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Riding the Iron Rooster

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  8,432 ratings  ·  333 reviews
Paul Theroux invites you to join him on the journey of a lifetime, in the grand romantic tradition, by train across Europe, 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 1988)
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Average rating 4.02  · 
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 ·  8,432 ratings  ·  333 reviews

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mark monday
May 26, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: guidebooks
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
Dec 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Oct 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: world, 4-star-reads
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
A year in China in the mid 1980's. Pretty much if the train went there, so did Theroux.
He is a cynical man, who generally dislikes more than he likes, but he manages to describe fantastically what it is he doesn't like!
I enjoyed this more than The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express, although they are very similar in style.
The first chapter was enough to convince me I would enjoy this book. It tells of Theroux joining a group tour from London to China by train. Why he ever though
Missy J
"...any travel book revealed more about the traveller than it did about the country."

For the 3rd consecutive year, I have made it a point to read one Paul Theroux travel book at the beginning of the year. On Goodreads, there are many unfavorable reviews who criticize that Theroux is judgmental and consistently disparaging his co-travelers and the places he visits. Funny enough, I don't get that impression at all. I find that Theroux writes very honestly and doesn't want to romanticize the places
Jan 12, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Nov 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel
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
Patrick O'Connell
Aug 02, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
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!
Dec 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 13, 2014 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Megs 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
T. Scott
Sep 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Frank Noe
Aug 27, 2007 rated it really liked it
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.
May 31, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
Sairam Krishnan
Apr 12, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would; I say this because I have read Theroux before, and found him insufferable. But this is a different book, and this is a different journey, and I was happy to travelling with him this time.

Theroux is a very good writer, and blends (some) banality and (a lot of beauty) in his sentences, making this book excellent travel writing of a sort that is not really written anymore - unromantic, straightforward, and full of adventures and hairy stories.

Richard Etzel
Jul 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fictional, travel
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 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, travel, china
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
Aug 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 03, 2007 rated it liked 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. ...more
Oct 14, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel
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. ...more
Justianna Birzin
May 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Aug 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
Not a regular genre. Current picture of people in China in different geographic areas. There are significant differences in food, outlook and culture. China is not a monolithic culture.
Enjoyed this immensely. Increased my interest in other Theroux books.
Sorin Hadârcă
China by train is educational but uninspiring. I got the meaning of a hundred of Chinese Ha-Ha! but still wouldn't jump aboard that train. Except for Tibet. The last chapter outweighed the rest of the book. ...more
Jan 20, 2008 rated it liked it
Theroux in China. As always, sprinkled with his reflections, more than travel.
Emi Bevacqua
Jun 19, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, asia, travel
Book would have been so much better if author wasn't so incredibly full of himself. ...more
magdalena dyjas
it could've been a brilliant book, but unfortunately I've found it extremely patronising... ...more
Alex Kudera
Aug 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A few hours later, the insomnia kicked in, and I polished off the final nine pages.
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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

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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.” 1 likes
“Like most Hong Kongers I had met, they were complete provincials, with laughable pretensions. Was it the effect of colonialism? They were well fed and rather silly and politically naive. In some ways Hong Kong was somewhat like Britain itself: a bunch of offshore islands with an immigrant problem, a language barrier and a rigid class system.” 0 likes
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