a conversation with Richard Bernstein      
Richard Bernstein


Soon after the publication of Ultimate Journey, the Taliban bombed ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan to international uproar and the U.S. and China were walking a diplomatic high wire over the fighter jet/reconnaissance plane incident. What's a China expert to do?

Exactly, that's a good guess about what my life has been like. Obviously, I've been talking about the book, doing readings and radio and television interviews in which I talk about my own adventure along this long road. I explain to people who this 7th century monk was and what he was trying to do. Then because there is a little bit of a love story element to this book, as well, people ask me about how I have changed. The most obvious answer to that is that I got married after being on the planet for more than half a century. I finally got married and strangely the trip was a big factor in enabling me finally to make that step.

Prior to your future bride Zhongmei's departure after completing the first leg of the trip with you and apart from the utter desolation you once experienced in a rundown hotel room in Singapore, had you considered your solitude a comfort or did you experience it primarily as loneliness?

Zhongmei and Dancer

There never was a moment where it happened quite like it did in that horrible hotel room in Singapore. Why do I think that a feeling of loneliness hasn't in past times, overwhelmed me? Why did I choose to be lonely?

Well, I guess it's because I have always been a little emotionally greedy and wanted to have it both ways. That strangely, when ever I had a choice between companionship with its sense of obligation and the ties that bind on one hand and on the other hand the untrammeled life even though a lonely one, I've always somewhat reflexively opted for the lonely one. I think what overwhelmed me in Singapore was the sense that I was driven psychologically to a kind of unnecessary solitude. It wasn't as though I had no possibilities in my life for love or companionship. I did have possibilities. I had left Harvard a year or a year and a half-ago and left my girlfriend. At the time we were quite serious but when I faced the possibility of unhindered adventure then that was what I wanted. I had a very romantic notion. I wanted to travel like James Bond. If I encountered a beautiful, charming, and exotic woman I didn't want to have to turn her down because of some obligation I had to some faraway person. When I was in my early twenties that seemed like a sensible decision but I was still doing it when I was in my thirties and forties. And that's what became a little bit pathological.

Travel can provide an environmental bas relief to a person's sense of self in relation to the world at home. It can also evoke incredible adventures and an accrual of wisdom that is not available by other means. Were you conscious of your motivation to travel so often and so far afield?

At the same time when you opt for those things you just described you opt for the reality of life on the road, which is that you don't know people. That charming companion of the route does not materialize usually. 99 times out of a 100 there is no beautiful woman which is what I was hoping to find because that was the only thing I wouldn't be able to have if I were traveling with someone or if I were traveling with a sense of obligation to somebody else.

And if you are not traveling with someone, the someone you imagine is never less than incredible.

Jergalbek, a Kyrgyz herdsman, with his wife, daughter, and family dog in front of their yurt.

That's true but then you arrive in Singapore this exotic city that you have always looked forward to going to and you find yourself utterly and totally alone. The Singaporean world is swirling around you and people are going about their business. Nobody is noticing you all day and you're having all of your meals by yourself and you don't have any money because you're just a poor student so you're staying in this livestock-infested room where they're not exactly providing five star service or cordiality.

And that livestock may be who finally takes note of you.

And you suddenly think with Bruce Chatwin, "What am I doing here?" and that if you were with somebody suddenly the misery would be part of the adventure and it would be kind of fun but when you're by yourself it's just misery.

Chatwin is a model of someone needing constantly to strike out on the road by himself. He seems to have needed the solitude.

Chatwin doesn't talk about loneliness art all and I don't know whether he is a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman or that he really just doesn't experience it.

Chatwin's home seemed to be most attractive to him as a treasure box of what was meaningful to him in his heart and from his travels and as a solid place to depart from over and over.

