Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a cautionary tale of how not all backpacking trips end up as something you want to tell all your friends about when you get back home. Taking place in the mid 1980's on the cusp of mainland China opening up to independent travel, Gilman writes of the naivety of youth as she and one of her friends from University head out on a one-year trip round the world. However, things quickly begin to unravel as they experience a culture shock well beyond anything of their imaginings.
Written from notes Gilman took during her travels, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven tells a story of two straight-A students fresh out of college/university who set off to conquer the world as "travellers, not pampered little tourists". Their enthralling journey they took place in a time when Lonely Planet was an unknown travel guidebook company, no regular commercial flights existed for independent travellers to China and communism was still rampant but mostly contained behind the iron curtain.
From its opening quotes by Friedrich Nietzsche and another from the 913-page astrology guide Gilman lugs around, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven begins as a stock standard backpacking travelogue. Gilman does a great job of initially detailing the day to day realities of travelling through China in a non-curated fashion. The open latrines and crowds of people staring at their every move. The blisters and bronchial infections from pollution and spitting. The lack of drinking water and inability to find anything to please the Western palate.
As their journey progresses, however, Gilman is forced to deal with her travelling companion's increasing erratic and unstable behaviour. As the book masterfully builds suspense, we are taken along a frightening journey, thankful only that it something that we, hopefully, will never have to endure.
Gilman's excellent writing of their ill-fated journey quickly draws you in, and by book end leaves your emotions feeling like they've been tossed about like a good chow mein in the wok of life. As the book hurtles towards its final, unknown destination, it will be sure to have you reading into the middle of the night to see just how everything pans out.
4 stars out of 5
Credit: Banner photo by Russ Bowling