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Phương Đông lướt ngoài cửa sổ

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Với Paul Theroux, những chuyến tàu phương Đông giống như những phiên chợ hấp dẫn ông với vẻ tràn trề hương vị và màu sắc, bởi nét bí ẩn, lạ lùng không sao lý giải. Ông đã lên những chuyến tàu ấy, bốn tháng trời đi khắp châu Á, để vẽ nên từng mảnh ghép trên bức tranh phương Đông rộng lớn: Thổ Nhĩ Kỳ với nền văn hóa đặc sắc cùng ẩn ức về giới tính, Afganistan trong cơn bất ổn, Ấn Độ long lanh đền đài nhưng nghèo đói và hoang đường, Singapore ngăn nắp đến từng li, Thái Lan dậy mùi giải trí và tình dục, Nhật Bản tiện nghi nhưng con người dường như đã thành cỗ máy...

Ông cũng ghé đến Việt Nam, lên con tàu băng qua đèo Hải Vân, ngỡ ngàng nhận ra trong suốt cuộc hành trình, đây là vùng đất của những cảnh tượng thiên nhiên thơ mộng nhất...

Ngòi bút của ông đã khiến Châu Á hiện ra như có thể chạm vào, nếm được, ngửi thấy, và khơi dậy trong ta nỗi thôi thúc một ngày bỏ xa cuộc sống nhàm nhạt quen thuộc, đeo hành lý và nhảy lên một con tàu nào đó, để nếm trải mọi thanh âm của cuộc sống bao la.

548 pages, Paperback

First published August 1, 1975

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About the author

Paul Theroux

284 books2,223 followers
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 known as a travelogue writer, Theroux has also published numerous works of fiction, some of which were made into feature films. He was awarded the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Mosquito Coast.

He is the father of Marcel and Louis Theroux, and the brother of Alexander and Peter. Justin Theroux is his nephew.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,082 reviews
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,687 followers
January 3, 2010
Paul Theroux...you are a miserable bastard.

On every excruciating page of this around Europe and Asia whine-fest, I wanted to shake your self-righteous little New England prick shoulders and beat some enjoyment into your crabby-bastardness.

The trains are late or crowded or smelly -- waaaaah!

The food is crappy or elsewhere or non-existent -- waaaaah! waaaaah!

The service is poor or sarcastic or requiring bribes (sorry..."baksheesh." Boy are you ever cool and in the know) -- waaaaah! waaaaah! fucking waaaaah!

Get over it, Paul. You left your family for a four month excursion on the railways of the world, a trip I would die to experience, and you're busy pissing and moaning about having to experience the very thing you were on the tracks to experience -- life.

Where is your joy? Where is your excitement at hanging out with literary cats that are far more talented than you? Where's your sense of adventure? Wrapped up in the fucking books you were reading, that's where. How could you sit through Afghanistan and Russia and everywhere else with your nose in Dickens, shunning all but the most obnoxious Anglo-Saxon company? How?! (the answer probably has something to do with the fact that you're a Dickens fan, actually, but I digress).

I can't believe that The Great Railway Bazaar -- this piece of excruciating chauvinistic, Cold War, holier-than-thou trash -- is one of the essential works of travel literature. But it is. And I suppose that's why you're Paul Theroux, and I'm not.

Silly me for thinking that travel literature was supposed to be about the the joy of flirting with something beyond my experience, enjoying other people enjoying life, but what do I know? I haven't traveled on the rails of the world like you have. Maybe the whole world does suck, just as you say, and the only good travel literature is that which is misanthropic.

If that's the case, Mr. Theroux...YOU are the master.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,052 reviews578 followers
September 16, 2022
I’ve been hearing about Theroux for years and yet had never read one of books. The idea of reading about a man journeying alone was something I couldn’t quite settle to. Would it be tedious and repetitious? Perhaps it’d be like delving into one of those dry guidebooks we’ve all taken with us to a foreign city – lots of information but very little pleasure? In the end curiosity got the better of me and I grabbed an audio copy of perhaps his best known book.

Set in 1973 (but released in 1975) it tells the story of his travels to and across Asia. It’s really a collection of episodes, the focus of which is on the trains, the passengers - many of whom he engages in discourse – and the railway stations. We actually learn precious little of the cities he visits.

It had been my intention to stay on the train, without bothering about arriving anywhere; sightseeing

There is a secondary purpose to the travel as he eludes to a number of lectures he delivers in various cities along the way, though no background to or coverage of these events is included.

The train journeys are mostly long affairs and he has booked sleeping cars which he’s usually required to share with a mixed bag of companions. The accounts of these encounters and those with others he meets along the way are often hilarious, with Theroux recounting whole conversations (though I wonder how accurately) with a dry humour that had me laughing out loud. He paints vivid pictures of some memorable characters he met along the way.

We follow his journey from London and across Europe and then through much of Asia. The section of the journey I enjoyed most was his travel through India, which takes up the central part of the book. The whole thing takes on a slight Wicker’s World feel as each place seems wilder and each character wackier than the last. There’s a bit of historical information thrown in but it’s really about the conversations he has and of him recording his instant impression of the places he visits. Of the northern city of Simla he reflects.

It is the Empire with a dark complexion

Somehow Theroux manages to make each stage of the journey feel fresh and different, despite the obvious self-limitations. He writes with erudition and humour and I can’t help thinking he’d be a great guy to share a meal and a few drinks with. I’ll certainly be back to sample more of his work.

A quick note on the audio version I listened to. Frank Muller is superb as narrator of this book, with his pacing and phrasing seeming to draw the best out of Theroux’s words. My only niggle is the very strange Indian accent he deployed though, in truth, it didn’t impinge on my enjoyment.

Finally, I owe thanks to Elyse for helping me to identify that this was a book I should read (or, in fact, listen to).
Profile Image for W.
1,185 reviews4 followers
December 19, 2020
This was my first Paul Theroux book. It was good fun,though it was a bit uneven. He has a good sense of humor.

He is not the most politically correct writer,though I wasn't particularly offended by him,as many readers seem to be.

He also has a tendency to report too much on his mundane conversations with fellow travelers. There is not much exploration of the places he visits.

This travelogue is from the 1970s,and is supposedly a travel classic. He passes through a number of countries,but for me the most interesting part of this book is his trip to Pakistan.

About Peshawar of that era,he writes that he liked it so much that could spend all his life there. High praise indeed ! Wonder what he would think of today's Peshawar.

He avoids Baluchistan province in Pakistan,as tribesmen were fighting there then,they are still fighting even now. He skips Afghanistan,it was in turmoil then,it is still in turmoil all those years later.

His trip to Lahore also has its share of interesting observations about Pakistani street life.He even gets offers for girls on the streets of Lahore.

I also agreed with his description of Singapore,which has made so much progress,but very strictly controls its people,through repressive laws.

He also travels through Russia,but feels disconnected with it,overawed by its vastness. In Japan's speedy bullet trains,he longs for the more leisurely pace of the sub-continental railways,which allow for a better appreciation of the landscape.

