Grand Central Publishing|February 8, 2010|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-0-446-69693-7
In 1986, Susan Jane Gilman and a classmate embarked on a bold trek around the globe starting in the People’s Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent backpackers for roughly ten minutes. Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche and Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads – hungry, disoriented, stripped of everything familiar, and under constant government surveillance. Soon, they began to unravel – one physically, the other psychologically. As their journey became increasingly harrowing, they found themselves facing crises that Susan didn’t think they’d survive. But by summoning strengths she never knew she had – and with the help from unexpected friends – the two travelers found their way out of a Chinese heart of darkness.
UNDRESS ME IN THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN is a flat-out page-turner, an astonishing true story of naivete, friendship, and redemption told with Susan’s trademark compassion and humor.
In 1986, Susan Jane Gilman and Claire Van Houten, both 21-years-old, decide to embark on a journey around the world in a year. After traveling for thirty-one hours, they arrived at Kai Tak Airport in the People’s Republic of China to a cabin full of clapping people. They purchased around-the-world airline tickets which began with a flight from New York to Hong Kong that September. The furthest west Susan had ever been prior to this was to Cleveland. However, they yet had no idea how complicated the world could be, or of their place in it, or just how much trouble they were in for. All their lives they’d both been straight-A students and during this trip didn’t want to pamper themselves at all. No Hilton Hotels, no air conditioned buses or tour guides. They wanted to stay off the beaten path entirely, stay in local place only, eat local food, be totally hard core and authentic and experience the “real” world.
Prior to leaving the United States they purchased a budget guidebook, ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring’, published by a bunch of hippies calling themselves Lonely Planet. They recommended staying in Hong Kong Kowloon section at a place called ‘Chungking Mansions.’ This was not only a great base for backpackers, they said, but a good source for information about obtaining Chinese visas and arranging transport across the border, so that’s where they decided to go. The place turned out to be a dump, it wasn’t even a hotel but instead a warehouse for transients.
Luckily for Susan and Claire, they ran into a Chinese man named Jonnie who spoke very good English. He turned out to be an absolute life-saver for the two women becoming everything to them from confidante, communicator, food expert and anything and everything else they needed. I loved this part of the memoir. Jonnie couldn’t pronounce their names correctly and as a result called Susie, Sushi and Claire, Crair. It was so cute, really to read him communicating with them. They had made a real friend in Jonnie while in China and had a hard time saying good-bye before heading off to Beijing. They had actually caused him to “lose face” in the end but you’ll have to read the story to find out why. I’m not sure I could have done to Jonnie what they did after all he had done for them. However, it takes all kinds to make the world go around.
In Beijing, they found the well-known Tiananmen Square to be nothing more than the largest piece of poured concrete they’d ever seen but found other sites they enjoyed immensely. From Beijing they headed to Guilan which took 34 hours! From Guilan to Gunagzhou. That flight was only 55 minutes, a little easier to take.
Claire slowly begins to lose her mind during the trip. She thinks people, governments, officials, and others are following them. She becomes prone to these yelling, crazy, totally zoned-out screaming tantrums in public that Susie just doesn’t know what to with or how to help her anymore. She never knows what is going to set her off. Claire has become a Jekyll and Hyde. On the other hand, poor Susie is stricken again and again with various physical ailments like fevers, sick stomachs and most worriedly she is having great difficulty breathing, coughing up hordes and hordes of phlegm. Walking quickly even causes her to stop, bend over with her hands on her knees trying hard to catch her breath. This trip is turning into a nightmare with one of them falling to pieces psychologically and the other physically. Eventually they find their way out of this absolute nightmarish trip they embarked upon and end back up in New York. However, what they had to go through and endure will pop your eyes wide open!
UNDRESS ME IN THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN is terrifyingly real and you’ll come away wondering how you would have survived what Susie and Claire did. This would make a great book for bookclubs as well, there is so much to discuss. I’ll definitely be telling my family and friends about this memoir for sure.