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Riding the Iron Rooster
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Riding the Iron Rooster

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  5,200 ratings  ·  196 reviews
Paul Theroux invites you to join him on the journey of a lifetime, in the grand romanttic tradition, by train across Euope, through the vast underbelly of Asia and in the heart of Russia, and then up to China. Here is China by rail, as seen and heard through the eyes and ears of one of the most intrepid and insightful travel writers of our time.
Paperback, 464 pages
Published March 28th 1989 by Ivy Books (first published January 1st 1983)
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The nice thing about buying books by the box at a used book sale is that I’ll take a chance on something I normally wouldn’t pick up at full price. In this case it was a travelogue.

Paul Theroux’s travels through China took place in the mid ‘80’s, which makes most of the political content somewhat dated (not to mention repetitive to the Nth degree). Everyone in China that he comes across gets questioned about the changes in the political climate, specifically the differences between Mao and the
mark monday
3 Things about Riding the Iron Rooster:

(1) land sakes, Paul Theroux does not like human beings! he seem like a very disdainful and contemptuous person in general. that disdain and contempt certainly includes the Chinese - which was an off-putting and distancing thing to experience when reading a travelogue concerning China. at times it really got to me and i found myself disdainful and contemptuous of the author in return. he began to drive me up the wall with - as another reviewer notes - his r
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Lara Messersmith-Glavin
This book exhausted me. 450 pages of train rides, blurred landscapes, glib conversations, and Paul Theroux's relentlessly consistent authorial voice throughout, cramming in detail after detail from a year-long journey throughout China in 1987; it became a reading challenge more than a pleasure.

I wasn't about to get off the train in Heilongjiang, worn out around page 300, not because I was so riveted, but rather because I wanted to know if he would ever bring it all together, if his partial and
This is an account of over a year Theroux spent exploring China in the 1980s.He writes a very detailed account of every landscape,meal and conversation he had during that time [not quite but it sometimes feels that way!]. Theroux is not afraid to ask intrusive questions of anyone he meets and has a certain lack of tact about what subject to address ie, nothing stops him.He did find,however, that while the Chinese simply didn't answer if they didn't want to they were very open and candid in talki ...more
Oct 25, 2007 L.J. rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Travel readers
A gem of a book from Theroux. Having read several of his train travel books (and his paddling book in the South Pacific) I have not been disappointed with his travel narratives. Because the book takes place so many years ago it would be interesting to get a follow-up from him, but as for reading it now it is still a grand adventure through China to places most people are not exposed. I enjoyed his description of the South and the coastal area near Vietnam and was very interested in his experienc ...more
Patrick O'Connell
Want to understand China? Read this along with Peter Hessler's Rivertown and you will get a pretty good picture.

Unlike most travel writers, Theroux is cynical, and accordingly perhaps a little more insightful. Anne Tyler may have written "The Accidental Tourist", but Theroux is certainly the reluctant tourist.
Frank Noe
This is the book that inspired me to take the Trans-Siberian train, basically traveling from Berlin to Hong Kong by train, in 1990.

The core of the book discribes Paul's adventures spending nearly a year on the rails of China. I really enjoy his perceptions of people and local customs.
Theroux is a great American travel writer. This is one of my favorites of the many I have read. The Iron Rooster is a Chinese train that carries him deep into the back waters of China in the mid 80s. His descriptions are both acrid and humane. Go figure.
One of the best travel writers out there. Theroux makes you want to overturn your desk, light your cube on fire and turn in your company you can get into the world and LIVE!
Among the first inventions of the Chinese were such things as toilet paper (they were enamored with paper and in fact invented a paper armor consisting of pleats which were impervious to arrows), the spinning wheel, seismograph, steam engine (as early as 600 A.D.) and parachute hang gliders in 550-559 B.C. which they tested by throwing prisoners off towers. This same country, according to Paul Theroux in Riding the Iron Rooster, is driving many animals to extinction. The Chinese like to eat stra ...more
Richard Etzel
1982, half dozen years after the death of Mao, I hooked up with a farmers group Kansas on a cultural exchange to China. What an experience that I shall never forget. Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster brought back vivid memories of what I saw. We traveled from Shanghai to Beijing in 17 days by bus, train and air. He reminded me of the communes we visited, the schools, Freedom Stores (set up for tourists as a way to import foreign currencies used in trade with the rest of the world), factories, sm ...more
Dec 09, 2007 Adam rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: International Culture/China/ Travel people
If Rick Steves is your type of guide than this is not your book. Paul Theroux is the UN-romantic travel guide. Well he isn't really a guide. He is a man on a long vacation through Mongolia, China and Tibet. He is wonderful at telling stories within his book without making the book seem a collections of short stories. He suffers no fools and readily critques aspects of culture that he thinks are worthy of it. He does not hesistate to point out that sub standard education, or housing or even gover ...more
This book fits right in between Theroux's first travel book and his last. It's sarcastic and caustic, but not to the extent of The Great Railway Bazaar (fortunately). It's also informative and provides fascinating insight into China, but not to the extent of Dark Star Safari regarding Africa (unfortunately). Ultimately, though, it's a unique, geographically comprehensive account of China that is highly entertaining, very descriptive, and generally fascinating. The highlights are the descriptions ...more
We moved to China this year, largely ignorant of China's history, both recent and ancient. This book was incredibly eye-opening as to what the cultural revolution entailed, what it did to Chinese culture and people, and how much things have changed here since the book was written. Theroux captures the essence of China quite clearly for us. While he seems unlikeable or crabby at times, he is also very real and very clear about what travelers oftentimes must endure for the sake of a journey, of le ...more
T. Scott
Sep 14, 2007 T. Scott rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: other Theroux books
This isn't a travel book or just a book about China. It's a book about the pain in the ass that travel can be and the annoying, obnoxious, petty and unpleasant people you meet along the way. These are all the things that make the book (and most of his others) interesting. He doesn't leave out the boring parts in between. He's a little bit of a curmudgeon and can sometimes be downright mean. Every road isn't rocky however, and he gives you a real sense of place; you can almost smell it.
Made me want to take a long trip on a train. Theroux makes a lot of comments about China that may have been true at the time, but which don't seem to be that true now -- what a difference 20 years makes. This book was written right before the events of 1989 (published in 1988), so the political stuff is really fascinating -- to see people's thoughts and attitudes about government just prior to that horriffic time.
Justianna Birzin
I loved the way that China became geographically real to me while reading this book, and the fact that Paul Theroux refused to toe the party line during this trip in the early 80's. Anyone interested in what's happening to Tibetans can get a good sense of the problem in this book.
Theroux in China. As always, sprinkled with his reflections, more than travel.
Oct 02, 2014 Megan rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommended to Megan by: from the Little Free Libary
I was so excited to pick up this book because it is about a man's journey across Europe into China via rail. The author's travels took place in the 1980's and I was interested in learning more about China and seeing it through a visitor's eye, hopefully with some insight. I got halfway through the book, and just couldn't take it anymore. The author's ego is giant, he complains constantly about food and accommodation, and the worst part is that he is condescending towards his contemporary Chinese ...more
Steven Grimm
I didn't expect a travelogue like this to have a villain, but it does: the Cultural Revolution. The book was written in the mid-1980s and that period is perhaps the single most frequent topic of conversation with the various people Theroux meets in his travels. I was left more convinced than ever of how much lasting damage that horrible idea did to Chinese society.

