Just Turn Left at the Mountain: Multi entry trials & tribulations meandering across Chinese borders
Andy Smart (Self-published 2014, Trade Paperback) 364 pages, £6.40 cover price
“The shock of change was far more than I bargained for. The reality of Asia was a sledgehammer to all the preconceptions and romantic dreams, thoroughly pulverising them then chucking them onto the nearest pile of rubbish at the side of the road.”
I'm thoroughly convinced that some people are just born to lead interesting lives. The unusual happens to them as much by chance as by design. Take Andy Smart or instance. He leads a perfectly normal English childhood, until much to his surprise he winds up at Wembley Stadium serving as Arsenal's mascot for the 1979 F.A. Cup final. That doesn't happen to just anyone. Nor does just anyone decide to leave the UK to live in China.
Smart says that his first thoughts of emigrating to China were formed after encountering three Chinese students on the summit of Ben Nevis, Scotland's highest peak. In the interim, there would be years of school-teaching, often in rather dodgy districts. When he finally made the decision to move, here was his plan:
Starting in the southernmost part of China on the cosy looking island of Hainan, (this choice being made entirely on the fact that it looked small and therefore quantifiable, ignoring the fact that it’s almost as big as the next neighbouring island of Taiwan), I would then “go north” for one year with the following objectives: firstly, find a place to settle down and build a new life, secondly, to experience a world “untouched by modernisation and progress”. You are joking aren’t you?
Ah yes, as a comic once said, if you want to make God laugh, make plans. Smart was no callow youth when he made his move in 2005; rather, he was already thirty-nine. This helps Just Turn Left at the Mountain in a few ways. First, having spent half his life as an adult, the author is well-equipped by experience to compare the cultures. (If you order something that you know you can eat then guard it with your life. People will lean over and help themselves to it. There is no concept of ‘this is my food’ in China; people will normally share each dish, deciding what to order together.)Of equal importance, thirty-nine also puts Smart in the age of most of his readers, people who love reading about other people doing incredible things yet wouldn't in their booziest glow ever imagine doing such things themselves.
Just Turn Left at the Mountain is an engaging and enjoyable read, because Andy Smart himself seems engaging and enjoyable. That is the crucial examination for, broadly categorized, travel books. Every place on Earth is in some ways beautiful and interesting, or horrible and frightening, or both. It depends on the language skills of the narrator to make him or her someone worth going with on an extended vacation through book pages. Smart passes that test with highest honours.
Be seeing you.