Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

On the Tracks of the 
Great Railway Bazaar

“Writing about travel,” says Theroux, is “the nearest I will come to autobiography.” This book seems more personal than others because it reprises the 1973 journey that first brought him fame, The Great Railway Bazaar.

Back then he didn't mention the “domestic turmoil” the trip had caused, but in 2004 he “relived much of the pain.” Railway Bazaar, he tells us now, was written “in an agony of suffering.”

Other personal details include a gouty knee, double cataract surgery, his mother's verdict on his first book (“trash”). He reports the criticism of his former students in Singapore “who said, in so many words, what a horse's ass I had been,” and “rubbished” him “for having been a poor teacher.”

He provides updates on two of the more memorable characters from Bazaar. Molesworth, who later complained that Theroux had not used his real name, and Mr. Bernard, who read about himself with much pleasure and whose hotel profited from being mentioned in the book. Theroux is fondly remembered by Mr. Bernard's son: “We talk about you all the time. We have a copy of your book. You were up there in room eleven.” Theroux adds:

Nothing like this had ever happened to me among my own family.  Was this a motivation, the embrace of strangers, in my becoming a traveller? ... Without daring to anticipate such an event, it was the sort of reunion I had hoped for when I set out to repeat my trip.


Author photos from the two books
In 1973 Theroux was a minor novelist. In 2004 he's an established author who's asked to give talks in Istanbul, Ankara, Ashbagat, and Singapore.

His works are everywhere: Russian translations in Moscow bookstores, bootleg copies in Phnom Penh, and a guidebook that dismisses his views as “caustic.”

On the train he notices a fellow traveller reading Mosquito Coast, and in India chats with Prince Charles about the premiere of the movie based on it. His Singapore novel, Saint Jack, and the movie based on it, are finally available there.


One of the great pleasures of Theroux's travel books is how literary-minded they are. He always serves up a wide variety of quotes and references. A nice example: Thoreau's mention of ice from Walden pond ending up in India.

He hobnobs with other writers: Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shaka in Turkey, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan. Their conversations are delightful, their literary gossip fascinating especially when the subject is other travel writers. Jan Morris is esteemed, Chatwin “a boaster,” and Hunter Thompson “one of the most timid travellers I've ever known.”

In Sri Lanka he visits Arthur Clarke, “so frail, so vague, his mind drifting,” his appearance “like the sort of alien he had described in his prose fantasies.” He also visits the bungalow where Leonard Woolf lived, and glimpses the small island where Paul Bowles wrote his Tangier novel, The Spider's House.


American foreign policy dictates some route changes. In 1973 he visited Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but in 2004 he swings around them via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

In 1973 the Vietnam war was still raging, which prevented him from reaching northern Vietnam and Cambodia. Now he is able to visit Hanoi and Angkor Wat, and talks to former soldiers from both sides. Two Viet Cong vets, now construction workers, share a joint with him.

He quotes an alarming statistic from British historian J.M. Roberts: “a heavier tonnage of bombs dropped on North Vietnam than on Germany and Japan together in the entire Second World War.” In Japan, Murakami supplies this alarming fact: “the firebombing of Tokyo...killed more people than the atom bombs.”


Stuffed grape leaves in Turkey and “an eggplant dish so delicious its name is a catchphrase, imam bayildi, 'the imam fainted'”

Spinach pies in Turkmenistan and pigeon eggs in Uzbekistan

...amok, one of Cambodia's delicious national dishes, the snakehead [fish] simmered in coconut milk with spices”

Vietnamese eel soup (recipe included) and “snake wine (each bottle with a coiled cobra pickled inside)”

“Woodka” and “pissing dumplings” and bags of smoked omul in Russia


Thanks to the Internet and Google Earth, there has never been a better time to be an armchair traveller. I was particularly keen to check out the following places:

Chatrapathi Sivaji Terminus in Mumbai
“one of the grandest railway stations in the world”
Kuala Lumpur Railway Station
“a marvel of good design...any American city would have been proud to have such a station”

Palace of Congresses in Bucharest
“an impressively ugly and gigantic example of megalomaniacal architecture”

Shimoly Station in Tashkent
“one of the largest railway stations I saw on my entire trip, possibly the grandest, lovely even”

Todai-ji Temple in Japan
“this 18th century structure was the single most imposing building I saw in the whole of Japan”

Vladivostok Railway Station
“a weirdly pretentious example of Russian railway design”

Cities & Countries

“a city without benches, the subtle message being: keep walking”

"I was not prepared for people so poor to look so beautiful...even as beggars they had dignity”

a “wolfish landscape”

“...the paradox, that India's poor were her wealth”

“one of the most...hospitable cities in the world”

“...perhaps the only country I passed through where I met nothing but generosity and kindness. And the Burmese were the most ill-treated, worst governed, belittled, and persecuted of any people I met...”

“one big bazaar of ruthless capitalism”

“good manners are suspect” and blaming "a national vice”

“more machine than city”

“an emptiness of lizards and a landscape like cat litter“

“travel in Vietnam for an American was a lesson in humility”

“one of the Siberian centers of skinhead gang activity”


 “Travellers are always inventing the country they're travelling through.”