STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You'd have to travel almost 3,000 miles to go from one end of China to the other. NPR correspondent Rob Gifford took that trip. He followed a single highway that leads from Shanghai into the heart of Asia.
ROB GIFFORD: Oh, this is not looking good. We are in the middle of nowhere and the bus has just come to a complete halt. The woman in the front has pulled up the sort of gearbox with the hood inside. And I think we've broken down in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Gifford during one of his unscheduled stops on China's Route 312. The result of his trip was a series of NPR stories and now a book called "China Road." It's Gifford's look at rapidly rising nation.
And, Rob, what can you learn about it from a road trip like that?
GIFFORD: Well, I think the reason I did the road trip in the first place for the radio series was because, really, China is a nation on the move. It's really the sort of perfect metaphor for what's happening to China - there's some between 150 million and 200 million people who are traveling across China looking for work, leaving the rural areas, coming to the cities. And so, as you meet those people, you got a feel for the sort of mobility, the convulsions, the sort of churn that is going on in individual's lives, of course. But on a grander scale there really is this 21st century revolution. It's not political anymore. It's social. It's economic and it's transportational.
INSKEEP: When you were traveling among that 1.3 billion, how did you find people to talk to?
GIFFORD: I'd just get on the bus. And you just find the four people sitting around you all have amazing stories about their life in the countryside or their life in the city. You know, everywhere you go, you just ask the people, what are you doing? What's your life like? And they just want to talk about it. And that's really what the book is.
INSKEEP: One of the people you met said, oh, I'm an Amway salesman.
GIFFORD: That's right. That's right. He was one of my favorites. And he was in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I was just walking along the street and he came up to me - two of them, actually - and showed me their bag and it said Amway on it. And we just got talking, and they took me to their sort of sales event that evening where everyone brought a friend to try and to get them to be involved in Amway, really to take part in this Chinese dream.
INSKEEP: May I just mention, Rob, since you're talking about the Chinese dream, isn't Amway a company that sells all kinds of products but the name is actually supposedly short for American way?
GIFFORD: That's a very good point, Steve. When they translate it into Chinese, they don't actually translate the American bit of it. But I think everybody knows it's an American company. And I think that says a lot about where China is going. It's going towards - it's already reached, in many places, full blown capitalism. I mean, nobody believes in communism anymore. People don't want to work for Marx and Lenin. They want to work for Amway and other Western companies that are there.
INSKEEP: We should mention that you went to a number of bars and perhaps one place that could be described as a brothel as part of your reporting. And I want to play a piece of tape from some of your NPR coverage. This is when you were interviewing, I don't know, what would you call her? A hostess at one of these places?
GIFFORD: A hostess would be the polite way to put it, yes.
INSKEEP: Let's listen.
CHANG(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
GIFFORD: Chang leaves the karaoke parlor with a visiting foreigner thinking it's just more business as usual, and she's surprised to find herself in a hotel room being asked for an interview and nothing more.
When assured her real name will not be used, she agrees and the hopelessness pours out like a torrent.
INSKEEP: That's Rob Gifford from his 2004 series which has now become a book. And, Rob, what was the hopelessness that she was telling you about?
GIFFORD: Well, it's the hopelessness of the small towns in China which are not being affected by this great economic boom. This particular girl, she was 19 years old, I think. I met several of them. They are always young. They come from the countryside. They don't have much education. And because they don't have much education, they don't have many prospects. And so one of the only ways to make any money is to go and be a hostess, and that often involves prostitution.
INSKEEP: This woman was quite frustrated with her circumstances. Were there others who saw a house of prostitution like this as an opportunity for themselves?
GIFFORD: Sure. I think no one ever wants to be a prostitute forever. They are all there to earn some fast money and then to go back home and open a store or get involved in some other kind of manufacturing. When you can earn more in one night as a prostitute than you could previously earn in a month doing something else just the sheer economics of it sweep away the morality or immorality of what you're doing.
INSKEEP: Speaking of the economics of it. I have to ask, did you put in for your expenses at the nightclub?
GIFFORD: I did, yes. And I did actually write the word prostitute on my expense form. And it got cleared by my boss, actually. Am I allowed to say this on air?
INSKEEP: Oh, please, go right ahead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GIFFORD: I didn't know what else to do. I mean, I did fill it in slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I paid for the drinks that we had and I told her why I was interviewing her. But, yes, I did expense that particular one.
INSKEEP: Having experienced this country from end to end, from the booming areas to the most frustrated areas, did you come away thinking there's an essential Chinese character at the moment?
GIFFORD: Well, that's a very interesting question, because I think the Chinese character is in total flux. I think for so many centuries, for millennia, there has been a fixed Chinese character. It's been based on the Confucian classic. It's been based on the family and the clan. It's been based on so many things that are rooted in Chinese history. And now there is something of a change going on in the Chinese character. Of course, part of it is economic. It's a modernization, dislocation, a physical dislocation. But there is, I'm sure, also a sort of spiritual dislocation going on. But I think, with that comes a certain amount of alienation as a well.
And one important thing to add to that is that now - very interestingly, now people are trying to go back to their Chinese roots. There was something about it in the past that was embarrassing, that all of this baggage of history was what was holding China back. And now people are saying, hold on a second, hold on. I'm Chinese, okay? I don't want to ditch all my history, which is basically what Chairman Mao tried to do.
INSKEEP: Well, given that people are looking to the past in China, did you come away convinced that China is, as so many in the West seem to assume, the country of the future?
GIFFORD: I think in very many ways it is. Of course, look at it. Look at every piece of clothing you're wearing. But I think in amongst all these we are missing some of the fault lines that are emerging. And, really, one of the conclusions I came toward the end of my journey is that I think there may be some kind of crunch coming. I just think you have this completely mobile 21st century society and you have this sclerotic 1950s political system, and I do fear that any political transition could be very difficult indeed.
INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Gifford was our correspondent in China for six years, and one of the last things that he did was travel a single highway from end to end, experiences that are now collected on a book called "China Road."
Rob, good talking with you.
GIFFORD: Great to talk to you, Steve. Thanks very much.
INSKEEP: And if you want to tag along with Rob Gifford as he recalls his trip across China, just go to our Web site, npr.org. This is NPR News.