by Rob Gifford
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hree years ago National Public Radio correspondent Rob Gifford took what, for him, was the ultimate road trip. He'd spent much of his last 17 years in China, but felt he'd seen little of the country. So Gifford decided to travel from one side of the nation to the other, 3,000 miles east to west, following one of China's main highways, Route 312. He started in Shanghai, the huge metropolis on the eastern coast, working his way through industrial and agricultural areas, finishing in the little town of Korgaz, on the Chinese border with Kazahkstan. Gifford hired taxis, hopped aboard trucks and other vehicles when people would agree to take him and stopped when he felt like it.
It's a trip that doesn't have an easy U.S. equivalent. In terms of distance, it's like traveling Interstate 90 from Seattle to Boston. In terms of getting a feel for the country, though, Route 312 is closer to America's old Route 66, winding through and celebrating cities and towns, instead of just speeding past them. "The road itself is a crazy m & eacute;lange of mobile humanity," writes Gifford. "Every type of human land transportation is here, heading in both directions," from people on old bicycles to tycoons in BMWs.
"In China, traveling by highway is a very new phenomenon, and Chinese people have not yet fallen in love with the open road," he says. "Rather, it is a marriage of convenience. They are traveling mostly out of necessity, to find work, in order to feed themselves and their families."
Gifford compares the mass migration of Chinese families -- from the rural areas to the cities, where the majority of the country's growth is taking place -- to the migration of the dirt farmers from Oklahoma to California after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. And he warns that China, with its modified version of market-based communism, faces huge problems caring for its rural poor.
As a nation, China is gradually opening itself to the world, but at its own pace. Gifford's book opens the door a little wider and gives us a chance to see parts of the country that few of us will ever get a chance to experience.