opened to the West, circa 1986. The book is a good laugh. It’s brilliantly written.
But most importantly—most usefully—it provides a comparison. Stevens’s trip comes off as the worst travel experience since the crusades. The details would make even the most embattled modern traveler feel as pampered as Warren Buffet on his private jet munching on caviar and enjoying a pedicure.
Allow me to explain. As a backpacker on a budget, at times you naturally want to cry. It’s entirely possible to travel for 16 hours only to find that your flight has been delayed by a French transit strike and that the airport is clean out of liquor. Some amenities are out of the question: a bed, an English speaker, peanut butter. (Why don’t they sell peanut butter outside the U.S.?) It’s times like these when a little schadenfreude, goes a long way.
“I realized what I was traveling in was not so much a bus but a frozen toilet on wheels,” Stevens recounts in NTTT. “The thought came to me right after a bump vaulted me out of my seat and onto…a mixture of vomit and baby urine.”
The people Stevens encounters are frequently troublesome as well. “The man had one of those exaggerated faces—teeth jutting out, eyes bulging behind myopic lenses—that seemed more like a caricature than a real person,” Stevens recalls, “He reminded me of Jerry Lewis imitating a Chinaman.”
Reading about the ardors of Stevens’s journey made me realize that it doesn’t matter that it took me 3 buses, 1 plane, 1 train, 1 subway, 24 hours and a good deal of pantomime to get from Spain to France. The important thing is, it didn’t take me 3 months. No babies regurgitated on me; and no one rolled me up in a canvas, like a fly trapped in an out-of-control shade, on a donkey cart in Kashgar.
These are lucky stars I would have forgotten to count.