Paul Theroux, the author of the train travel classics The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express, takes to the rails once again in this account of his epic journey through China. He hops aboard as part of a tour group in London and sets out for China's border. He then spends a year traversing the country, where he pieces together a fascinating snapshot of a unique moment in history. From the barren deserts of Xinjiang to the ice forests of Manchuria, from the dense metropolises of Shanghai, Beijing, and Canton to the dry hills of Tibet, Theroux offers an unforgettable portrait of a magnificent land and an extraordinary people.
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.
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.
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.
I enjoy Theroux's extremely sharp eye for details. I think he's done an excellent job of capturing the flavor and culture of mainland China in his travels.
3 1/2 stars as a solid, entertaining book; 4 1/2 stars as an exceptional travelogue.
Read in 2009.
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.