Don't get me wrong. I had those things too. I didn't have the wife. Bruce Chatwin's situation with his wife was a peculiar one. I didn't have a wife but I have a strong family, I had a strong sense of belonging to home, to my country, to my family. I had great friends. I was getting a Ph.D. at Harvard. I wasn't cut adrift in the margins of American life. I was doing well. I somehow repudiated it all. It comes back to what I call the horror of home in one of the chapters. Maybe Bruce Chatwin was able to not experience the loneliness when he was on the road because he wasn't compelled out there by the horror of home.

What then if not a horror marked by being an insider unfit for the confines of societal structure?

I had the horror of home but I also had the horror of not being home, of un-home. Where does someone like that put down his feet? In this room in Singapore? So, finally, after all these years, this experience of travelling with Zhongmei and of seeing her walk away on a dim forlorn railroad platform in Kucha, and also pressing on with Brave King, who was a nice travelling companion but he was no Zhongmei, and crossing over the border into Kyrgyzstan and increasingly being on my own...

And also leaving territory where you had fluency in the language--you understood some vocabulary in Russian.

I had hardly any Russian, I had five words. I did come to a clearer understanding that home needn't be horror.

Was Zhongmei the first person who was meaningful to your home life and who was able to guide you with such sophistication?

In my early years as foreign correspondent and even on early trips when I was in my twenties, there had been women in my life who fulfilled the Madame Butterfly paradigm. I spent a number of months in Japan where I knew a woman but then I left and, like the paradigm, there wasn't a lot of thought to whether I was going to be come part of her greater life or not. It is a common story in Asia and in lots of places. What's different about Zhongmei, aside from the fact that I was older and more mature than I was when I was a kid, is that she came to China and went to Xian ahead of me so if I ran into trouble she would be able to do something. China was something of an issue for us because I had written this book The Coming Conflict in China. It isn't that she disagreed with the book, it's that she felt uncomfortable in the position of being a Chinese woman with strong feelings of attachment to her own country and her own culture and wanting Americans, in her adopted country, to know the richness and the beauties of China. She experienced a lot of hostility towards China instead of appreciation and then I came along and showed some hostility to her own country, too. We spent a long time working that issue out. I understand how she felt. She did decide to come to Xian and to try to help me and then turned into my resourceful, capable guide and helpmate on the first few weeks of the trip knowing that I had to conceal my identity as a journalist travelling through Xiangong. She wasn't being disloyal to China and she never would be but she was saying 'I love you and I understand you and this is a good project and I want to help.' And she's continued to do that, by the way. She told the Chinese media about the book and she talks to people about it and she traveled with me on my book tour for a few days. She contacts members of the Chinese media wherever we go because she wants the Chinese community to know about it. The whole thing has turned out to be tremendously enriching for both of us in learning about each other and forming an alliance.

Brave King

In the book you mention instances where you felt things happen to going quite well only to discover that Zhongmei took great pains to ensure the success of the day.

China is a very socially conservative society. It was awkward to be a Chinese woman and to be travelling with an American passport and then to be travelling with an American man and knowing, even though the other people didn't know, that I was a journalist. She also knew that I had no ambition that would be harmful to China's reputation. There are things that I describe along the way in the book such as the Chinese reaction to the bombing of the Belgrade embassy and their touchiness and suspiciousness.

In one case you describe a dinner in a noodle shop that begins in a jocular mood and quickly turns hostile and you are accused of being an American spy.

The noodle shop experience where Zhongmei had to be on my side. And she was. We may not always agree on everything (who does?) but I know that she's always on my side and she knows that I am on her side when it comes to her dance company and her effort to grow that. It was the first time she entirely, in an unambiguous way, supported what I do.

Hsüan Tsang had a guide to travel with him across the borders but soon found that guide's knife approaching his throat. The assailant-guide thought better of it. You had Brave King and he seemed to be as delightful and resourceful a guide as anyone could have asked for.

He was, he was a wonderful guy and turned out to be a wonderful guide. Of course, Brave King didn't know that I was a journalist for the New York Times.

You took the same precaution when you encountered the explorers from Chicago, Bill and Dave, and you told them you were in real estate development.

