Sisters Evangeline and Elizabeth have travelled to 1920s China with older and more experienced woman Millicent in order to undertake missionary work. Each sister has taken something with them that doesn’t seem to belong in their new life. Lizzie has a Leica camera and Eva has her bicycle, a necessary accessory for her real reason for the trip: to emulate the travel writers she loves and write the travelogue of the title.
During their travels they come across a young girl on the road, in labour with her child. Millicent helps the girl to give birth but the mother dies and the English women find themselves accused of her murder. What follows is the examination of how the relationships between the women and their accusers disintegrate over the ensuing weeks and months. The sisters are not close and Millicent has a particular hold over Lizzie which isn’t clear until much later in the book.
Meanwhile in present day England, Frieda, a woman who works as a researcher for a think tank on intercultural relations, finds a man on the landing outside her door, drawing a beautiful bird and Arabic script on the wall. She also discovers that she is the sole heir of a deceased woman whose home she has to clear out. Tayeb is here illegally and Frieda and he feel a connection that they may or may not have time to develop.
As readers we are aware that there must be a connection between both stories and although I worked it out quite early on, it didn’t detract from the story as it unfolded. I truly cared about Elizabeth, Frieda and Tayeb. When I was in Kashgar, I wondered what was happening in London and when I was looking through the apartment with Frieda, I longed to be with Eva in China. Ms Joinson draws nuanced characters you can believe in and her attention to period and cultural detail is spot on. The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is one of those books where you think that not a lot happens until you get to the end and you realise that lives were changed and futures decided while you were reading.