I was reminded of my own train journeys,long ago, while reading this book. It is indeed a mode of travel that has a charm all its own own.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
243 reviews26 followers
May 16, 2008
oh dear, yes, he's observant and turns a pretty phrase on every page, makes you laugh, etc. but he's so contemptuous of everyone he comes across i lost interest. skipped all the trains between india and the soviet union. he really loses it at the end and addresses all the russians he meets on the trans siberian railway as monkeys. granted, i have now been in a similar situation, far from home in bleak surroundings at christmastime, like theroux on the trans siberian, homesick and irritated by everything and everyone, even contemptuous, but i can't imagine writing as theroux does, with no apology or introspection. the book seems a historical record of the traveling american's gaze of superiority.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
973 reviews1,198 followers
April 21, 2020
It's the author's brother, encyclopaedic experimental novelist Alexander Theroux, who's revered among people I know on Goodreads. In their shadow, I've been conscious of the middlebrow-ness of aiming to read Alexander's younger sibling first - and Alexander would agree with that characterisation. But Paul Theroux is another of the authors mentioned in the 1994 Divine Comedy album track The Booklovers; since it was released, I'd intended to read at least one book by each of them, something I'm now belatedly trying to finish. And before joining GR, the Theroux I heard about most often was Louis, the TV presenter. (I'm not sure I knew Alexander even existed.) Along with Malcolm Bradbury, Richard Brautigan and Gore Vidal - all of whom I read in the second half of 2019 - Paul Theroux was one of the authors from the song whose work seemed least essential, and whom over the last 26 years, I'd heard talked about least - but who also promised a lighter read than the most venerable classics. I hadn't even known where to start with Paul Theroux until the last decade, when Goodreads listings, and then a library copy of The Great Railway Bazaar as a Penguin Classic, made it clear which of his books was best known.

I am surprised TGRB achieved the popularity it did, as the author is a right grumpy sod for much of the book. This clearly grates with some GR members, judging by the most popular reviews. But I could sympathise with him, even if nearly 400 pages of grouchiness is a bit much. (250 would have been okay.) I like people-watching and fleeting superficial acquaintance, but am picky about whom I get to know; I find anyone interesting provided it's at sufficient distance or in small enough dose. Not terms in which Paul Theroux describes himself, but ones which mean I can instinctively understand why he might spend months on crowded trains with people he often seems to have found irritating. It is hard to explain effectively to those of the mindset 'either enjoy nearly everything, or don't go'. He doesn't say in so many words that, at heart, he doesn't enjoy roughing it, but his prickliness in grubby locales where one has to shower by squatting under a pipe, contrasted with his utter delight at discovering a plush pre-revolutionary Russian compartment all to himself, hints strongly. Some people are prepared to have, and even value, these experiences despite not loving them and probably being a bit of a moan about them. With all my memories of involuntarily sleep-deprived nights in youth hostel dorms - kept awake too late by noisy people and hard mattresses, and cold from insufficient coverings, awoken too early by piercing light - on holidays I am so glad I went on, relieved I was on my own so I didn't have to try and make conversation in the days, I think I can see where he was coming from.

However, I don't think Theroux expressed enough enthusiasm and fascination until his paeans to the landscapes of rural Vietnam and of a Siberian December, both late in the book. Along the way a few things stood out as particularly interesting: certain buildings, encounters (such as a chance meeting on a train with a Japanese professor of English literature) or ridiculous events (again like something out of satire, and which Theroux himself finds deeply dubious: a multi-day American literature seminar in famine-ravaged Ceylon, at which ticket holders are bribed - with food - to still attend despite the unfolding disaster, and stuff themselves silly). But there mostly isn't the daily shift between "it was wonderful to see this place" to "now I'm stuck with these arseholes again" that would make more sense of the irritations of the trip, at least to me; there is instead a lot of low-level peevishness throughout, without many breaks. This Penguin edition ends with a sample first chapter of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008), in which Theroux retraces more or less the same journey 33 years later (twice his age in TGRB). It also functions as an afterword, explaining the writing of TGRB, and what I am calling its peevishness.

Some of the criticisms are, nonetheless, very interesting, and he gives a partial snapshot of political conditions in Asia in 1973 - a time which, when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, fell into the gap of being too long ago to be mentioned in the news, but was still too recent to be history, and which, therefore, I never learnt about by osmosis. When I picked this book back up again in April (it is, incidentally, much better read in warm weather; it wouldn't suit winter at all until the last chapter) Theroux was heading for Iran. I'd just finished 2020 International Booker shortlisted The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, a magic-realist novel about the hardships of an intelligentsia family in post-1979 Iran. It was rather fascinating to go from that to Theroux's clear hints of repression under the Shah, and the visual tackiness and conspicuous oil wealth of early 1970s Tehran. He has almost nothing good to say about Afghanistan and its inhabitants, but between the exasperation and insults, one can learn that, following the 1973 coup it rapidly became expensive, so that even the cheap, druggy first-world hippies who used to flock there are put off the place. It's Vietnam that was repeatedly described as "beleaguered" here, in the early 70s, but in the 21st century one would apply that word instead to Afghanistan. Now, Theroux's rants sound like one of the book's worst instances of kicking somewhere when it's down. (White hippies are a perennial sight throughout his journey, and made to sound universally annoying, even more so than other groups of people; the view of them is very similar to that in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 1975 Booker winner Heat and Dust. I daresay many hippies were equally dismissive of the old people of the literary establishment.)

Further east, Theroux revisits Singapore, where he lived a few years earlier (and where his son Louis Theroux was born). As the UK and US centre-left press often goes easy on the Singaporean regime, eliding its judicial harshness in sweeping statements about neoliberal economics, Theroux's criticism of its brutality seemed needed here, to the 21st century reader. A couple of times I've asked acquaintances why they wanted to live and work there despite the repression, and they had barely even thought about that side of it. (The underlying answer is obviously the money.) For the first time a while, I'd read something that really justified the question. Theroux's brief visit to Laos elicits only sleaze (a reminder of something he'd said that this book contributed to his divorce) - a shame when the country is so little known, at least to those of us too young to remember the Vietnam was, and also has some beautiful buildings. Less surprisingly, he mentions that Thailand is - already, in the early 70s - known as a destination for western sex tourists, though his own visit is more varied and cultured. Sexual culture continues as a theme in Japan: spectacles of violent sex - in live shows, classical art or manga - watched by well-mannered audiences, are made to sound more extreme and more ubiquitous even than they did during the West's 1990s phase of Japanophilia I absorbed in my teens and early twenties. Had Japan toned down, or had the UK media's descriptions, in the intervening 25 years? That era left me with some interest in Japan, though not as much as some of my contemporaries - and perhaps that's why I thought Theroux made Japan sound fascinating, and made me again want to visit, although he didn't enjoy the combination of plastic hypermodernism, unsettling culture and preservation of tradition: "a lengthy charge sheet that proves the Japanese work in the twentieth century and live in an earlier one". For me, another cultural hangover from the 1990s is that I *still* haven't read Yukio Mishima, an author frequently referenced by a few indie rock stars whose interviews I pored over as a teenager. It's something I hope to finally put right soon, and so it was interesting seeing the literature professors and Theroux compare their impressions of the then recently-deceased author, as he was seen in Japan and the West respectively.

