Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar sees travel writer Paul Theroux return to the same train lines and destinations that he visited more than 30 years earlier.
That journey, which kicked off with a train trip from London and saw Theroux reach as far as Sri Lanka, Japan and Russia, resulted in The Great Railway Bazaar mentioned in this title, a classic of travel literature that still resonates with readers today.
In 2008-published Ghost Train, Theroux goes back, but not in a tedious way. The trip is not an exact replica of his 1981 itinerary, given he can’t get a visa to Iran, and he assesses that Afghanistan is too dangerous. But from London again he takes in central Europe and Turkey, central Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan and Russia.
Theroux is acutely self-conscious of being that annoying traveller who insists you should have been here yesterday, so his observations remain astute. Only occasionally does his alignment with the past become a little tedious: In particular, Vietnam and Cambodia, while brutally and horribly still affected by America’s horrific interventions there, has long moved on in a psychic sense. Theroux’s focus on the past here seems to obscure the more interesting task of finding out more about where they are going. His seeming obsession with sex workers also feels somewhat dated, as does the trope of taking the pulse of a nation through conversations with taxi or tuk tuk drivers—though to his credit, he speaks with far more varied occupations along the way as well.
Three decades on gives Theroux the greater perspective of travel that comes with getting older: “After a certain age the traveller stops looking for another life and takes nothing for granted.” His lyrical observations have that novelistic feel of describing something you’ve always thought but never put into words, too: “Men of a certain age, and some women too, often have the watchfulness, the pop-eyed, almost reptilian stare, the glowing dome and the bone structure we attribute to extraterrestrials.”
Theroux is the real champion of the independent budget traveller. He would not characterise himself as a backpacker, but he does travel like one. He writes of stumbling across The Orient Express: “It was not my train because, one, it was too expensive: it would have cost me around $9,000, one way, from Paris to Istanbul. Reason two: luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing… Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world.”
Theroux’s ability to capture what life is like for the independent traveller in modern times—or at least during pre-Instagram modern times—remains unrivalled. Consider, if ever you’ve arrived in a city on a public holiday, or been there when a small bomb has detonated, or riots have gripped a small area:
“A national crisis is an opportunity, a gift to the traveller; nothing is more revealing of a place to a stranger than trouble. Even if the crisis is incomprehensible, as it usually is, it lends drama to the day and transforms the traveller into an eyewitness. Purgatorial as a crisis sometimes is for a traveller, it is preferable to public holidays, which are hell: no one working, shops and schools closed, natives eating ice cream, public transport jammed, and the stranger’s sense of being excluded from the merriment—from everything.”
We found his pure hatred of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew somewhat energising—it goes for pages and pages. “Singaporeans’ personalities reflect that of the only leader most of them have ever known, and as a result are notably abrasive, abrupt, thin-skinned, unsmiling, rude, puritanical, bossy, selfish and unspiritual,” he spits.
For the Southeast Asian traveller, Theroux’s descriptions of the region make for a handy read ahead of a trip, or will stir nostalgia for some. A decade later, already much of what Theroux wrote about has changed yet again. On the other hand, much has stayed the same, and indeed echoes of The Great Railway Bazaar still reverberate throughout the region—particularly if you eschew the scourge of low-cost carriers and go buy a train ticket.
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