River at the Center of the World is based around the 1995 several month-long journey Winchester took from the sea east of Shanghai, up the Yangtze River, to its source in the Tibetan plateau. As Winchester narrates his trip, he delves deep into the history of the river he's tracking. The book is as much recounting the histories of previous adventurers and different areas' rises and falls as it is about Winchester's experiences.
Winchester hires Lily, a married woman from northeast China, to be his guide/translator up the 长江 (in Chinese, the "Yangtze" is literally "long river"). She is with Winchester throughout the book. Winchester speaks a bit of Chinese but isn't so fluent.
Going from the east to the west, the book begins in the East China Sea several miles outside of Shanghai. Winchester then slowly works his way up the river - through Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Yichang and the (at the time) freshly begun three gorges dam, Chongqing, northern Sichuan, northern Yunnan, and into Tibet.
I've traveled through a lot of China. Despite having seen a ton of the Middle Kingdom, I found myself envious, teetering on jealous, of Winchester's epic journey. He stayed in big cities, saw tiny villages, visited historic sites, took in the unparalleled natural beauty surrounding China's main artery, and had countless humorous run-ins with Chinese people along the way. The trek was executed so well.
In addition to the experiences Winchester took in himself, I really liked to hear the tales about the people in the past who attempted to conquer the river. The stories of the likes of Cornell Plant and Joseph Rock - foreigners who got to know the river and China intimately - are histories that I had never heard before.
Winchester is a really good writer. He seemlessly weaves his experiences with previous explorers' experiences with a more general history of the Yangtze.
I want to highlight a particular long passage of this book. I didn't know how to cut this wonderful chunk of writing down. The following is from p. 295-7, while in Sichuan Province searching for the famous bridge at Luding Qiao, the famous bridge where Mao escaped the nationalist army and crossed the Dadu River:
The River at the Center of the World is a great read. I have a few criticisms, though.
First, there were times where I really grew to dislike Winchester. There were several sections of the book that simply rubbed me the wrong way. In one instance he goes on and on for pages about how terrible contemporary Chinese architecture is and, specifically, how much he hates the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.
Image from gilygily.com
These sections where he rails against things in China he finds distasteful (don't get him started on Chinese green vs. English black tea) both haven't aged well and come across as arrogant and, frankly, annoying.
Second, eastern China is far more prominently featured than the western half of the country. Winchester doesn't get to Chongqing, which is about halfway up the river (give or take), until page 270. The book is 395 pages long. I didn't feel like the first half of the Yangtze (and the latter part of the book) was given enough space.
I found Winchester's experiences in the small villages of western China dotting the river to be just as interesting (if not more) than his time in the mega-cities of the east. I wish he'd written about the rugged more and the (relatively) refined less. I understand that the end of his trip was desolate and maybe didn't have quite as much "content" as the lower reaches of the river. But western China is where I've had my most exciting travel adventures and would've liked to hear more about it.
And third, the book was too foreigner-centric. Winchester, an Englishman (although he has a home in America), seemed particularly fond of other Englishmens' experiences in China.
On top of the stories of Plant and Rock, the foreign boatmen mentioned above (whose stories I did find enjoyable), Winchester also goes to visit another foreigner explorer's grave. The history of old-time Shanghai was nearly exclusively about foreigners. And Winchester seeks out other foreigners working on the three gorges dam and again in more remote sections of western China.
Winchester travels through areas occupied by millions upon millions of Chinese people throughout his trip but his book ended up being mostly about foreigners. That's not the case with a lot of newer travel books written in the past few years that I've reviewed on my blog (see Peter Hessler or Rob Gifford for examples of foreign travel writers who completely immerse themselves in the Chinese experience).
Despite my criticisms, overall The River at the Center of the World is a very fun book that's well-written. It's a great travel read. Bring it on a plane or train with you. You'll fly through it.