The great railway bazaar : by train through Asia

by Paul Theroux

Hardcover, 1975




Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1975.


"I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it," confesses the author. Take the train with him through Europe and Asia.

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

These are the first words of this marvelous travel book. In 1975, just after the fall of Saigon, Theroux decides to board a train in London and take it to Japan, by a southerly route and come back west, via the Trans-Siberian. He not only rides on some fascinating trains, like the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local and the Mandalay Express, he stops over in many incredible, and sometimes horrifying locales. We pass through Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Tokyo and the former Soviet Union, to name just a few.
This is not a light glossy travelogue, Theroux takes us to some pretty dark places. There are under-age brothels, drug-dealers, pimps, shady soldiers and sex clubs. His wry observations are spot-on and he never shies away from discussing all the discomforts that come along with this type of travel.
His writing style is lean and fast and even after 35 years, the narrative still remains modern and fresh. I have not read this author in many years and that’s a shame.
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LibraryThing member hazelk
I enjoyed this travel book, especially the journeys in India but, like the author himself I got rather travel weary Vietnam onwards. I preferred his later 'Dark Star Safari'.
LibraryThing member Alphawoman
Maybe not actually a five star rating but a book I did not want to end. The epitome of a great travel book. Travel for the sake of travel. Fascinating not because of the remarkable places he travels to by train each more decrepit and challenging than the previous, but the never ending parade of people he encounters on his adventure. Exactly what a travel book should be About.… (more)
LibraryThing member deebee1
This is supposed to be one of the most popular books in travel literature, so I began this book looking forward to a grand, unforgettable adventure with an equally grand, unforgettable traveller. It is an interesting read, of course, and we are treated to some awesome sceneries, colorful characters and snippets of history here and there, from London all the way to Asia and back through Russia. But Theroux is anything but grand and unforgettable here. He is cranky, irritable, and more than often, condescending to his fellow travellers -- you wonder why he bothered to take this long 4-month trip at all. I know how it feels to travel for days and for long distances, and especially when the trip is for work rather than holiday, at some point everything tries one's patience. But Theroux seemed to have more than the usual dose of impatience and ill-humor in the long-distance traveler here. Moreover, one feels that the book talks too much of dilapidated, filthy, noisy train stations, the either fine or very awful service in the trains' dining coaches, and the strange habits of his fellow passengers you begin to think how he could have been so unfortunate as to have all the oddballs thrown in his particular direction.

Overall, i found the book uneven, though i suppose, honest, as he never tried to wax poetic as perhaps most dreamy travellers are tempted to do when in far-off and strange lands. In moments of inspiration, however, his prose is beautiful, haunting even. But that does not happen often in the book, although I noticed that towards the end, he seemed to have more of those moments, perhaps in anticipation of home.

Though this book was less than what I expected, this hasn't turned me off Theroux. This book showed a lot of his moody, temperamental side, but it had some flashes of really wondrous prose as well. I'd like to think that his other books would have more of that wondrous prose, and less of the attitude.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I’m told this is a benchmark in travel literature, a must read, but I couldn’t honestly rate this even three stars. It’s the kind of book that instead of causing you to yearn to see new places makes you want to stay at home. The book would seem to have all the ingredients of a classic; in print after 38 years, this is the account of Theroux’s travels by rail across Asia in the mid seventies, beginning with the Orient Express. Each chapter is named after a train taken: The Orient Express Direct, The Mandalay Express, Golden Arrow to Kuala, Trans-Siberian Express, etc. Theroux can write beautifully, lyrically. Look, for instance, at the opening of the book:

Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places--a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they out to--like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass. Better to go first class than to arrive, or, as the English novelist Michael Frayn once rephrased McLuhan: “The journey is the goal.”

Ah, elegant prose, an erudite man who kept a journal and so can write with the immediacy of a novel, a promise of adventure through railways of legend, and an eye and ear for incisively describing character. What’s not to love? Yet I soon felt an urge to skim. It was often depressing, this narrative filled with accounts of corruption, begging, prostitution, drug addiction and the just plain crass. (I really could have done without the long, involved graphic description of people defecating along the tracks.) Maybe it’s just that I’m reading Theroux at the tail end of a list of recommended travel books and I can’t help but compare him to other writers I encountered. Bill Bryson was often laugh-out-loud funny; John McPhee had a genius for eliciting from others stories that seemed to sum up a place; Rory Stewart exuded openness and genuine interest in the people he encountered. And though I had my issues with books by Pico Iyer and Elizabeth Gilbert, both in different ways showed compassion for the people they encountered and saw them as... well, human.

