Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China

by Paul Theroux

Paperback, 1997




Ballantine Books (1997)


Describes the author's travels by train in every province of the People's Republic of China.

Media reviews

''Riding the Iron Rooster'' is Mr. Theroux's account of a journey that would drive most people insane. Traveling in China (which is different from living in China) for even a week can be exhausting; how he managed to do it for a year is beyond my comprehension. As one has come to expect of him, Mr.
Show More
Theroux never wastes a word when re-creating his adventures. He is in top form as he describes the barren deserts of Mongolia and Xinjiang, the ice forests of Manchuria and the dry hills of Tibet. He captures their otherworldly, haunting appearances perfectly. He is also right on target when he talks about the ugliness of China's poorly planned, hastily built cities. But his book is mainly about Chinese people, and it appears that Mr. Theroux didn't like them much
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member ubaidd
Reading Mr. Theroux' travelogue of Chnia made me realize I should know more of Chinese history than I do (which is practically nothing). School history textbooks in India focus mostly on local, state and national history. In higher grades you deal with European history, India's colonial past and
Show More
some American history - for example, we learned of the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence. Of communism, our textbooks focused mostly on the USSR. However, besides the common knowledge that China had a communist government and India fought a war with the Chinese in 1962, our history textbooks were woefully inadequate in their coverage of contemporary Chinese history.

Mr. Theroux' twelve month journey through China takes place in 1986 and 1987, as the country is still dealing with the effects of Mao's Cultural Revolution. The author's journey, like many of his other great travel stories, begins in London as he heads to Mongolia by train. From Mongolia he takes a myriad of trains to explore the most far flung reaches of that immense country. From the freezing city of Harbin to the mostly inhospitable and deserted Tibetan Plateau. The book is funny, caustic and filled with the kind of absolute generalizations that Mr. Theroux excels at. He talks to fellow travellers, government orderlies, train conductors and hustlers in tourist towns. You get not just his perspective, but also of the people he meets and finds interesting. Unlike most of the author's other travels, he is forced to travel here with a Chinese "guide" who is there to ensure the author is not up to any kind of mischief. Mr. Theroux extracts his revenge by subjecting his handler to interminable train rides through the remotest parts of the Middle Kingdom. Because of the timing, the book also adds color to understanding the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. I learned a few things about the Cultural Revolution I was never aware of - my knowledge of that event is restricted to a few books and the Zhang Yimou movie, To Live. Some of the author's cultural observations are worth repeating - he ascribes a hidden meaning to they way the Chinese laugh, because they don't laugh with mirth but to convey something they'd rather not express verbally. The Chinese landscape is almost completely devoid of birds, trees and wild life - because the Chinese have cultivated and subjected all of the land to human use and eaten everything that can be masticated. And finally, the Chinese were enthusiastically adopting capitalism and the free market in the 1980s - it is not something that just happened.

The last section on driving to Lhasa from Golmud is the funniest - it is filled to the gills with ridiculous comedy. I've often asked myself while reading a Theroux book, why does he do this? In this instance he is in a near fatal car crash and then spends the night in a prison like hotel with stairs covered in human excrement and run by a crazed looking Tibetan man. Maybe that's why. Highly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Paul Theroux' account of his train journeys across and around China during the the late 1980s is both entertaining and enlightening. His fascination with and desire for travel by train lies in the forced prolonged intimacy with his fellow travelers. He is a consummate leech. While furiously
Show More
guarding his privacy (in a Rumpelstilzian "Nobody knows that I am Paul Theroux"), he eyes, listens and pokes into other people's lives. This decidedly American Puritan game of voyeurism and revulsion is most marked in his reporting about the sex life of his fellow passengers. His "suffering" is almost always self-inflicted: He could easily have upgraded to semi- or private quarters at little cost. In reality, he wants to creep in on other people's relationships and lives. Perhaps the larger anonymity and higher sophistication of big city inhabitants is one of the reasons why Theroux prefers the backwood country.

The two chapters about his miserable trip to waterless Tibet and freezing Harbin (in Northern China) are the highlights of this book, a testament to human endurance to live in harsh environment and also a reporter's grim determination to suffer for his story. The Roman soldiers guarding the Limes against Barbarian incursions had it easy compared to the poor Chinese protecting their Northern and Western borders against invaders. Reading Theroux, the numerous pleas of Chinese officials to return to the capital and civilization throughout history becomes easier to understand. No wonder too that, extracting industries apart, these regions hardly participate in the Chinese miracle. Theroux' account about Southern China is lacking both in depth and in sympathy. His main obsession is interviewing, even pestering, anybody about Mao and the Cultural Revolution. In can only hope that Theroux never travels to Israel to interrogate Holocaust survivors about their suffering. The Chinese stoicism and preservation of face certainly favors an obnoxious interviewer such as Theroux.

Personally, I travel and endure a journey to reach and visit a destination. Theroux is of the opposite school. Having reached a destination, he is quickly bored and seeks to leave for the next leg of his journey. He hardly describes the sights and history of his destinations at all. His focus are the quirks, manners and lives of his fellow travelers. The longer he is staying the better he begins to understand them, thus a reader's progress is matched by an increase of enjoyment. Recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This book about Paul Theroux's travels by train through China was written 20 years ago. Although this trip was before the Tiananmen Square massacre, Theroux did see and hear about some student and worker protests. China was definitely going through a process of change at this time. Deng Xiaoping
Show More
had brought in many reforms and Theroux witnessed that almost everywhere he went. And he went into many corners of that vast land that North Americans rarely see. Two things from this book stand out for me: a) just how excessive the Cultural Revolution was during Mao's time and b) twenty years is just a blink of an eye in Chinese history.

