‘Beyond the Great Wall’: Exploring China’s Edges

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  01.05.09 | 11:53 AM ET

Inspired by a recent New Yorker profile of the food writer/adventurer couple Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, I ordered a Christmas present for myself this year: the duo’s wonderful cookbook and travelogue, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. It’s an affectionate look at the cultures and foodways of China’s outlying regions, including Tibet, Yunnan and Xinjiang.

The recipes, for simple dishes like Ginger and Carrot Stir-Fry, are surprisingly low maintenance. But my favorite sections are Duguid’s and Alford’s recollections of traveling in China in the mid-1980s, when the country was just opening up to foreign tourists. Alford, who taught English in Taiwan in 1982, remembers the mystique China held for Westerners at the time:

“Every once in a while I’d hear a story about someone visiting ‘the Mainland,’ traveling independently, but it seemed very hard to believe. The rumor was that a visa could be arranged in Hong Kong from a travel agent in Chungking Mansions, a low-life building full of bottom-end hostels, Indian restaurants and drug deals. It all seemed a bit unlikely—it was ‘Communist China,’ after all.”

Alford makes it to the mainland for the first time in 1984, and his tales of arriving in places like Lhasa, where curious locals pull at the hair on his arms and there are no guidebooks or local maps, retain the thrill of first exploration. Duguid, for her part, travels to Xinjiang as early as 1980, where she is surprised to see Uighur men accessorizing their Mao suits with embroidered skullcaps and leather boots.

For anyone considering a China trip, “Beyond the Great Wall” provides ample reason, culinary and otherwise, to skip the Beijing-Shanghai-Xi’an axis and go straight for the country’s edges. I spent most of New Year’s Eve absorbed in the book, just in time to add it to my list of favorites for 2008.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

2 Comments for ‘Beyond the Great Wall’: Exploring China’s Edges

Joanna 01.06.09 | 7:11 AM ET

I loved this New Yorker profile and also plan to order one of their cookbooks!

Jenna Schnuer 01.22.09 | 12:59 PM ET

Julia—Thanks for posting this. Years ago I worked as the book channel editor at a website. Dozens of books passed through my hands every single day. It seems odd but I can stlll remember how excited I was when one of the couple’s cookbooks, Seductions of Rice, showed up on my desk. It’s a heavy book but I dragged that puppy home on the subway that night, sat down on my couch, and read for hours. They do a wonderful job of introducing you to the people and places behind the food. There’s a real feeling of generosity in their writing—they don’t seem to want the reader to settle on them as the ones who developed any of it. They want you to get to know the people they got to know. And the recipes are darned good, too. I definitely recommend Seductions of Rice. Thanks for talking about Great Wall—I’m going to add it to my bookstore shopping cart right now.

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