I brought up the subject of Yukio Mishima, whose suicide had appalled his Western readers but apparently had given relief to many Japanese, who saw in him dangerous imperial tendencies. They seemed to regard him the way an American would regard, say, Mary McCarthy, if she were a vocal Daughter of the American Revolution.
I said I thought Mishima seemed to be basing his novels on Buddhist principles. ‘His Buddhism is false – very superficial,’ said Professor Kishi. ‘He was just dabbling in it.’ Mr Shigahara said, ‘It doesn’t matter. The Japanese don’t know anything about Buddhism, and Mishima didn’t feel it.
‘I had that feeling,’ I said. ‘He believes in reincarnation, so presumably he expects to be back pretty soon.’ ‘I hope not!’ said Professor Kishi. ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, I really hope not. I hope he stays where he is.’ ‘Example of Japanese humour!’ said Mr Iwayama. ‘Brack humour!’ said Professor Miyake.

(As rude as it now seems, you will need to put up with a lot of that sort of transliteration of accents, if you read this.)

There is, as might be expected from an American writer making this journey in the 1970s, a substantial account of his visit to Vietnam, much of it overseen by government officials keen to promote tourism, although the internal civil war was not yet over. Americans would be stunned how little it's possible to know about Vietnam - beyond a few war films, key nouns and images - and still appear well-informed in Britain. There was lots here I'd never had to think about before: the half-American children left behind (did many trace their dads?); the scattering of American deserters, vagrants and layabouts who hadn't gone home yet; the succession of invasions and wars that had plagued the region since it was colonised as French Indochina; the physical ruination; the effect of Americans on the culture in so many ways. Making it even more poignant, some of the places he visited and rail lines he travelled on in December 1973 had been already destroyed by the time of his footnote written in April 1975.

The snobbery, and attitudes tinged with unwitting colonial imperialism, wouldn't have surprised me in the least in a British book from the 1950s, no time at all since many countries around the world gained independence from the European empires, or if it were by an older writer. But Theroux was 32-34, and we tend to characterise the 1970s differently. Also because The Great Railway Bazaar is slotting into another reading challenge, category "A book from the decade you were born", that makes it feel temporally closer and the attitudes more surprising. (And it makes me feel old.) Though 1973, when Theroux made this journey, was still a lot closer to the date of Indian independence than 2020 is to 1973. For some reason I'd thought that an American, even an Anglophile American, might want to distance himself from all this and think of these countries as fellow former colonies of Britain - but he sounds much like someone who'd grown up around "old India hands" etc. And many of those actual people were still working and ageing in Asia at this time. He meets a lot of men attached to colonial ways of working, whether expat staff in trad imperial-style concerns like rubber plantations, or Asian middle-class businessmen and academics travelling between or in the countries he visits. The frame of reference is noticeably old-fashioned now, and at times Theroux comes out with metaphors of staggering, hilarious inappropriateness: "I went to my compartment and lay down, like a Hindu widow on a pyre, resigned to suttee". If there's Accidental Partridge, this is Accidental Chris Morris. However, everyone's lingering attachment to the manners and motifs of Empire shouldn't, perhaps, have surprised me so much, as only a couple of months earlier, I'd read Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter (1981) in which the Senegalese feminist protagonist sees Westernisation, and replicating the education system and laws of the French, as the greatest hope for her daughters and African women in general. It's an unambiguous view of progress and the West, when compared with the 21st century rejection of various tenets of colonialism, especially in the arts and literary theory.

The finale of Siberian landscapes at Christmas, and especially that first chapter of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star rendered The Great Railway Bazaar far more emotionally rewarding than it had been for much of its length. The mature self-awareness and honesty in the older Theroux - about travel in general, and that he had written up TGRB in a state of rage after returning to a troubled marriage, both parties having been unfaithful during his absence - is the sort of reflection on a person's younger self I want to read; he admits that a large part of the fault was his and that he was "an angry brute". No word yet on why he was in so much debt ($20k would have been a heck of a lot in 1973) but presumably the success of TGRB paid off much of it. I get the feeling Ghost Train could also now be read as an elegy to pre-Brexit, pre-credit crunch travel, as well as the author's reflection on the 1970s, and I rather want to read it. (Though not sure when I'd fit it in.) That chapter wouldn't have made nearly so much sense without reading TGRB, and for that I'm pleased I did. It seemed strange to say, looking back, that he'd tried to make TGRB a "jolly" book - but it was popular in its day, and presumably critics described it thus. It is certainly flippant and dismissive, and that is a certain sort of British humour (for which, as I've realised, you will generally not be liked if you try it and don't have the knack for it).

I'm not sure I'd recommend this to many friends who haven't already read it, and I can't see it keeping its classic status for many more decades, but there are fans out there of 19th-20th century travel writing, and if you are one of those and can relate to a grumpy traveller, you might get something out of it. At least it is, sometimes, a fascinating snapshot of the post-colonial, post-WWII world.

(read Jan- April 2020; reviewed April 2020)
Profile Image for Jeremy Allan.
204 reviews38 followers
May 29, 2013
So Paul Theroux takes a trip from Paris to Japan and back, all on the railroad (with some minor air and sea deviations), seeing the world in all its sundry chaos on the way. I couldn't have been more excited to start this book when I did, being a lover of train travel (mostly without the opportunity to express that love), and curious about all these places he had visited--Afghanistan, Siberia, Vietnam, India, Singapore, many more--that I would like to visit and still have not had the chance. So yes, I was full of happy anticipation as I sat down to read The Great Railway Bazaar, this book sure to be full of just the kinds of things I wanted to read about. Anticipation breeds disappointment, however, and I should have proceeded more warily.

Theroux has all the right ingredients as a writer: the power of observation, a sense of pace, a certain grace in his prose, a sense of style. I was surprised, though, when these didn't add up to a narrative that felt in any way fair to its subject. Thirty pages in, I found myself asking, "Where are the cultures themselves? Where is the richness? What am I learning here?" What I felt missing, throughout the book, was any kind of generosity. The Theroux-Narrator crosses the frontiers of culture, observes cooly, and mostly finds fault. Nearly everything is pitifully lacking in his eyes, nearly every person encountered is in some way inferior. His most joyous moments are when he manages to get a comfortable compartment to himself, or when he finds a cozy spot to reenact his habits from home. Is there anything inherently wrong with this? Perhaps not. But what we get from it is a book that tells so terribly little about the world it is meant to traverse. Instead, we get the image of a dissatisfied and unlikeable traveler, who lives to leave, to move on, to make an account of comforts experienced, and almost always in the negative. Of course there are traces of what I had originally hoped for, a bit of discovery: his various accounts of landscapes are worth reading, for example. Also, the travails of the constant traveller are instructive, sometimes humorous, such as his never-ending search for food in a world that seems bent on making it difficult. And anyone who has travelled even a few days will accept that some criticism is to be expected, if not needed, even, for the book to be honest.

However, there is a limit to how much we can live with one man's perpetual displeasure. This book ends up being much less about the railway bazaar itself and much more about the narrator. He describes himself scantily, but we come to know him all the same. He is the miserly, introverted dilettant who makes little fuss over what is grand and yet flourishes over his annoyances. Everything is bizarre to him, if not downright backward, and all he wishes is to get moving, right to the point where it makes him sick. It's the sensation of running, forever, from his own dissatisfaction, that's what we're left with: an unfair and disappointing catalogue, if a well-written one, of his extended flight. This may please some readers, but I had hoped for more. If I have to spend a few hundred pages crammed in a railway compartment with a fellow traveler, can't I expect him to be a little more pleasant?

