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 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 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 CarltonC
A distasteful travelling companion, who can nevertheless turn a lovely phrase.
Some brilliant observations of characters and landscapes, especially in India and Vietnam. However, the author’s personality as he depicts himself, although allowing him to enter into situations where I would never go myself, appears to lack sufficient empathy with all those he meets. And although it is a four month train journey, he is only fleetingly present in any one country, which although initially exhilarating, I found dissatisfying by the end of the book. And by the end of the book Theroux had also sickened of the romance of travel, leaving a sour taste - too much drunken wretchedness at his own privileged position.

So, I am left glad to have read the book, but not wishing to join Theroux on another journey soon.

As the days passed I slowed down and, with Nagel’s Turkey in my hand, began sightseeing, an activity that delights the truly idle because it seems so much like scholarship, gawping and eavesdropping on antiquity, flattering oneself with the notion that one is discovering the past when really one is inventing it, using a guidebook as a series of swift notations. p36

A workman came, dressed like a grizzly bear. He set up a ladder with the meaningless mechanical care of an actor in an experimental play whose purpose is to baffle a bored audience. p319

The Folio Society edition is another beautiful book, a satisfying size, font and well illustrated (not the author’s photos, but roughly contemporaneous), with a useful map at the endpapers.
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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 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 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 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 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 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 AnnB2013
Read it as a teen. Remember funny parts and draggy bits. Not sure it would stand the test of time.
LibraryThing member tzelman
Theroux is a bit stuffy and condescending--but I'll take that with his wit, adventure, and craziness
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 edgeworth
In 1973 Paul Theroux (an American novelist and the father of Louis Theroux) left his wife and children for a while to take a four-month trip across Europe and Asia by train and ferry, going all the way down to Singapore, then looping up through Japan and returning to Europe on the Trans-Siberian Express. The Great Railway Bazaar is a record of this journey, and is considered a classic of travel literature.

Many other reviews I have read deride Theroux for what might charitably be described as a poor attitude. It’s certainly true that he often comes across as unsociable, malcontent and overly negative, but given my own travel experiences I can hardly fault him for that, and I think he makes up for it by being amusing and entertaining. The Great Railway Bazaar is probably the best travel book I’ve ever read (not including AA Gill’s, which are compilations of shorter pieces) because I generally find travel books dull or disappointing. Theroux, however, is an actual author with a beautiful prose style and acerbic wit, thus making his observations worth reading. The Great Railway Bazaar, while it didn’t entrance me, held my attention to the very end.

Incidentally, I suspect that a lot of the readers who hate travel writers who criticise and complain have never left the developed world. Not all of them, but a lot. I don’t understand how anyone could actually spend a significant amount of time putting up with the crime, filth and corruption in the developing world, and not forever more be sympathetic to a travel writer who doesn’t paint the earth as an idyllic playground of beautiful cultures.
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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 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 untraveller
A good writer w/ dark opinions....which I enjoy. Read the new Folio edition w/ marvelous pics.
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 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 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 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 dbsovereign
Not always particularly culturally sensitive, Theroux still manages to write up fantastic characters and and provide vivid portraits.
LibraryThing member ShadowBarbara
Bought 5/6/2013. Did not like. Rambles pointlessly.
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)



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