Despite what the title might sound like, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is far from a sexy, sultry travel narrative. Instead, this book is a memoir written by Susan Jane Gilman about an overseas excursion in China gone wrong. Published in 2009, Gilman’s book chronicles a coming-of-age travel experience she and her college friend, Claire, had in 1986.
The book starts innocently enough. Like so many 20-somethings, Susan and Claire decided to venture abroad after graduating from college in order to spread their wings and collect new experiences. They booked tickets to Asia, planning to first explore China, which had just opened its doors to tourists under restricted conditions, and then other eastern destinations such as Bali and India. Upon arriving in the Hong Kong airport, the author immediately gets a major nosebleed, which sets the tone for the entire story. This nosebleed, compared to the trials and tribulations the girls encounter throughout the rest of their trip, is merely a minor inconvenience.
Susan and Claire, both of whom are relatively naive travelers, are shocked by the differences in culture as they begin their journey from Hong Kong to China, a country where few people had ever encountered an American before. Everything surrounding them — the language, food, transportation, air quality — is remarkably different and foreign, and the girls struggle in their own ways to combat the feelings of homesickness and intense scrutiny they undergo.
Because China had just opened to backpackers, there are few tourist amenities and facilities, and permission is required from the government to travel anywhere. Susan and Claire meet some other Western travelers as well as one Chinese fellow (Jonnie) who they rely on for assistance in navigating the unfamiliar waters of traveling in a very foreign country, but in an attempt to create both an authentic travel experience and live to standards they are familiar with at home, they alienate some people, rely greatly on some and outwardly reject assistance from others.
What starts out as a chaotic start to what is supposed to be a positive, life-changing experience quickly spirals into something much worse. Physical illnesses and psychological breakdowns quickly turn an innocent backpacking trip into a story of close calls, life-threatening moments, distrust and suspicion that is far from a rosy travel tale. In the end, Susan and Claire are far from capturing memorable moments on film that they’ll laugh about and share together for years to come. Instead, as one girl falls deeper into despair, the other must focus her energy on getting them both out of China safely.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was a surprising read because so many travel narratives are steeped in inspiring, transformational experiences, and that is simply not the case here. Though the vast majority of travel experiences in general are positive ones (or, at the very least, just okay), there are some that turn out to be grade-A disasters, and this is one of those. The first half of the book read a lot like a standard travel narrative with its ups and downs, but by the second half, I couldn’t stop reading because things just kept getting worse and worse. Certainly I’d never want to go through something like what Susan and Claire did, but the story itself is well written and a fast, easy read, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
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