(One caveat: I clearly love a good critique. The Great Railway Bazaar is not that either.)
Profile Image for Kavita.
760 reviews370 followers
May 7, 2017
The book is an account of a journey through Europe and Asia by train. The concept is good, and the author made a great journey, and has the gift of story telling. But the author himself comes across as a stupid, rude and horrible person who abuses random people, makes snide remarks, plays practical jokes on helpful locals, and in general appears quite slap-worthy.

He mostly behaves himself in the first half of the book, but on reaching Japan, he becomes a perfect pest. Giving away gifts that would not work, calling people 'monkeys' is NOT a way to endear himself to the readers. He asks very rude questions with the aim of making the other person uncomfortable. For example, there is this account of how he ridicules a doctor who sold blood to pay for his medical school. Was that supposed to be funny?

And then the racist / imperialist tendencies show quite clearly. I might overlook it in a novel of the 20s, not one of the 70s. American excuses for the Vietnam war, obvious disgust with hippies, anti-Russian sentiment, implying that Japanese politicians strive to be like Churchill but would never achieve it, are more examples of the author's stupidity. Why should a Japanese politician aspire to be like Churchill anyway?

The author's ridiculous behaviour spoilt what could have been a great novel. At the very least, he could have made some effort to keep his disgusting behaviour out of the book. And we certainly don't need to know how much drunk he got every single day.

I had intended to buy the sequel to this book originally, but I somehow don't think I will now.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
December 31, 2013
I started out liking this book, but the author started to grate on my nerves. He took an amazing trip on trains from Europe to Turkey to Iran through Asia including Thailand, Japan, and Siberia. For a large portion of his journey, he is following the "hippie trail," popular in the 1960s and 1970s for people traveling from England to India. But his tone and commentary on the people he meets were not always the kindest. In fact he seemed rather uninterested in talking to anyone who wasn't already like him, but only wrote about the people who weren't!

He does mention why trains are perfect settings for conversations with strangers:

"The conversation, like many others I had with people on trains, derived an easy candor from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again. The railway was a fictor's bazaar, in which anyone with the patience could carry away a memory to pore over in privacy."

Still, it isn't as if you can board one train to see all these places, and I enjoyed reading about how the train itself changed as the country did. This is in 1973, and a lot of political upheaval has happened since then, so I'm still looking forward to reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star where he revisits the same journey 30 years later. I'm hoping I'll find that he has matured too, but I'm not crossing my fingers.

In an interview on NPR, Theroux talks about how this train trip was one of the elements in his first marriage ending. Within the book he only mentions his wife once that I can remember, and perhaps I should have suspected something from her absence.

Examples of his racial stereotypes:
"Money pulls the Iranian in one direction, religion drags him in another, and the result is a stupid starved creature for whom woman is only meat."

"...The commissar and the monk meeting as equals on the common ground of indolent and smiling unhelpfulness. Nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen."
Profile Image for Reid.
895 reviews60 followers
December 21, 2010
Whereas this appears on the surface to be the story of one man taking trains around Asia, it is more an exploration of Theroux's own internal wanderlust. It is also fascinating to today's readers since it was written in 1975 and so much has changed since then, though perhaps most insistent is the fact that so much has not.

It is a source of some head-scratching that Theroux generally eschews the investigation of any of the places he travels through, no matter how fascinating they may be. He has clearly made the choice to be a "traveler through" rather than a "traveler to"; the journey is the destination for him, and the only destination. His fascination is with this movement and with the people he meets in transit. He has a wonderful eye and ear, and his somewhat acid pen serves him well in his descriptions of them. But his selectiveness is somewhat disturbing, especially in the short shrift he gives to all of the (then) Soviet Union, a 6000-mile train trip that earns a scant 40 pages in a book of nearly 350. On the other hand, Theroux makes it clear from the start that this is a very personal book and more monologue than travelogue. He will take on no obligation to guide you through the lands he visits.

As I have noted before in a review of a Theroux travel book, he is a rather discontented traveler, not at all what one would call the cheerful transient. Sometimes he seems to be trying a bit too hard to be crusty and hard-bitten, with his swilling of liquor, his lusting after women, and his chomping on stogies. He is at his most interesting when he is being intrepid rather than standoffish, curious rather than insular, engaging rather than isolated. Overall, though, this was a satisfying read, and recommended for all those who like a well-written travel yarn.
Profile Image for Andrea.
435 reviews152 followers
February 1, 2017

In theory nothing is more romantic than a long voyage aboard a train. In reality you tend to get yourself into strange situations, meet questionable characters, occasionally starve, and be left to your own devices and demons for days at a time, while you bob gently in solitude along the endless tracks. This is a travelogue of just such a voyage.

The biggest complaint from others I noticed with this book is apparent negativity and rudeness displayed by the author as he traverses through Central and East Asia to Japan, and making a return trip through Russia. I really didn't find his manner off-putting, but rather realistic. He doesn't subscribe to the romance of train travel (though confesses his unbound love for it in the very beginning), but rather looks at the world through a clear lens. While witnessing poverty and anti-sanitary conditions in India he describes them just so. While seeing a beautiful landscape in Vietnam, he makes sure to give it its due.

His conversations with fellow passengers might sound snooty sometimes, but I didn't think them offensive. There was no particular distinction between his treatment of locals and his fellow countrymen. I find it curious that during his journey he got to explore sexuality in the culture of various countries: from shady pimps of India to ladyboys of Thailand, and pornographic scrolls of Japan to repressed sexual tension of Islam. Some of his stories are comical (like his endeavors to ditch a strange train companion in Russia), and some are tragic (the vignettes of futile attempts by Vietnamese government to attract tourism at the end of the war). I find Theroux a little cynical, yet sensitive to his surroundings, and more at ease with solitude than his fellow man. Great book.
Profile Image for Trudie.
526 reviews560 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned-on-hold'
November 13, 2017
I really want to take this exact 1975 series of train journeys - I mean who wouldn't - The Orient Express , The Golden Arrow , The Trans-Siberian but I can't even make it out of France with this obnoxious, Eurocentric, Chablis swilling, ..... I know its a travel classic but its terribly pretentious.
Abandoned for Bill Bryson.
Profile Image for Teresa.
1,492 reviews
February 8, 2017
Penso (pensava) que viajar é algo para viver, não para ler ou ouvir contar; por isso nunca me interessei por literatura de viagens. Mas como tenho um fraquinho por comboios, e muitos dos livros do Paul Theroux têm comboios nas capas, decidi escolher um para experimentar: O Grande Bazar Ferroviário que foi o primeiro relato de viagens de Theroux.
Partiu de Londres em Setembro de 1973 e regressou quatro meses depois. Diz, no Prefácio, que na sua ausência a mulher o trocou por outro: "«Fingi que estavas morto», disse ela." Gostei desta franqueza, que se mantém sempre ao longo do livro; diz sempre o que pensa (mal ou bem) quer dos lugares, quer das pessoas.
A viagem é feita quase toda em comboio - o Expresso do Oriente, o Flecha Negra, o Transiberiano e tantos mais - passando pela Turquia, Irão, Índia, Tailândia, Japão, Vietname, União Soviética e outros países asiáticos. Não visita os locais turísticos, e quase todo o relato paisagístico é sobre o que vê das janelas do comboio e nas estações onde faz o transbordo. A grande riqueza desta viagem assenta nos diálogos que Theroux estabelece com as dezenas de pessoas com que se cruza; os habitantes dos locais e outros passageiros.
Trinta anos depois, Theroux faz a mesma viagem, relatada em Comboio Fantasma para o Oriente. Não vou esperar tanto para voltar a viajar com ele...
Profile Image for Quo.
284 reviews
March 13, 2021
This is the book that began a sub-genre of travel writing, or so it seems. While there are many varieties of travel narratives, Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar takes the reader in a somewhat different direction, for this author's travel books are in many ways more self-reflective than they are descriptive of the places he is passing through. And with Theroux, there is always much more detail about the process of travel & about the passage through a country by train than about arrival or specific destinations. It seems that it began something like this:
I thought it would be unlucky to lie: a whiff of paranoia had made me superstitious. I told the man where I had been, naming countries; I said that I had been taking notes & that when I got back to England, I would write a book about the trip and call it The Great Railway Bazaar. And I went further, saying that as soon as he was out of sight, I would write down what he said, and that "the people are real nice & the weather was real bad" & I would describe his moustache.
Having ridden on quite a few of the same trains as Theroux & traveled by rail within many countries on six continents, I never seem to meet people who are anything but pleasant & interesting while en route, while Theroux seems so very often to be at odds with his fellow travelers. This tendency to seem misanthropic to the casual reader is indeed unfortunate but the author is a gifted commentator, at least for those who have the ability not to be distracted.