Having been to a decent number of the places he visits, I found it fun to read what they were like a couple decades earlier, as well
I would summarise as a nice light read, however just over midway through I began to flag. Problem was at times the writing was very good but at other times it was quite repetitive and about 2/3 of the way in I began to feel Paul Theroux was continuing the journey for the sake of it. Certainly he seemed to have the kind of personality of doing things simply because you could (for example haggling with people with no intention of actually having a transaction). I also couldn’t stop my mind from wo ...more
The Iron Rooster is the name of just one train line; Theroux took them all, from London through Eastern Europe, Mongolia, China, and Tibet. A vast book (440+ pages), and deeply insightful into the Chinese mind at the beginning of the new political openness: Theroux talks to Party hacks, students, and everyone else who will subject themselves to his endless questions. He sets out, sort of, to disprove the inscrutability of the Chinese, and their saying “We can always fool a foreigner.” To his cha ...more
Troy Parfitt
It's a bit long, dry, and workmanlike in places, and not even one of Theroux's best travel narratives, yet it remains the best China travel narrative in existence. Even when the Medford, Mass. writer was only writing well, and not exceptionally well, he still managed to come out on top, at least in my view. This book also represents a great snapshot of China in the eighties, just after it had thrown off the insanity of the Mao years and before it had gone very far down the path of "socialism wit ...more
I love Paul Theroux's writing. Here is a sample. "It seems very odd that the Chinese are hired as architects and builders, since thier own buildings are so undistinguished, not to say monstrosities. It was rather as though Poland were exporting chefs, and Australia sending elocution teachers to England, and Americans running classes in humility or the Japanese in relaxation techniques."
In this book, he describes travel in China. He leaves with a group of people from London, and then spends most
Because this book was written not long after the Cultural Revolution ended, it is more about politics, people, and beliefs than other books I've read by Paul Theroux - not a bad thing, but a little more challenging to read. I would give this 4 1/2 stars if I could. The final segment in Tibet was a revelation - a unique experience in China that puts much of the rest of the book into perspective. Definitely worth reading!
Mike Barker
My first book by Theroux. Enjoyed it a lot, compared to some of the drivel I fall asleep with. I felt like the book didn't really hit its stride, however, until the last chapter, when the author spent lots of time on his travel into Tibet. It was only then that he spent any amount of time on any one situation or cast of characters. I enjoyed some of the books by Ian Frazier more. Frazier, I felt, dwelt on his travels better, and let me develop empathy for the folks whom he encountered along the ...more
Barry Bailey
A wonderful book - I think you should read it. But I'll let the book recommend itself.

Page 402:
"We are all Chinese brothers," Mr Wei said.
"Then why the trenches and foxholes?"
"Because sometimes they shoot at us," Mr Wei said.


Page 478:
The snow represents holiness and purity to the Tibetians, whose glissading spirits need this symbol of innocence to prove they are still free: such snowy mountains are proof of God's existence.
Probably not the China of today, but Theroux's account of his year-long train odyssey crisscrossing that country in the 1980's is an in-depth picture of the people he met and the countryside he saw. He has all-consuming curiousity and is not afraid to ask any question that comes to his mind. This trait results in tidbits throughout the book that make human the people we meet. Westerners are introduced to a population that is just coming out of the Cultural Revolution masterminded by Mao and now ...more
I had thought somehow I'd missed reading this one of Theroux's, but the final chapter of visiting Tibet (by car, there was no train a generation ago as there is now) was familiar enough that I realized I had. Still, though a bit dated, it proved interesting in his observations about the Chinese; he was a bit less ... snide than I recall him from other books.
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Paul Edward Theroux is an American travel writer and novelist, whose best known work is The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), a travelogue about a trip he made by train from Great Britain through Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, through South Asia, then South-East Asia, up through East Asia, as far east as Japan, and then back across Russia to his point of origin. Although perhaps best know ...more
More about Paul Theroux...
The Great Railway Bazaar Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town The Mosquito Coast The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

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“On that trip it was my good fortune to be wrong; being mistaken is the essence of the traveler's tale.” 0 likes
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