How studying Biology at UEA led to a thriller set in the deserts of northern China
UEA alumnus Ben Colbridge (BIO 2001) will release his debut novel Into Xinjiang on the 28th April this year – a thriller set in the deserts of northern China, but one that he can trace back to a chance encounter here on campus.
Full of fond memories, he had no idea that one chance careers talk on campus would lead to learning fluent Japanese, a career in travel and now at least one novel.
The new millennium was only a few months old, and Ben had just started the third year of his Molecular Biology degree working under the watchful eye of Professor Andy Johnston, when between lectures he happened upon a talk about the JET Programme. Started in 1987, the Japan Exchange Teaching Programme aims to forge grass-roots promotion of the English language and further international understanding by placing foreign nationals in state schools and Boards of Education across the country.
After applying and ultimately gaining a place, Ben left for Japan just two weeks after graduating and spent the next four years living in a small rice farming village on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu. With a love of travel emerging, Ben booked flight tickets to Beijing for a long weekend in early 2003, eager to see the Great Wall on his first visit to China. It was here that the inciting incident in his book occurred.
Whilst exploring Beijing’s famous Forbidden City palace complex Ben was approached by two young Chinese women who asked to take their photo with him. The whole encounter lasted only seconds, but it sowed the seeds of a book that would be realised almost exactly twenty years later. To this day Ben wonders what, if anything, ever happened to that photograph but always knew it would form the basis of a book.
Returning to the UK in 2005, he turned his new-found passion into a career in the travel industry and became a Japan & China specialist for one of the UK’s leading tailormade travel companies. During this time he returned to China a further five times and subsequently based his novel on real people and real events woven together to create a thriller that breathlessly incorporates political scandal, the Chinese underworld and his protagonist’s own misdirection and change of identity.
Named after China’s westernmost province, Into Xinjiang sees young British backpacker Daniel Weaver running for his life after two young women use a photo taken of him to frame him for an assault that didn’t happen. Naïve and out of his depth, Dan makes the panicked decision to run, and leaving Beijing flees into the remote deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. Along the way, he crosses paths with an American tour guide called Lisa who promises to help him escape. However, her motivations remain unclear as she seemingly risks her life for this total stranger and Dan must work out who to trust if he is to escape China alive.
Ben’s three years at UEA were spent cycling between the house he shared just off Dereham Road and campus where he could also be found working behind the Union Bar on LCR nights. Full of fond memories, he had no idea that one chance careers talk on campus would lead to learning fluent Japanese, a career in travel and now at least one novel. Where this takes this UEA alumnus next will undoubtedly inform the next chapter in his personal story.
Into Xinjiang is published by Matador and is available in paperback and ebook. For more details visit Ben's website or follow Ben on Instagram @into_xinjiang.
Ben studied BSc Molecular Biology and Genetics at UEA.