Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar

by Paul Theroux

Paper Book, 2008

Status

Available

Publication

Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Description

In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux recreates an epic journey he took thirty years ago, a giant loop by train (mostly) through Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, China, Japan, and Siberia. In short, he traverses all of Asia top to bottom, and end to end. In the three decades since he first travelled this route, Asia has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed, China has risen, India booms, Burma slowly smothers, and Vietnam prospers despite the havoc unleashed upon it the last time Theroux passed through. He witnesses all this and more in a 25,000 mile journey, travelling as the locals do, by train, car, bus, and foot, providing his penetrating observations on the changes these countries have undergone.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

It’s the kind of project that only a man secure in his own self-esteem could undertake: an auto-pilgrimage, a grand ­homme’s homage to, well, himself. But then Theroux has never been overburdened by modesty. Although he has claimed that a prerequisite of traveling responsibly is avoiding arrogance, his previous travelogues have all been pungent with self-regard. “Ghost Train” is no different.
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He also keeps up a running argument with the books he reads along the way, to say nothing of his contemporaries (Chatwin never traveled alone, he harrumphs, and neither does bête noire Naipaul). Fans of Theroux will say that he hasn’t lost his touch; the more critical will say that he breaks no new ground. Either way, worth looking into.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nemoman
Theroux retraces the route (with some exceptions) of his first train travel book [The Great Railway Bazaar] to muse on changes, both in places, and incidentally himself. The NYT published a scathing review of this book today. Much of it was an ad hominem attack on Theroux, and perhaps his tone, rather than his writing. I think he is an excellent writer, which flows from his powers of observation. He also is widely read which permits historical asides that enrichen the travel. Unlike the Times reviewer, I do not find Theroux arrogant, He is extremely competent and self confident and does not shade his opinions. People who are not comfortable in their own skins may mistake this for arrogance. He certainly has grown somewhat as a writer. His earlier writing was aptly described by some as relentlessly cranky. This book is less cranky; however, at one point he does react crankily to a description of his writing as caustic. In any event I do not mind crankiness as long as it is informed crankiness and Theroux's writing is well informed. The book gives you some additional insight into what he reads and what he thinks about other writers (other than Naipal). He visits Pico Iyer in Japan and they trade quips about other travel writers. If you enjoy travel writing then this is a great book by one of the best travel writers extant (I even enjoy his quirky fiction although I am not sure why) at the top of his game.… (more)
LibraryThing member ubaidd
According to Mr. Paul Theroux a travel writer should be able to make a decent living if he's capable of making breezy generalizations. This I inferred from a paragraph about Prince Charles, one of the many people you meet as you journey across Asia through Mr. Theroux' wonderful travelogue. The author does not refrain from sweeping declarations himself, from "a country's pornography offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation" to "Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant's greedy dream of development".

I found myself agreeing with much of Mr. Theroux' impressions of India, especially the ones about modernity and development and what those concepts translate into on the ground. In other parts of Asia, in Sri Lanka and Vietnam for example, the author does sometimes display a bit of the western liberal's tendency to romanticize when confronted with the untouched countryside and laidback village life, but he then walks back, cognizant.

The book takes you from London, to Paris, Romania, Turkey, Mary, Tashkent, Amritsar, Mumbai, Chennai, Colombo, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hanoi, Kyoto, Vladivostok, Perm and then back to London through Berlin. Some of those cities are close friends of mine, some are mere acquaintances, most I will probably never meet. It is nice then to have an observant and tireless guide like Mr. Theroux show you around. He also is kind enough to take the time to sit down and talk to two of my favorite authors, Mr. Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul and Mr. Haruki Murakami in Tokyo. On the way we meet other colorful characters, an obnoxious environmentalist in the train to Jodhpur ("a gargoyle in horn-rimmed glasses") and a creepy pimp in Lee's Singapore. Speaking of Singapore, the writer gives the country a scathing treatment, portraying it more as an Orwellian dystopia than as the uber-efficient city state we all hear of.

Ghost Train to the Easter Star is an eminently quotable book, with several interesting thoughtful observations, both original and borrowed. It is also, like many books ambitious in scope, sometimes flawed in its generalizations. But that's okay. This is not a book on economics or sociology, it is a book of impressions, and impressions filtered through perspective are imperfect by definition.

An enjoyable read. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member juli1357
This was my first experience reading Paul Theroux and I absolutely loved it! Soon after, I read The Great Railway Bazaar, in which he writes of a similar trip he took many years ago. Of the two, I much prefer Ghost Train because on this trip, he got off the train more often and as a result, the reader gets a better sense of the different countries he visits and their inhabitants. This is armchair travel at it's best.… (more)
LibraryThing member etxgardener
It's been a while since I've read on of Paul Theroux's books, but my first impression after starting this one is what a terrific writer he is. This is no sunny travelogue featuring sunlit climes, but a journey re-tracing the path he took when writing The Great Railway Bazaar almost forty years ago. In doing so he reflects not only on the changes to the landscape he preciously traveled through, but the changes in himself and his growth as a person.

Theroux has biases galore and a wicked sense of humor. This is an excellent read for any armchair traveller.
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LibraryThing member Oreillynsf
I had trouble truly enjoying the first Theroux book I read. I wanted to love it but didn't get there. So i reread it and began to recognize his tremendous talents as a writer. He has a great ability to weave past with present, and stories with cultural observations.