It may be that Theroux's hesitation to be more inclusive reflects some insecurity on his part but most of us who read his travel stories are not licensed to offer therapy. Instead, it is important that we merely attempt to envision the passing landscapes & the world within the dining cars & sleeping compartments as the author records them, not to pass judgment on the narrator. The fact is that there are many reasons why these very personal travel works have sold so well over 40 years.

For one thing, the names of the trains in this & other books are so evocative, including "The Frontier Mail", "The Mandalay Express", "The Khyber Pass Local", "The Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur" "The Hikari Super Express to Kyoto", names as suggestive of exotic destinations as the tags from steamships and grand hotels that once were placed on steamer trunks & heavy-duty luggage to be handled by liveried porters. And speaking of tags, one of the more memorable characters in any of Theroux's travel books is R. Duffill, with a listed address at the Splendid Palas Hotel, Istanbul, someone whose surname becomes a verb when he is left behind at a station en route during one of the rail links within The Great Railway Bazaar.

In some ways, Theroux is not a classic rail buff, someone who would journey half way around the globe to view & hopefully to ride a train headed by an old Garratt's steam engine. Rather, his vantage point is always that the journey is the goal, not the destination, not the specific conveyance (other than by train of course) & not necessarily the intersections with memorable folks met along the way, unless of course they are famous authors or people who just happen to be reading one of his books.

What I seem to enjoy most is the author's compilation of impressions that come with just being slowly transported from place to place, including the occasional frustrations, privations & miscues that occur when traveling in a 3rd world country. Travel memories often involve a compression of experiences, with the wondrous & the unfortunate moments usually remaining far more clearly in focus than any of the more routine happenings.

The very idea of leaving Victoria Station in London and engaging every possible connecting train to form a travel chain by rail across countless countries seems a worthwhile pursuit for least a few of us. How many flights do we take that hold special memories long after we disembark, perhaps because being lost in the clouds does not provide a similar sense of passage from place to place as does a journey by train. Here is just a hint of Theroux's rationale:
I was glad to be moving. It was the feeling that I had on the "Frontier Mail" & the "Direct Orient Express": the size, the great length of the train was a comfort. The longer the journey, the happier I was. The progress of the train did not interest me very much, as I preferred reading, eating in the dining car, sleeping after lunch & bringing my journal up to date in early evening & deciding where we were on the map. Train travel animated my imagination & usually gave me the solitude to order & write my thoughts: I traveled easily in 2 directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window and at the interior rim of a private world of memory & language. I cannot imagine a luckier combination.
If nothing else, Theroux takes us on board vicariously and the mention of books he is reading on various journeys, the names of some of the classic express trains & even the grungy locals stimulate us to follow in his path, even if we ultimately have very different experiences while en route and even if we never leave the comfort of our favorite lounge chair.
Profile Image for Matt.
13 reviews2 followers
June 21, 2016
Less a travel book and more a book about the physical act of travelling. Theroux has a refreshing lack of romance about the journey and the places he visits; most places are dirty, dull, unbearably hot or cold, and full of locals whose sole aim seems to be to rip him off. And although Theroux seems to enjoy very few of his stopovers, he feels compelled to travel and to sample these places. And as the book progresses, you feel the main aspect of the book change from a simple travel book to a more sophisticated portrait of a man with a weird obsession and a hankering for home.

Theroux's writing is always humorous and littered with snappy insights and literary interludes. But he never strays too far from the paradox of this book; Theroux has travelled so he could write the book, and written the book so that he could travel. And the result? An aimless meander through a strange world, above all honest and always entertaining, and without any of the myopic fascination of all things 'exotic' you might see in other travel books. Theroux sees and writes as it is; ugly and depressing, beautiful and life-affirming in equal measure.

A fantastic read.
Profile Image for Ilana.
606 reviews163 followers
December 14, 2018
In this 1975 bestseller, Paul Theroux, an American author, recounts his four-month journey by train in 1973 from London through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, ending in the Soviet Union. He mentions taking detailed notes in his journal, but there are so many vivid details about all the sights and sounds and especially the people he sees and talks to along the way that he must have enjoyed indulging in some fiction writing practices based on longstanding travel writing traditions, starting with Herodotus, and including countless others such as Dickens and Mark Twain, both of which Theroux mentions.

Time seems not to have been an issue for him, though he was ostensibly booked for various lectures and conferences on literary subjects along the way, events he mentions mostly only in passing. However, train delays which were frequent and inevitable seem not to have phased him and only given him greater opportunities to observe his environment. He meets all kinds of vividly drawn characters and reconstruct their dialogue and manners of speaking, and describes local scenery that make you feel like you are staring out of the train carriage window along with him. There are vendors at the stations and plenty of beggars, and the sight of countless poor Indians shitting along the tracks which give a very... human touch to the narrative.

He explains the many different experiences each train offers, from the state of the equipment and carriages and the various food and comforts offered, or glaringly lacking—The Orient Express, on which he begins the journey being a prime example of a once highly luxurious means of travel sadly gone to seed by the time Theroux travelled aboard it. He mentions not even bothering to get out of his compartment at stops in certain major cities because he felt uninspired to do so from his impressions of the place as seen from his berth.

