Thirty three years after his round the world journey by train, described in The Great Railway Bazaar; Paul Theroux attempts to retrace his steps.
He can't visit all of the countries from his earlier journey. Iran and Afghanistan are impossible to visit and he feels that Pakistan is a little to dangerous for him. But this allows the opportunity to travel to India via the former Soviet republics of the Caucas's and some of the "stans". He also takes the opportunity to travel via some of the former Eastern Bloc countries.
The book is described by the author as a retracing of his steps and quite a bit of time is spent discussing his feelings during that journey and the year he spent writing the book. However you don't have to have read that book to enjoy this one.
This is a fascinating travelogue. Once again it is supposed to be more about the journey than the locations. But the descriptions of the locations are brilliant.
I listended to the audiobook brilliantly read by John McDonough whoThe Great Railway Bazaar who even though he sounds a bit older than someone in his 60s manages to convey the expressions and intonations of an older traveller.
This is an account of Paul Theroux's travels through China by train in the mid 1980s.
Taking the train was the author's way of getting to understand China: if he has a choice, sleepy branch lines are his favourite form of train travel. He's rarely interested in the big cities or the famous tourist sites but likes nothing more than to amble about in backwater places to meet and talk to local people (he can speak Mandarin). He never stays in upmarket tourist hotels and most often ends up in some right dumps.
You expect him to question the Chinese he meets about their attitude to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution - they're quite candidly aghast at what went on then - but what's more interesting are some of the throwaway lines "’women’s legs are a rare enough sight in China", "they [the young women] even had to have a fancy brassiere, probably the most superfluous garment in China", and "but the cook sized me up and did one of the cruellest things any cook can do in rural China: he made me western food – what he considered to be western food – undercooked potatoes, pink chicken and boiled cabbage".
Anybody who has read Paul Theroux will know that he never goes into raptures about anything but the nearest he comes to it is in describing the limestone landscapes of southern China, the landscape of the hills depicted in every Chinese scroll or, in contrast, Turpan in Inner Mongolia where the side alleys are thick with grape vines, or Qingdao, a port and seaside resort facing the Yellow Sea that had once been a German imperialist outpost but had in the end turned out to be a seaside retirement town whose houses wouldn't have disgraced the streets of Bexhill-on-Sea.
I was really pleased my son had recommended this book.
Recently reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, "The Great Railway Bazaar" is Theroux's 1975 account of a journey, mostly by train, from London to Tokyo and back.
Theroux confesses in the first sentence his attachment to the romantic notion of train travel, but the months spent on trains of all standards, from the battered, rattling local services of war torn southeast Asia to the superefficent Japanese bullet trains, almost destroy his fondness for train travel.
Theroux is from what could be called the realist school of travel writing - none of the impressionistic philosophizing of Bruce Chatwin or the broad humour of Pete McCarthy et al. here. In fact, he's perhaps understandably grumpy about many of the discomforts and inconveniences he endures, as well as misanthropic about many of the people he meets, particularly those he shares cabins with and bureaucratic train officials. I'd previously read his more recent "Dark Star Safari" and ascribed this tendency to his age, but the 30s Paul Theroux is just as cantankerous as the much older man. Son Louis's humour must be from his mother's side.
Theroux spends the odd page here and there musing on stopover points such as Istanbul but the book focusses on the journey. Since he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself much, the author makes a pretty difficult travelling companion to warm to, but on the other hand you admire him for his honesty about how gruelling his journey really is and the fact that hell can be other people. In addition, as all good travel writers must, he has an ability to transport the reader to a place in just a few words.
Apparently Theroux's next travel book is to be a retracing of this journey. Much of the territory has changed - no Middle Eastern theocracies in this book, but his passage as an American travelling in Vietnam might be a little easier now. On the basis of this book, fine though it is, one wonders why he wants to do this.