Theroux, on the other hand, struck me at times, if not racist or xenophobic, then maybe just plain misanthropic: “Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent.” "I always found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a reminder that I'd touched bottom." Russians he often called monkeys. His snobby horror at the very idea of riding in third class was unbelievable, and his behavior in Japan was so very rude I wished I could apologize on behalf of all Americans. (Really--don’t ask.) I rarely found in his account of drinking and whoring and peering at the landscape rushing past in trains any fresh insight or moving story. The one exception actually was his two chapters about visiting Vietnam in 1973 after the withdrawal of the Americans but before the South fell to the communists. Those chapters had a poignancy, vivid, memorable detail and Vietnam seemingly evoked a rare empathy in him missing in the other chapters. By itself those chapters redeemed the book enough to tempt me into giving it a third star. But in the end, at least for me, when it comes to a good travel book I prefer a less obnoxious companion, and I doubt I’ll read another book by this author.
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LibraryThing member starkradio
I adore Paul Theroux's travel writing. I wish I could write so well.

He strips away all the b.s. and you get the sense that, if you went there, this is what you would see, behind the glossy brochure photos.
LibraryThing member Don1
A great ride through Asia in the early 1970s. Especially interesting is that the author was in Vietnam when the war was winding down. Some of the descriptions of battlefields are compelling.
LibraryThing member tzelman
Theroux is a bit stuffy and condescending--but I'll take that with his wit, adventure, and craziness
LibraryThing member clstaff
Not your usual travel writing. Theroux travels from train from Europe through Asia with a very critical eye. He seems to dislike most of his fellow passengers but does provide very good reasons why. Would put people off travelling by train but in spite of this the book is very interesting and at times very funny.
LibraryThing member HarryMacDonald
I love riding trains. Apparently so does Paul Theroux. Still, this book is such a yawner that I wished I gotten out and walked.
LibraryThing member ritaer
fascinating look at asian countries in 1975 as Vietnam War was winding down, India was still a 3rd world nation and Soviet Union still intact
LibraryThing member MsJolee
I don't have a lot of money to spend on travel, but I can spend under twenty dollars for a good travel book that takes me on an adventure to exotic and exciting destinations. And so it is with the book The Great Railway Bazaar.

Paul theroux has a talent for making the characters come alive on the page. As I read this book I felt that I was going along for the ride to witness interesting and sometimes private conversations.

From the first sentence: "Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train and not wished I was on it." to the very last sentence: "Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train and not wished I was on it." They are the same; it is what happens between these two sentences that makes for an enchanting ride. You'll ride through Asia at a breakneck speed and smell, see and meet the diverse people of a wonderfully diverse land.

After reading this book, you'll wish you were a travel writer, Mr. Theroux, makes it that much fun.
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LibraryThing member beabatllori
This book feels like travelling. I particularly liked how the author conveys his increasing sense of paranoia after months of railway travel. The descriptions of his trips through 1973 Vietnam and Soviet Russia were also fascinating.
LibraryThing member untraveller
A good writer w/ dark opinions....which I enjoy. Read the new Folio edition w/ marvelous pics.
LibraryThing member Jannes
Made me want to jump the next departing train and never get of. Feels a bit arrogant and superior at times, but if you manage to look past that you're in for a vvery vivid and exciting snapshot of life in europe and asia. Surreal and grittily realistic at the same time. I put this at the same level as Chatwin.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
On his way into India, Theroux met a Pakistani gentleman who was decrying racial intolerance in England. "I can't wait to get home," the man says. "But you're Pakistani, and we're going to India," Theroux replies. "What's the difference?"

Of course I paraphrase; but I give the example because it sums up Theroux, and illustrates why he is such a wonderful travel writer: he gets out and meets people along the way.

I'm a big fan of the Theroux household: Paul for his writing, Louis for his weird weekends and deadpan humour, and Marcel for his command of the Russian language and his general good grace. They seem an extraordinary family. I had read Theroux Sr.'s work before - "The Consul's File" - and I have now become an admirer; for anyone who wants to travel, or enjoys seeing new places and putting up with discomfort as well, there's no better guide.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
The Great Railway Bazaar
Paul Theroux
November 24, 2013

