Bill's Reviews > Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux
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's review
Jun 19, 09

really liked it
Read in June, 2009

Thirty years ago Theroux took the Orient Express and many other trains from London to the Far East and returned. That trip was captured in The Great Railway Bazaar, which made his reputation. Now he is repeating the trip and recording his experiences in the Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Theroux travels alone, he considers himself to be a ghost. Like ghosts he is revisiting his past life and also like ghosts he is not noticed. He says,

"Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen.

Ghosts have all the time in the world, another pleasure of long-distance aimlessness-traveling at half speed on slow trains and procrastinating."

The essence of travel writing is reporting what you see, hear and, possibly your reaction to new places. Theroux goes further, the reader learns almost as much about him as is learned about the locations he visits. We quickly learn that his first trip was a disaster. He was gone for six months and had little money. Rather than exploring new venues, he drowned his loneliness in whatever bars were available. Communications were difficult, there were no cell phones. When he returned he found that his wife had taken a lover and a difficult divorce followed. He has since happily remarried.

This was a 20.000 mile trip through France, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Viet Nam, China, Japan and Russia. Wherever possible, Theroux traveled by train no matter how crowded, slow, old and dirty they were. Because no train was available, he took a bus or a plane a few times.

During the 30 year interval, Theroux became an established writer with more than 40 books, fiction and non-fiction, to his credit. His reputation helped. Frequently he was asked to lecture and he was able to meet with other world class authors like Pamuk in Turkey and Arthur C. Clarke, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in Sri Lanka.

Many travel writers who are being paid by the very resorts, cruise lines and locations they are writing about have a rule: say nothing bad about your host. Theroux, who was traveling independently, ghostlike, avoids this rule. He did not like India, too many highly energetic people. He was appalled by the call centers in Mumbai and Bangalore. He could not understand the Laotian and Burmese people who were so willing to endure harsh dictatorships.

On the other hand he liked being in Viet Nam. The young people he met were born after 1973, the last year of the war, and had no personal memory of the conflict. Older Vietnamese remembered the war but held no animosity against Americans.

Theroux also liked northern Japan, Sapporo and the Hokkaido Island. It was winter with lots of snow, quiet, and unlike southern Japan, there were very few people.

Was Theroux faithful on the trip? He says so and was very lonely and anxious to see his wife. Nevertheless, he likes the seamy sides of towns, was solicited by numerous women and seemed to go out of his way to find them.

After flying from Niigata, Japan to Vladivostok, Theroux tired of the entire concept. Vladivostok was particularly dreary and cold. From there, he took the Trans Siberian Express to Moscow stopping only in Perm. It housed one of oldest gulag prisons and provided Theroux an extensive opportunity to comment on Russia's extremely repressive and torturous history.

He quickly arrives in Berlin where he is warm for the first time since Japan. Then it is onto Paris and London. Theroux concludes with,

"It's true that travel is the saddest of pleasures, the long-distance overland blues."

"Most people on earth are poor. Most places are blighted and nothing will stop the blight from getting worse. Travel gives you a glimpse of the past and the future, your own and other people's."

"But there are too many people and an enormous number of them spend their hungry days thinking of America as the Mother Ship. I could be a happy Thai, but there is no way on earth that I am less suited to living than that of an Indian, rich or poor. Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. Politicians are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed. Is there hope, Yes. Most people I'd met, in chance encounters, were strangers who helped me on my way. And we lucky ghosts can travel wherever we want. The going is still good, because arrivals are departures."


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