Theroux ended his trip in Tibet. This is one of the last paragraphs in the book:

You have to see Tibet to understand China. And anyone apologetic or sentimental about Chinese reform has to reckon with Tibet as a reminder of how harsh, how tenacious and materialistic, how insensitive the Chinese can be. They actually believe this is progress.

Twenty years later China is still insensitive about Tibet as the world has seen by the reaction to Tibetan protests about the Olympics. I didn't watch any of the Beijing Olympics, primarily because we were on holiday for that time and had no access to TV. But I don't think even if I had been home that I would have watched because I objected to the Olympics going to China with no call for reforms.

I think this is only the second book of Theroux's that I have read. At least, I only recall reading The Mosquito Coast many years ago. I think I prefer Theroux as a nonfiction writer and I intend to read some of his other travel writing.
Show Less
LibraryThing member wenestvedt
I rather liked this book. Some people get all breathless about Paul Theroux, but he strikes me as a little bit of an obssessive and less a fun travel companion the way I believe that Bill Bryson or Peter Mayle or Tom Cahill would be. Still, China's a huge country and this book let me know how
Show More
little of it I really know.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Smiley
This journey is not continous. Theroux spent the total of a year riding trains through China. When he got bored, he went home for a while.
LibraryThing member Crewman_Number_6
I loved this book. It is about the author's experiences as he rides the train from London to China. His descriptions of "The Iron Rooster" and the places in China which are off the beaten path are intriguing.
LibraryThing member Mendoza
Theroux spent a year exploring China by train, and his impressions about what has and has not changed in the country, as gathered in hundreds of conversations with Chinese citizens, make up a large portion of the book.

I enjoy Theroux's extremely sharp eye for details. I think he's done an
Show More
excellent job of capturing the flavor and culture of mainland China in his travels.
Show Less
LibraryThing member robeik
Theroux rides the train through China in a period of time before the Tianamen Square demonstrations. He can be rather funny, although not as much as Bill Bryson. He can be rather rude of fellow travelers. He appears to have the knack of engaging with people, making for interesting reading. However,
Show More
I'm not sure it inspired me to follows in his train tracks.
Show Less
LibraryThing member csmirl
Theroux provides a multifaceted picture of China in the 1980s, still recovering from the chaos of the 1970s but also still a China defined by its history, diverse, impressive, confusing, and stunning. His pages provide the details of his conversations with strangers, literary quotes, odd histories,
Show More
unique facts, and an opinionated perspective of what travel is and can be.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Sandydog1
This best-selling. snarky-tourist-spends-an-eternity-traveling-China in the mid-1980s, has held up well. Although long and sometimes redundant (HOW many trains are taken?), it is a wonderful account of mid 20th century China history and modern Chinese government/culture/behavior.

3 1/2 stars as a
Show More
solid, entertaining book; 4 1/2 stars as an exceptional travelogue.
Show Less
LibraryThing member CasaBooks
This part of the world has and is changing so drastically, that this narrative was much changed by the time I read it in 2009. Since I traveled briefly in rural China in mid 1989 (just prior to Tianammen Square)- it was a wonderful experience to read this book. Published in 1989, about a 1987 long
Show More
long journey.
Read in 2009.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ecw0647
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
Show More
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 strange foods and are superstitious about the medicinal value of exotic animals who achieve status not from individual beauty or from intrinsic qualities, but because they taste good.

Theroux, who has a passion for trains, wandering, and gossip, found many changes in China since his first visit of several years earlier. People were much freer and willing to talk. Theroux's writing is fascinating because he's so nosy. He's not afraid to ask anything. And he notices everything. It's his way of "getting the measure of a place." If he sees someone reading he makes note of the title, memorizes the contents of refrigerators, labels in clothes, compares prices, copies graffiti and slogans, and collects hotel rules. My favorite: "Guests may not perform urination in sink basin."

At one point he was forced to fly to catch a particular train and his description is particularly revolting; people standing in the aisles while landing, puking, the plane popping wheelies on the runway, the aircraft itself having wrinkled skin. The cultural revolution was uniformly hated by everyone he spoke with and the change in the people could be measured by the change in their slogans. Formerly when students were asked what they wanted to do with themselves they would reply, "to serve people." A book filled with interesting tidbits.

I should note, as an avid reader of Airways magazine that airlines in China have improved tremendously, have terrific equipment today, and service standards far exceeding United's. Theroux's book is quite dated in that respect.
Show Less
LibraryThing member sarahemmm
Some interesting perspectives on the Chinese character, from an American pov
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Theroux's eyes do indeed penetrate into nooks and crannies that provide a fascinating insight into China. Fun for railroad trekkies.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Theroux spent a massive amount of time in the 1980s travelling around the People's Republic, and the result is this enormously readable, entertaining, and informative book. I was worried that, after a few hundred pages, my appetite for his travelogue would begin to dim, but in fact the opposite
Show More
happened. He is so insightfully critical that every page seemed to hold something new, and the fact that he was in-country when the Tiananmen Square protests were staged says much about the resoluteness of his character.
Show Less


Original language



Page: 0.1687 seconds