Travelling around Asia has been given a bad press. The gap yah video, Facebook photos of sweaty students at Full Moon Parties or standing in front of temples in harem pants has made the whole thing a bit cliché. But Nico Hobhouse, a second year Classicist at Trinity, didn’t exactly have a Thailash on his year in China and Tibet. He spent a year travelling alone, wrote a book about it, called it Dancing on the Frontier and published it. This work is Google-able, Amazon-available and the scarlet paperback can be bought from bookshops – and from Nico himself, with the promise of ‘pidging him the money’. The OxStu talks to Hobhouse about why he wanted to share his story. . .
What was the plan when you went to China?
I needed to work to be able to get the Visa I wanted so I did a TEFL course, to teach English to Chinese students. I had just finished my A-Levels and when I flew to Beijing I didn’t know where I would be posted. The minute I knew I was being sent to Bantou, I Wikipedia-d it and it was awful. The Lonely Planet guide said something like ‘if you can possibly avoid Bantou, then do’.
And how was Bantou?
It’s the biggest city in Inner Mongolia, with two million people. Although it’s physically not that far from Beijing, it’s psychologically much removed from central government; it’s quite corrupt, there are gangs and prostitutes in bath houses. After I finished my months teaching I travelled through the major cities down the East Coast – the very optimistic parts of China- and then went West through the country areas. It’s a real place of opposites, these cities of the future and then rural backwaters.
Where did the idea of the book come into this?
As my Mandarin got better I found talking to the people was my favourite part. Travelling through China isn’t going through somewhere like East Germany – the book is full of honest conversations and I wrote them down in my journal as I was going along. Everything in the book is true, and there’s very little of me in the book. It’s not ‘Nico travels China’ and I don’t mention my age or background; it’s just that the book is a dialogue and I’m just one of the voices.
So how long does it take to write a book?
I got the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia and stopped off in Lithuania for two and a half weeks to turn the journals into a book. I wrote it so quickly because I wanted to share this story, and it had to be done before I got home or my opinions would get adulterated – I’d sent one email a month to tell my Mum I was alive and I needed to keep that going for a bit longer. The second draft was written in a very different setting – at my Gran’s house in Wiltshire.
What did you read while you were in China?
I didn’t have a Kindle, I bought paperback books and threw them away. I read the four classic Chinese works in English, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. Ma Jian’s Red Dust was a bit of an inspiration.
How easy was it to get the Dancing on the Frontiers published?
I approached a literary agent in London who liked the book but said it had no convincing selling potential. No one had heard of me and I was too young and inexperienced. I had to convince him to take me by spending the first four weeks of MT 12 sifting through the Bod’s collection of China books to make a case for it being different from anything over the last ten years. He took it, but the twelve major British distributors all left it for the same reason – I had no marketing profile.
So how did it end up here now?
I left the book for about five months but then realised that I had something I was proud of, and that I hadn’t written it for it to stay on my laptop. I tried a new model of publishing: print-to-order. An American company called XLibris only prints copies when they are needed, making the whole thing free for everyone, and here the book is. I think publishing a book should be about having something to say, not selling copies.
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