Theroux set out to travel across Asia by train, in 1973. This was before the Iranian revolution, and the Afghan war, and in the brief period when South Vietnam was trying to defend against the North without American troops. Theroux could therefor take a train from Istanbul to Teheran, cross Afghanistan by bus, travel the length of India, through Burma and Malaysia, and in Vietnam. He filled notebooks with his observations, because that was his purpose; to write a book from the train travel. He seems obsessed with sex; travelers describe their experiences, he visit nude bars, and kisses a waitress on the Trans-Siberian express. Theroux paces his tales well, and the itinerary was fascinating, but I did not develop a taste for his other books.… (more)
LibraryThing member AnnB2013
Read it as a teen. Remember funny parts and draggy bits. Not sure it would stand the test of time.
LibraryThing member alexezell
Yes. Paul Theroux is a curmudgeon at best and a sexist, racist asshole at worst. Still, this book is compelling in its embrace of the nature of travel. That is, Theroux recognizes the wonderful coincidences of travel for the miracles they are while acknowledging the horror of the small burdens that travel creates. He puts on an air of condescension but in his conversations, he belies both a knowledge and interest in the cultures and people he comes into contact with. I see now why this is considered a classic.… (more)
LibraryThing member Iambookish
I love a good travel book, especially when I can sit comfortably on my couch while the author goes through all the hardships and inconveniences for me! I really enjoyed reading along while Theroux traveled 6000 miles via train to locales that I will never go to, nor will most others, since the world has changed so much since the book was written almost 40 years ago… (more)
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Not always particularly culturally sensitive, Theroux still manages to write up fantastic characters and and provide vivid portraits.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This is a travelogue written by the American novelist Paul Theroux. It recounts Theroux's four-month journey across Asia by train, travelling through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, before finally returning via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The book follows Theroux along the way from London to Japan with a return back to Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Almost a quarter of the book is spent in Pakistan and India during the first half of the trip. I immensely enjoyed this mesmerizing and unforgettable read.… (more)
LibraryThing member adzebill
He's a grumbly cuss isn't he? And this is his own version of the trip—lord knows what the other passengers thought of him. Still, a remarkable bit of travel writing, characters beautifully evoked, and then pinned forever on the page.
LibraryThing member ShadowBarbara
Bought 5/6/2013. Did not like. Rambles pointlessly.
LibraryThing member Smiler69
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux ★★★★★

In this 1975 bestseller, Theroux, an American author, recounts his four-month journey by train in 1973 from London through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, ending in the Soviet Union. He mentions taking detailed notes in his journal, but there are so many vivid details about all the sights and sounds and especially the people he sees and talks to along the way that he must have enjoyed indulging in some fiction writing practices based on a longstanding travel writing traditions, starting with Herodotus, and including countless others such as Dickens and Mark Twain, both of which Theroux mentions. Time seems not to have been an issue for him, though he was ostensibly booked for various lectures and conferences on literary subjects along the way, events he mentions mostly only in passing. However, train delays which were frequent and inevitable seem not to have phased him and only given him greater opportunities to observe his environment. He meets all kinds of vividly drawn characters and reconstruct their dialogue and manners of speaking, and describes local scenery that make you feel like you are staring out of the train carriage window along with him. There are vendors at the stations and plenty of beggars, and the sight of countless poor Indians shitting along the tracks which give a very human touch to the narrative. He explains the many different experiences each train offers, from the state of the equipment and carriages and the various food and comforts offered, or glaringly lacking—The Orient Express, on which he begins the journey being a glaring example of a once highly luxurious means of travel sadly gone to seed by the time Theroux travelled aboard it. He mentions not even bothering to get out of his compartment at stops in certain major cities because he felt uninspired to do so from his impressions of the place as seen from his berth. He talks about books he is reading along the way. [Little Dorrit] by Charles Dickens, is mentioned for a good leg of the trip and at the end of his story, he is depressed by Gissing's [New Grub Street] while watching bleak Soviet scenery, though many others books and authors mentioned along the way as he was evidently a voracious reader. Graham Greene is the subject of conversation among the travellers at one point, with some claiming to know the author personally.

I've googled for a list of the books mentioned but unfortunately haven't found it so far. This narrative is a trip-and-a-half, in great part because of Theroux obvious talent and delight in telling stories, but also because the first part of the route, followed what was then known as the hippie trail and drugs were easy to come by. Theroux, a married man and a father of young children at the time mentions partaking or drugs on offer along the way, including indulging in opium, which abounds in some of the areas he visits.

The Great Railway Bazaar earns 5 stars from me. I only give that rating to books I intend to reread as often as I can in future. I want to add a most heartfelt and insistent recommendation for the audiobook version here. Narrated by the great and sadly departed Frank Muller, it offers a listening experience that is a true delight. Muller has a wonderful reading style and creates nuanced accents and speech mannerisms in the dialogues with the various characters encountered on the journey that truly give add colour to the reading experience. On the other hand, Theroux took pictures of his travels and these appear in some of the print editions, so perhaps having both versions is a good idea for the ultimate Great Railway Bazaar experience. :-)
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