He talks about books he is reading along the way. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, is mentioned for a good leg of the trip and at the end of his story, he is depressed by Gissing's New Grub Street while watching bleak Soviet scenery, though many others books and authors are mentioned along the way as he is evidently a voracious reader. Graham Greene is the subject of conversation among the travellers at one point, with some claiming to know the author personally. I'd been meaning to read this book for many years and it was a great introduction to this Paul Theroux. Lucky for me he's written many more as I've taken quite a liking to him, if not personally, certainly as a travel writer of great perceptive powers.
Profile Image for Howard.
1,178 reviews73 followers
April 29, 2021
5 Stars for The Great Railway Bazaar (audiobook) by Paul Theroux read by Frank Muller.
This was a wonderful travel story. It was kind of like Murder on the Orient Express but without the murder. This was my first book by Paul Theroux and I’m really impressed. I’m planning on checking to see what other books the library has by him.
Profile Image for Owlseyes .
1,650 reviews267 followers
December 9, 2022
"Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train journey.”
Sigmund Freud


I know Theroux would have loved traveling in those old Portuguese models. Curiously enough, those models were around and "alive" in the 1970's... I'm not even sure whether Theroux had been in Portugal, ever*.

Maybe this is his most talked about travel-book which dates back to 1975. In time of strict confinement I have picked it up. The book represents now somehow the antithesis of the Theroux Travel Philosophy: "just leave home if you want to know who you are". I (we) just cannot**. A virus has restricted our moves. We'll have to know more about ourselves (and the world) by mind and imagination travel. Hopefully, the book will give us a head start.

* I just got to know he'd been in Lisbon in his "first honeymoon".

** As of now, 29th January 2021, Portuguese borders are shut. Germany and the UK don't accept people coming from Portugal.

I enjoyed a lot reading Theroux. His modus operandi (travel & writing) is full of amazing experiences, historical views of places, fascinating people, exquisite, exotic at times, foods, but it is unstoppable, ...because you'll always be asking: what's the next [train] station?
Profile Image for Daren.
1,300 reviews4,372 followers
December 30, 2014
Not your usual travel-love-in. As his journey goes on Theroux becomes more cynical and prepared to mock his fellow travellers. Contains stereotypes, racial profiling, hippie mocking etc, making it all the more readable. No discussion on visas, border crossings or what to pack!
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book150 followers
August 11, 2019
“Train travel animated my imagination and usually gave me the solitude to order and write my thoughts: I traveled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language. I cannot imagine a luckier combination.”

I adore traveling by train, and thought this would turn into an instant favorite, but that was not to be. It did bring back many memories of train journeys, like when you find yourself stuck with a real jerk who is taking the same route. You want to ditch him but he does know a lot of stuff and points out things you’d otherwise miss. In this case, that jerk is the author.

He comes off as a snob, and may have just been “of his time,” but at the very least I’d say that I found myself frequently not interested in the same things he was interested in. I wanted to look in another direction, see something different than what he was focusing on.

I have to admit that this tale of a trip by rail through Europe, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and Russia—especially in 1975--was a massive undertaking and an exhilarating adventure. The section on Viet Nam was breathtaking, considering he was making the journey in the middle of the war.

And this is not your typical travelogue. On the Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, we learn:
“It was not a country where people raised their voices. They argued in whispers; catastrophe put them to sleep. They were not an excitable people—it had something to do with starvation.”

The Trans-Siberian Express comes alive for us, whether we want it to or not:
“…such a powerful smell of sardines, body odor, cabbage and stale tobacco that even at the five-minute stops the Russians jumped onto the snowy platform to risk pneumonia for a breath of fresh air …”

I did enjoy the literary touches: the books he was reading enroute; his thoughts about writers; the reaction of his Turkish hosts to the death of Pablo Neruda.

But the best part by far was how he captured the romance of train travel:
“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.”

My bag is packed. When do we leave?
Profile Image for Santhosh.
128 reviews153 followers
December 14, 2016
The travelogue of a drunk, imperialist, chauvinist, self-righteous, elitist travelling in first class, flaunting rules and baksheesh in equal measure, and generally getting on everybody's nerves and goodwill. With that as the base, the rest of the book is engaging enough, especially the conversations with fellow passengers. Set in 1973, the colonial hangover comes along as an undertone for the entire journey, though his connections do open doors, leading to some not-so-easily-accessible sights and experiences.

As a travel freak myself, this book was much anticipated, given that it's near the top on many a list for travel books. While I wouldn't say I was let down badly, the book could have been awesome with some sensible and sensitive guidance from the editor. I'm not too taken with Theroux the person, if this book is anything to go by, though Theroux the writer is still good enough for me to chance some of his later works (by when he's hopefully become a little more world-wise).
Profile Image for Gangambika.
79 reviews19 followers
May 11, 2016
Theroux, Trains and white male shitfuckery

I’ve never read Paul Theroux before. I’ve heard of him. Everyone has heard of him. He is one of the most famous authors of his time, and my dushen’ka is also quite fond of him. I didn’t know that though. I picked this book up because it was a story of a person who had traveled across several countries on trains. I love trains. I’ve spent my whole life on trains, and am often heard bragging about how I’ve traveled in every single coach of an Indian train, from the engine and the salon reserved for railway officers, to sitting next to the toilet in an unreserved coach while people try to stand on top of you. My current relationship is based largely, if not entirely, on our mutual love for trains. So a book on trains, I thought, was bound to bring me joy.


Let me tell you why, and instead of pointlessly grumbling about the book, as Theroux does about the trains he is in and the countries he is going to, let me try to be a little less acidic and a little more specific.

Let’s start with trains.

In the 265 pages that I have read so far (66%, my Kindle helpfully informs me), Theroux has taken 23 trains, starting with the Orient Express (from Paris to Istanbul) to the North Star Night Express (from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore). The trains themselves have been reasonably well-described, as has been some of the landscape that the trains traverse. From Paris through Europe, into Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, Malaysia, and where I stopped, Singapore. He doesn’t stop anywhere for too long, but merely journeys on and on through changing lands. It would be a dream journey for me. A beautiful contiguous train route, from one country to another, one city to another, shifting landscapes, shifting cultures, shifting trains, shifting values. Beautiful. Romantic.

But Theroux has a much more gloomy picture, and has painted all of these descriptions with his own dismal grey-tinted eyes. Of these 23 trains, he has been seemingly unhappy with every single one of them. The complaints have ranged from the lighting and cooling in the trains – it’s always either too bright or too dark; the weather outside – it’s either too sunny and hot or too rainy and cold; to the food – there’s never any food, when there is food it tastes bad, he doesn’t get alcohol in the dining cars in Muslim countries and has to eat local food (fried birds) in a tiny station in Burma; to authorities – being asked for his passport at immigration or any other questions about his travel he sees as an unnecessary invasion into his God-given right to travel wherever he pleases, as does having to pay bribes to do what are otherwise illegal things; and fellow-passengers – most of the men are generally described as obnoxious, most of the women as beautiful but brainless.

Which brings me to the second point – white male shitfuckery

A year ago, I stopped reading white male authors. And I found that my reading horizons expanded monumentally. Half-way through this book, I felt my prejudice vindicated.

Paul Theroux describes many people in his book. One of the most wonderful things about trains in India (and I have not traveled in trains anywhere else, so I shan’t comment, but this may be true elsewhere), is the diversity of people in them. If you walk across the length of an Indian train, you will find – vendors selling everything from paperclips and pens to tea and chaat, fisherwomen, wage labourers, college students, Indian tourists, white tourists, hippy white tourists, black tourists, foreign tourists who look like Indians, other foreign tourists, families with old people, families with babies, old Punjabi parents going to visit their unmarried children in Chennai, Young unmarried mallus going to visit their parents in Delhi, army soldiers returning to the field from vacation, army officers going home on vacation, groups of burqa-clad women with or without husbands, groups of women clad in skinny jeans and dangling earrings with or without male friends, high-ranking government officers, low-ranking government officers, sweepers, coach-attendants, and school kids on their first excursion.

