When you discover that Susan Gilman, author of the exotically titled Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, is already an accomplished and published writer you may have trouble grasping why she waited over 20 years before writing the story of her post college backpacking tour around the world. By the time you get halfway through the book you come to understand why it took such a long time to publish this particular story.
Consider planning the trip of a lifetime. Gilman and her Brown University college friend and fellow recent graduate, Claire (not her real name) did just that over 20 years ago. Both girls were intelligent, inquisitive and attractive and were ready to take on the biggest adventure of their lives. Their trip was discussed and then planned in an International House of Pancake restaurant over a placemat map of the world. Susan and Claire were both full of high hopes and expectations (and perhaps some naivete) as they began their world trip around the globe in Hong Kong and then the Peoples’ Republic of China where they intended to spend some time before they departed for other far flung countries.
Gilman evocatively describes their hilarious and harrowing experiences with food, inns, hygiene, local people and other young tourists as they seemed to thoroughly enjoy each adventure and each other’s company. Then, a dark cloud surrounded their travels as Claire began to act oddly, occasionally disappeared and eventually exhibited signs of delusion and paranoia that Susan initially attributed to excitement, a poor diet and lack of sleep.
What follows is the most amazing and riveting retelling of a trip gone awry as Gilman describes what it was like to experience Communist China in 1986 very soon after the doors were opened to foreign travellers. When she realized she was on a trip with someone who might be in the midst of a complete mental breakdown she did not have the modern day comforts of cell phones, a local United States consulate office, or Internet access and could only make collect telephone calls back home that might take hours or days to connect.
When Claire is involved in a near fatal accident, it became apparent that China was no longer a safe place for these girls to be. With the help of another young tourist who happened to be a nurse, Susan managed to navigate the red tape necessary to safely allow them to leave the country before Claire was placed in a hospital and they both were forced to stay in China against their wills. How she insures their safe passage home is compelling reading. And, after all the hard work Susan does to help and protect her friend, you will most likely be surprised by the book’s ending. This is one journey not soon to be forgotten.