In his travel memoir, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet
(1983), Vikram Seth chronicles his journey through China to New Delhi via Tibet after studying at university. Winner of the 1983 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, critics praise it for its detailed and raw depiction of Asia and Eastern culture. An Indian writer, biographer, and poet, Seth undertook fieldwork in China for his doctorate studies at Stanford, which inspired From Heaven Lake
. Seth is best known for including numerous thinly disguised biographical details in his novels and short stories.From Heaven Lake
takes place in the summer of 1981. During this time, Seth, an exchange student from Stanford, was studying at Nanjing University. He decided to head home to Delhi for summer vacation because he hadn’t seen his family, or his homeland, for a long time. From Heaven Lake
tells the story of Seth’s travels and the extraordinary people he encounters along the way.
As the book opens, Seth summarizes the path he took through China to reach Delhi. His journey takes him across four major Chinese provinces: Xinjiang, also known as Sinkiang, the desert province of Gansu, the plateau of Qinghai, and Tibet. To add depth to the text, he includes extracts from his journals and photographs that he took during the journey. These photographs help readers to visualize areas that they might not be familiar with.
Seth’s journey begins on a hot July day in Turfan, one of the closest cities to China’s border with Russia and a major city in Sinkiang. Seth talks about the people of Sinkiang and the complexity of the region. Now an integral part of China, it once existed as an entirely independent province. Seth explores the complexities of Chinese politics in various chapters as he travels across the country.
Seth joins a three-week tour organized by Nanjing University. This bus tour takes students across China, stopping at numerous tourist attractions. Seth, however, finds the journey boring. He thinks there isn’t any time to see the real China. It is also difficult to enjoy the sights when there is so much paperwork involved.
Seth explains that foreigners need travel passes wherever they go. These passes are signed by China’s Public Security Bureau. The Bureau officers only give the students permission to visit specific communes and busy tourist spots. They’re not allowed to see rural China and they can’t venture off specific routes. Seth observes that they spend more time waiting for permission to go somewhere than traveling. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, he leaves the tour.
Seth plans to get an elusive stamp known as the Lhasa stamp. This stamp gives foreigners permission to travel to Tibet. Somehow, Seth secures this stamp, but his struggles are only beginning. He can’t make use of his stamp unless he also receives permission to enter Nepal. Accessing Nepal proves to be one of the most challenging aspects of Seth’s solo adventure, but he eventually secures the authorization.
Seth notes that he couldn’t travel on his own without knowing how to speak Chinese. A polyglot, he is reasonably comfortable speaking to the local people. He doesn’t advise anyone to travel through China alone unless they can speak the language—a vast country, it’s far too easy to become lost, isolated, and unsafe.
As he moves across China, Seth notes how extraordinarily helpful Chinese people are. Wanting to help him, the local people offer him shelter, advice, and support when they can. They love that he speaks Chinese, which makes it easier for them to help him. For Seth, the hardest part is remembering the complex social cues he is expected to abide by. He doesn’t want to offend anyone, but he is often so tired and hungry that he forgets his manners. When he set out on his own, he didn’t realize how exhausting the journey would be.
Seth hitches rides with various truck drivers as he travels around China. These drivers introduce him to their families, and they tell him which roads to avoid and where it is safe to travel. He spends the most time with a truck driver called Sui. Sui tells him all about life in rural China and what it’s like on the road. Through people like Sui, Seth learns far more about China than he could ever learn on a guided tour.
Although From Heaven Lake
is a book about China, Seth makes comparisons between Chinese life and Indian life. He talks about how the state fails Indian people in ways that the Chinese state doesn’t. Both huge and overpopulated countries, there are far fewer hungry, unemployed, and homeless people in China than in India. Unable to understand the reasons for this, Seth leaves the issue open for readers to reflect on when they finish the book.