With such great diversity, it is not surprising that one feels like one can experience the whole country in one long-distance train. Instead, Theroux has for his co-passengers only mildly disguised racial contempt. He describes a Tamil man as black, a Burmese woman as yellow, and a beggar he calls a monster. Of all the people he describes, he has conversations with only a few. Most of these conversations do not last more than 5 sentences. Most of the people with whom his conversations last longer than 5 sentences are white. Those that aren’t, were educated in England. Every single one of them is male. Not to say that women have not been mentioned. But his mention is restricted to single characteristics – this one has a tinkling laugh, that one has a beautiful thigh, the other one has a haughty manner, a fourth one has long and beautiful hair.

His imperial male gaze is extended to the countries he visits. He is so unimpressed with Afghanistan that he won’t even talk about it. Istanbul is chaotic and dirty. Delhi is chaotic and dirty. Calcutta is chaotic and dirty. And Rangoon is…wait for it…chaotic and dirty. And neither is this disdain restricted to cities. The countrysides face the same dismissive scorn. Europe is too boring. Afghanistan too dry and rocky. Burma has jungles that are too dense. The only things he appears to truly enjoy are ones that mimic Victorian England – train stations built during colonial times; mansions built in British architectural styles; English spoken by “natives” in clipped British accents; and gentle hills. To me it was highly reminiscent of reading letters of British officers posted in India in the 1890s, writing home about how wonderful it was to go to Shimla, because of how much like home it was. But these young British officers didn’t choose to be in surroundings so different from theirs. Theroux did, and so is much less easily forgiven for his derision.

I was recently in Europe myself (and you’ll hear more about that in my next post), and as I went through my journey, fraught with the same woes that Therox was – disappointment at the sights and sounds of the cities I visited, distress at the weather, annoyance at my hostel-mates, loneliness of traveling alone, and the alienation and disorientation of being in places so different from mine – I was sullen and churlish in my initial responses to “How is the trip going?” And from that experience, in a world where travel is constantly described only in positive terms, self-discovery and whatnot, I genuinely appreciate Theroux’s candidness in capturing the disgruntlement with which he journeyed through Asia. And yet, there is a thin line between discomfort with cultures and spaces that are alien to you, and prejudice and contempt of them. Theroux not only crosses that line with alacrity, churning out offensive ill-formed opinions with great confidence – As Calcutta smells of death and Bombay of money, Bangkok smells of sex, but this sexual aroma is mixed with the sharper whiffs of death and money – he also seeks to disguise this prejudice in his own assumed knowledge of these places by using ‘local lingo’ like baksheesh.

Would I recommend reading this book? If you are able to filter out or laugh at the casual and not-so-casual racism, sexism and elitism in the book (which is most of it), you will be able to come away with a decent picture of the train landscape of several countries in the 1970s, or at the very least, some ideas for your next train journey.

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Profile Image for Leftbanker.
804 reviews306 followers
October 20, 2022
EVER SINCE CHILDHOOD, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.

- Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

I have a similar feeling every time I see a country road that looks like it would make for a great bike ride. This time, I'm on a train speeding between villages on the east coast of Spain and making mental notes of places where I'd like to return with my bike. Bikes are allowed on the local trains and the combination makes for some great way to see the country.

I read this book when I was twenty and on my first trip through Europe as a eurail pass refugee. I got hooked on the genre and have since read any and every travel book I can get my hands on. Theroux never seems to have any fun when he travels. The same can be said for Bill Bryson. All they do is bitch and whine and complain about the silly people they are forced to meet.

I completely agree with a lot of the One Star reviews complaining about what a whiny little bitch Theroux can be, and I’ve said the same thing about him in other reviews of his travel books. I just felt like being generous simply because the very idea of this book is worth Five Stars.
Profile Image for David Sarkies.
1,785 reviews307 followers
January 9, 2019
To Asia by Train – and Back Again
9 January 2019

Theroux opens this book by suggesting that when he grew up in Maine trains would regularly go by, and when they did he would always dream about being on them. Well, by the end of this book, after spending four months travelling to, around, and back from Asia by train (including a two week long trek across Siberia) the suggestion was that there probably wasn’t any train in the world that he didn’t want to get off as fast as possible. Mind you, this is back in 1975, so rail travel was probably somewhat worse than it is today, though of course he does go to Japan, where he suggests that riding a train is like catching a plane (despite the fact that most stops last little more than 45 seconds, which makes me wonder whether I would actually have time to get my luggage and actually get off).

When I read his book about his trek from Cairo to Cape Town, I got the impression that he really, really liked trains. Well, I think this book pretty much confirmed that impression, especially since he literally caught trains that went to almost all parts of India. In fact, there were times that I thought that the only reason he caught the train was for the sake of actually catching the train and nothing else. Sure, I like catching trains, but I also like to get off them and to spend some time wandering around and exploring the place as well, as opposed to simply waiting for the next train to come along.

The other interesting thing about this book is not so much the train, but the people that he meets on the train. Honestly, that probably isn’t something that I’m likely to do, namely because I rarely, if ever, talk to anybody sitting next to me – usually I’m just reading my book. I’ve been on enough planes to know that people seem to strike up conversations with strangers all the time. With me, I tend to only strike up conversations with people at the pub. Well, not quite, there was one time when I was catching the train to Melbourne (back in the days when it pretty much ran twice a day, and was cheaper than flying), when the person sitting next to me started talking to me, and we ended up spending most of the journey gasbagging away, much to the other passengers’ annoyance.

Mind you, this was back in 1975, so I suspect things may have changed somewhat. For instance, the train from the Thai-Malaysian border to Singapore is now a ‘high-speed’ train (it looks high speed, but compared to the ICE in Germany, it really doesn’t travel all that fast). The other thing is that you no longer have to get a ferry to travel from Paris to London, and don’t even think about taking the trek from Instanbul to Afghanistan – I’m not even sure if the rail line exists anymore. Oh, and the train to Singapore doesn’t go into Singapore– you have to get off at Johor Bahru (on the border), and either catch another train, a bus, or simply walk, across the causeway. The railway station is still there, but it is no longer being used, and the tracks have all been ripped up. Mind you, they are planning on extending the MTR to the checkpoint, though that is going to take a little bit of time.

Yeah, he really didn’t like Singapore. In fact, the Singapore he described is nothing like the Singapore that I know. Okay, I can’t necessarily say that it is a city that I absolutely adore, but half the reason that I have been there three times in a period of four years (not counting the times we were waiting at the airport for our connecting flight) is because my brother really wanted to spend some time there (though the first time I visited the city was because I actually wanted to check it out since the last time I was there, we basically went for a two hour bus tour and most of that time I spent asleep).

