To boldly go into the Forbidden Zone

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 1995, 12:00am

The Road to Miran by Christa Paula HarperCollins $306 THIS book, subtitled 'Travels in the Forbidden Zone of Xinjiang', is currently being given prominent display in several Hong Kong bookshops and I was keen to find out whether this was because it was indeed a piece of hot property or because it needed this kind of effort to sell any copies at all.

Christa Paula was a post-graduate student in Pittsburg when her supervisor introduced her to the 2,000-year-old paintings from Miran, pictures of mysterious origin that may conceivably display Western influences.

The last Western archaeologist to work there did so in 1914 and Paula thought it would be a good idea to travel to the area and see the site for herself.

Her professor, however, declared that it was impossible to do this as this region of China was 'closed'.

Xinjiang is the largest administrative region in the People's Republic, larger than France and Germany put together.

It's the home of the Uighur people, among others, and the celebrated Silk Road runs through its dry and thinly populated wastes. Many tourists now visit every summer, but according to Paula, her bit was forbidden to them and the site of nuclear testing grounds.

She went there via Delhi because it is in Delhi that the Miran paintings are now located in the National Museum. They were brought there by the archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein under the Raj.

From India, Paula travelled through Pakistan and over the Kunjerab Pass into China. Her travels there are mildly interesting, but it is then that you first come to wonder whether this book was originally written as the quest it now comes packaged as, or whether it was actually a backpacker's journal that a publishing house decided could be revamped to make a travel book of a classic I-set-out-to-find-it-and-eventually-did variety.

The dangers and adventures she endures are not as dangerous or as adventurous as you might expect, or wish. Nor is the book the product of a 'natural' writer - the author thanks someone in the acknowledgements for 'teaching me about writing'.

It does, however, have its touching moments. Paula has an affair with a young Chinese man, whom she gives the pseudonym 'Chang'. He is described in the blurb as 'a self-styled Chinese James Dean' and this encounter provides some insights into modern Chinese attitudes and indeed history. But this is a long way from ideal reading.