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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review: Where the Pavement Ends

Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China & Vietnam
By Erika Warmbrunn, The Mountaineers Books, 2001, 249 pp.

Why travel by bicycle? “Because a bicycle is freedom; a bicycle is independence; a bicycle is self-sufficiency,” writes Erika Warmbrunn. “Because a bicycle lands you in places you didn’t know you wanted to go, and shows you things you didn’t know you wanted to see…”

And there is also the sheer exhilaration: “The flying abandon of a bicycle, legs pumping, body and wheels skimming above the land, cycling for the sake of cycling”—at least when the roads are good. Often, of course, they aren’t good: as Warmbrunn travels from Irkutsk to Saigon, she has to cope with roads that are torn up, or icy, or muddy. In one coal-mining village, she bicycles through such ash-laden air that she can hardly breathe. But she copes extraordinarily well.

Where the Pavement Ends describes an impressive journey. Traveling alone, with her bike—which she calls Greene—Warmbrunn covers 8000 kilometers in 8 months. She set out, she tells us, because she’d failed in her aspirations to have an acting career, and she wanted to get away. But it is clear from this book that she also wanted to experience something new. A natural traveler, open to adventure, she throws herself into the experience fully.

It is this openness, the willingness to explore—whether languages, landscapes, or food—that carries the book. Of the four sections, the best two are set in Mongolia, partly because she clearly loved the land and its generous people, partly because she stayed there a month to teach English and got to know individuals, and partly because she isn’t yet worn out. She can still take with humor the “Seven Questions” that everyone asks: “Where are you from?” “Where are you coming from?” “Where are you going? “Alone?!” “You’re not scared?” “How old are you?” “Are you married?”

As the book progresses, through China and Vietnam, she expresses her increasing exhaustion, her increasing need for time alone—away from the people crowding to see the foreigner—and her frustration at a less-than-friendly response to her presence, especially in Vietnam, where children are openly hostile. The Seven Questions wear thin.

This is a warm and honest book. Because it is essentially a travelogue, dependent more on the line of the journey than a strong narrative, it seemed to me to lack momentum. What makes the account rewarding is not just the author’s openness to experience, but her ability to observe that experience. Warmbrunn is a perceptive traveler, extremely sensitive to her own and others’ responses. And of course, there is the remarkable feat of the journey itself.

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