“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it”, writes Paul Theroux in the opening of his travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar. This would initially seem strange to the modern 21st century passenger, in a time when train travel no longer holds the glamour it once did, of crisp tablecloths in dining cars and white-gloved stewards. Today, associations with delays, crowds and the smell of egg sandwiches spring to mind. For Theroux, however, writing in the early 1970s, the world was a different place. An era when distant lands still held the mystery of exotic adventures, undiscovered cities, untrammeled by rampant tourism.
And so Theroux embarks on an epic journey from London to Tokyo, travelling across Asia almost entirely by train, and back again. Until you have read Theroux’s book, it’s hard to imagine the enormous breadth of adventure to be had from viewing the world through the glass of a train window.
Each chapter is named after the different railway lines Theroux boards, filled with anecdotes of the people he meets, the places he visits and the stories he encounters on the way. You follow Theroux as he encounters Russia behind the Iron Curtain, Vietnam in the midst of war, the barbaric deserts of Afghanistan during a time of national peace. At times, his tales are sad, but more often than not, you get an insight into a different time and place, through his sharp, often hilarious, observations of his fellow passengers. It’s easy to sympathise with Theroux’s despair at the unusual habits of others, particularly when conducted in a six-foot cabin, travelling across Mongolia. Communication troubles and the unreliability of foreign train systems frustrate, whilst rare sights and descriptions of vistas inspire a yearning to follow in Theroux’s footsteps.
Occasionally, the narrative becomes a little over-descriptive and you wish that Theroux would just arrive at his destination, even with the full knowledge that this is not the purpose of his journey. Nevertheless, the readability of Theroux’s writing style keeps you gripped through every piece of lost luggage and unexpected stopover, right to the very end.
Thirty years after The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux re-enacted the same journey once more and wrote a second book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. However, it is the slow-burning view of Asia through Theroux’s eyes in a foreign age that invites you to share the same curiosity he would have felt for the land itself, forty years earlier. It is this perspective that makes The Great Railway Bazaar a captivating read.
Perfect accompaniment to… a railway journey through India, or exam period when you need a little escapism
Read with… a cup of masala chai and a torch to avoid waking the others in your Vietnamese traveller’s dorm