Actually, he even goes to Vietnam, which back then was quite different to the Vietnam of today. Then again, he was there in a period between the American withdrawal and the fall of the South Vietnamese Government. Apparently most of the tracks had been destroyed by guerrilla warfare. This isn’t the case anymore since you can now catch the train up the coast from Saigon to Hanoi (not that I’ve actually been to Vietnam, but that was because I had to be back at university so didn’t have time to get there). The other thing is that while you can get from Bangkok to Saigon by land, unfortunately there is no train through Cambodia. Actually, speaking of Cambodia, there is only one railway line in the entire country, and it runs twice a week from Phenom Phen to the coast and back again. From what I’ve heard, it isn’t the most reliable service out there.

To finish off, I should mention Thailand, since he also went on some train journeys there: one to the border of Laos, and the other down the peninsula to Malaysia. You can actually catch a train from Bangkok to Singapore (and vice versa) – the Eastern Orient Express, but that is ridiculously expensive, something like $5000.00 for the cheapest class. You could always do it the otherway, namely by just catching the normal trains, but it does involve changing trains at the Thai-Malay border, and apparently you have to walk across it (we flew from Penang to Phuket, namely because the Australia government strongly recommended we don’t visit that part of Thailand). Oh, yeah, there was something interesting about Thai Railways, other than the various fares, one being that you basically stand for the whole journey, and the fact that they really aren’t the most comfortable trains out there. Then there are the vendors. At first I thought that they were employees of the railway, but our guide told us that they were simply enterprising Thai’s taking advantange of the fact that they can actually get away with spending their days walking from one end of the train to the other selling anything and everything.

Honestly, considering trains in Melbourne, I actually like the idea that you pay a discount rate if you chose not to take a seat, but I have a feeling that that probably won’t wash with the Victorian government.
Profile Image for Lit Bug.
160 reviews441 followers
September 6, 2013
This is perhaps the dullest travelogue that I've ever read. Imagine cruising from London through Paris, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Japan, Siberia and back to London on nothing but trains for commute - long journeys punctuated with local food, local people, local culture and local weather - only to be bored to death while Theroux keeps on heaping loads of details without any insight save some common (sometimes aptly true) stereotypes.

Terse, dry and disinterested in tone, the book left me absolutely cold - series of abrupt, sketchy descriptions of peoples, places, anecdotes and observations that never go beyond a stereotypical crystallization of narrow experiences blended with the common perception held across the globe.

Essentially, Theroux said he wanted to travel by train, not by plane - so that he could leisurely enjoy the journey - my bad that I did not take it seriously. Clearly, he was focused on his journey - not in the people, hardly in the culture or history, maybe in some places of interest and basically, intent upon writing this travelogue. The result is the most pointless book ever written.

It seems hastily written with no nuances, no depth - just a string of experiences that put you to sleep.

The only place where he strikes a chord are in some cynical, sharp, bitter yet true observations that only a local can identify with - in my instance, observations such as "In India, I had decided, one could determine the sacredness of water by its degree of stagnation. The holiest was bright green."

But again, they were primary inferences that can be made by anyone who looks a bit closely at his/her encounters - but the mechanism behind these phenomena hold no interest for him. Perhaps he took too seriously the adage - "It is the journey that matters - not the destination."

The only lessons you get from this large book are (a)How not to travel, and (b)How not to write a travelogue.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews409 followers
August 13, 2019
99th book for 2019.

In 1973, a thirty-three-year-old Paul Theroux took a series of trains—and ships and planes—from London to Tokyo and back again.

Theroux comes across as a thoroughly unlikable person, not once in the book does he actually speak well of anyone he meets. He always seems superior, even though his knowledge of all the places he travels through is limited at best. He talks like a 19th C Englishman visiting the colonies, an impression strengthened when he quotes Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling on India the Far East; no more contemporary sources seems to have been available to him. Little Dorrit, copious amounts of alcohol, and his pipe were his main companions on the road. An increasingly frustrated sexuality give way to increasing discussions of pornography and brothels over the course of the book; seemingly reaching a crescendo as he reaches Japan.

Despite this, his casual asides about the places and people he met during his travels in the early 1970s, were are at times fascinating, though Theroux remains throughout an unpleasant traveling companion.

Profile Image for Tom.
42 reviews4 followers
December 29, 2008
I love Paul Theroux and this, one his first is the one which set me off. I wanted to re-read it before reading his new book about taking the same trip across Europe and Asia some thirty years later.
In the early 70s which he writes about in this book there were no railways in Afghanistan and I'm pretty sure railways aren't a priority to this day but I'm looking forward to seeing how he crosses the country in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s.
Theroux is an author one either loves or hates. My attraction to him is based on a similarity in our ages and his skills of perception of those he meets on his travels and his endearing (and enduring) crankiness.

Fortunately, although I've read several of his books, I still have several left to savor.
Profile Image for Jacob Overmark.
204 reviews9 followers
August 1, 2017
Not seldom have I read a book that made me want to go new places.
But, Theroux impersonates the saying that "the journey is the destination" in a way that almost urges me to catch the first train to wherever.
He is taking you on a train-acid-trip that is hard to topple, harshly distilling the stops between London and Japan via Sri Lanka to anecdotes and observations.

Profile Image for Pam.
411 reviews27 followers
May 15, 2021
The granddaddy of modern travel books. Reading it was like being struck by lightning when it first came out. The book sent me on a long lifetime adventure of reading travel books. I’m almost afraid to read it again fearing it might disappoint.
223 reviews91 followers
April 10, 2020
I have read this book a few times over the years. I really enjoyed it.

The book is set in the early ‘70s. It is the story of Theroux’s lone journey from London, across Europe and through Asia, by trains. I love train travel so this story really appealed to me. It focuses on the trains, the passengers, and the unusual people he encounters at different stations. It’s a very engaging story.

Theroux is giving talks in a number of cities that he visits during his travels, which is alluded to. He has booked sleeping cars and he encounters a motley crew of people on the various trains. Some of the characters and the anecdotes he describes are hilarious. Theroux is very witty.

He sees trains as a great place to engender conversations. "The conversation, like many others I had with people on trains, derived an easy candor from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again. The railway was a fictor's bazaar, in which anyone with the patience could carry away a memory to pore over in privacy."

A lot of the focus is on his travel through India, which was the most entertaining part of the book. He meets a host of the most eccentric characters. He relays conversations he’s had with the wacky people he meets in a very humorous way. It’s a rip roaring tale in many parts. You can tell that he has genuinely enjoyed himself on his train odyssey. I felt that I’d have liked to have been there with him. I was sad when the journey ended.

I became a Theroux fan after reading this book, and have read everything he has written. I would definitely recommend this book.
441 reviews5 followers
April 7, 2011
Just so we're clear from the beginning, Paul Theroux is a dick. Or a misanthrope or whatever else you want to call him. Now that we've got that behind us, this is one of the best books (and especially best travelogues) I have read. Written in 1975, Theroux traveled for four months by train from London across Europe, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia to Japan, and then back to London along the 6000 mile Trans Siberian Railway. Theroux managed by luck to be in Iran just before the Shah fall, in South Vietnam within months of it finally falling to the north after the US had left. He describes a world that is already ancient history in many ways, and has an incredible sense of the trip. That said, he remains a judgmental person who dismisses places and people for sometimes arbitrary reasons, but this book is an incredibly engaging read, and he captures the fatigue of traveling in the humid subcontinent and on the unending trip back across the Soviet Union.
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