Richard Bersntein in front of the pagoda that marks Hsüan Tsang's final resting place

Brave King asked me what I did back home and I lied to him. I just didn't tell him. Zhongmei and I actually discussed the book, not in relation to Brave King, when we were coming back to China via Pakistan. We talked about what would happen if they noticed the little "J" on my visa [indicating journalist] and what story were we going to tell them. Zhongmei's basic answer was that we will tell them the truth: that I am a book critic for the New York Times and therefore I'm technically a journalist but that's not what I'm doing on this trip. I didn't have to talk about the book. I hadn't written the book yet; there was no book to talk about. That was true. I didn't have to talk about the book, it's not as if I was carrying some manuscript with me. I was working on it along the way. Any tourist can go to China and come back to the United States and be free to write whatever he wants to write about the trip. I wasn't working for the New York Times; I wasn't working for any journalistic organization, so it was perfectly honest. We decided that we would tell the truth omitting one critical aspect of the purpose of my trip. They didn't have to know that, with Brave King it was the same thing. I didn't feel that I had to go out of my way to tell him everything that I was doing but we formed a bond.

Does Brave King know about the book? Are you in contact with him now?

He knows now and he's not bothered by it, it's fine. We looked him up on the way back. On the way to Xian we stopped off in Peking for about two or three days and I told him that I was writing a book about Hsüan Tsang and that I didn't feel comfortable telling him about it. Dan and Bill were travelling with a military escort because they had permission from the military to take a 4-wheel drive vehicle through the desert. I couldn't tell them what I was doing and have it be overheard by their military escort or have them inadvertently say, Oh, it was very interesting, this guy works for The New York Times or whatever in an unguarded moment. I decided to turn my ownership of an apartment in New York into an occupation by saying I was a real estate developer. Then it turned out that Bill was a real estate investor in Chicago and he started asking me some tricky technical questions.

It was a brave foray into a new career. Have you spoken with them since?

I never could find Dan & Bill. I thought that one of them had given me his card and when I got back I couldn't find it. I wanted to get in touch with them to let them know, just as with Brave King, that I felt that I had to lie to them and I was sorry. I wanted them to know what I was really doing and to look out for the book and that I would be sort of playfully mentioning them in it. The only connection that I had was that I think that they told me that they were pioneering a trip for the Chicago Explorers Club. I called both Chicago information and the Explorers Club in New York and there is no Chicago Explorers Club.

So what do you suppose Dan and Bill were doing?

Well, I think that that was probably what they were doing but I got it mixed up or maybe it wasn't Chicago Explorers Club, it was the Chicago Something-else Club. It was a frustration that I wasn't able to find them. I thought it was going to be easy, I'd just call information and find the club and ask who were the two guys that went to Xinjiang in 1999 and they'd be able to say who they were and I'd be able to get in touch with them. No such luck.

What sort of recording or digital gear did you carry with you?

Nothing, especially on the China part, nothing that was going to make me look like I was anything but an ordinary tourist. Since I continued to travel directly through China I couldn't pick up anything on my way. Often I wrote in my notebook. I have good memory for this kind of thing having been a reporter for a long time. Whenever I would have a private moment I would try to reproduce the conversation in my notebook as I had done as a reporter for years and years. I had my laptop with me and that was wonderful because at the end of each day, not only would I transcribe my notes but when I wasn't just dying of fatigue I would try to actually write passages and more or less go right into the book. My trip was already in draft form when I got off the plane. I spent the next year revising that draft and weaving in the other elements of the story. I added Hsüan Tsang's journey and the Road of Great Events and then put in a little more about how I felt and who I was; I worked with the lump of clay that I came back with and shaped it into the full story.

How has the Chinese media responded to Ultimate Journey?

I haven't seen any of the articles written in China but I have been told that the reporting is very straightforward. Locally the Chinese media have treated it as an event and written feature articles, often including a photograph of me. The response has been positive.

author's page
Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type
    Photo credit: Jade Albert