This book essentially retraces the route of The Great Railway Bazaar and his observations about the changes in the people and places he visits are fascinating. As you read it, stop occasionally and really contemplate the words and the pacing with which he writes. It'll give you a greater appreciation for what a talent Theroux is.… (more)
LibraryThing member EmilyPSULibrary
First of Theroux's that I've read it and I fell in love with it. His observations of people, politics, and places are profound. He seems to be able to put things into words that you know, but can't find the words to describe.
LibraryThing member Opinionated
I think I've read all of Paul Theroux's travel books and I have a weird dichotomous relationship with them. I tend to enjoy his descriptions of places I haven't been to, and tend to reject completly his depictions of those I know well. I can't forget his description, in "The Happy Isles of Oceania" of Melbourne as being known by the locals as "Smellburn". Really? Was someone pulling your leg or did you just make it up?

So this a retrace of the steps of The Great Railway Bazaar and as such, bound to be a bit self indulgent. We learn a little of Mr Theroux's character, but not much. He seems cold, aloof and solitary, and although he tells us that he spent much of his 1973 trip worried about his marriage, honestly if you've just gone galivanting the railways of the world for a year leaving your wife with 2 young kids, is it surprising if she's a bit frosty on the phone?

However, as I have never been to Georgia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan I enjoyed these chapters. As I have been to most of the places further east, I found it all a bit more problematic

Firstly India. Yes, India has a lot of people living there. Yes, navigating cities like Chennai and Mumbai can be stressful. But you can hardly expect the population to stay at home so that Mr Theroux is not inconvenienced by them on the pavement. And to condemn India's economic progress, which has drawn many out of poverty (although of course many remain) seems churlish in the extreme. As does praising Sri Lanka for its lack of progress - for sure Sri Lanka is beautiful and peaceful, but most of the population would do a lot for one of those call centre jobs he condemns.

If gets worse from here; there is an obsession with red light districts, prostitution and sex, that are glamorised in Thailand and to a certain extent in Vietnam, completely dominate his account of Tokyo (there is more to Tokyo than Love Hotels,Manga and Cosplay believe it or not, exotic though these may be) and Japan generally, and are drooled over in Singapore (but forget the section on child prostitution, which is almost certainly made up). Of course Mr Theroux never indulges - but he mentions not indulging so many times that there is a suspicion that he protesteth too much

And after Sri Lanka it's all just....trivial. He condemns places that have changed. He lionises those that haven't. He rants against governments that he doesn't like .....deservedly in the case of Burma, without enough explanation of what they are supposed to have done in the case of Cambodia, and entertainingly in the case of Singapore, which he really doesn't like (it seems that the Singapore government feel the same about him) and rants for pages about its defiencies, slating examples sometimes real, sometimes invented. But entertaining none the less

But overall, I wish he'd ended his trip before getting to India.
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LibraryThing member Cradlow
As always, Theroux is a good solid read. I especially enjoyed his visits with other authors.
LibraryThing member 391
I didn't much care for Theroux's book. Everything felt so self-indulgent, even by memoir standards, and his surmises tended to be broadly stereotypical. It just rubbed me the wrong way. I mean, I still finished the book, and I found his journey fascinating, but I don't know if I would like him much as a travel companion. There was also a swath of negativity that really bogged me down in points, and I found the rather conveniently politically-allied triteness to the conversations and interactions were far more fictional than accurate. Perhaps it was just not journalistic enough for my tastes - there was a very human and personal point of view to the narrative. I think, in that case, that I just don't care particularly much for his perspective.… (more)
LibraryThing member eagletusk
Interesting book, read this one before the first one, a great look into some lesser traveled places, I have been to Kyoto where he visited and while he mentions some of the things it's interesting to notice what he puts down in words, that said the Turkmenistan and Singapore bits were very interesting.
LibraryThing member oldman
The travels of Paul Theroux, a writer and traveler, or maybe a traveler and writer. This is the book from his travel of the great railway bazaar when he was 20 years younger and of a different mind. This time he is more observant, but also more of a cynic. The last half of the book is far better than the travels through the "stans" where poverty and dictatorship seemed the norm to the crowding of India. When he got to Sri Lanka and he began interactions with other writers and travelers the story gained more depth. Four stars… (more)
LibraryThing member landlocked54
If you love to travel you will love Theroux's book. He retraces his path of 30 years ago by train again. Visiting places he couldn't in the 70s and revisiting places he did back then. A real pleasure if you love train travel.
LibraryThing member questbird
I have never read the Great Railway Bazaar, and after reading this book I don't feel I need to. Mr Theroux retraces his tracks, as much as possible, varying his route to avoid war and disaster (the book was written during the Iraq War in 2007-8). So this time he skips Afghanistan and Pakistan, but manages to enter Cambodia which was closed to him in the 1970s. He is older this time, an experienced traveller and this shows in his writing. For a start, he always has money enough to choose his hotels and his carriages. He chats to famous people who have met him or read his novels. He barely notes any discomforts of travel (though he does incur some) and delights in the general smoothness of train travel through Asia. He finds himself attracted to pleasant, homely open spaces and not crowded and boastful cities. He passes through countries run by dictatorships and finds them depressing and ridiculous. He seems strangely drawn to differing customs of the sex trade, though apparently he never partakes. He has a lot to say about Burma, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Japan; not so much about Malaysia or China. His books appear several times: he encounters people reading them or selling them and he makes himself known to them with sometimes amusing results. In one case in Burma, his book from the first time through had a direct and positive effect on the prosperity of a whole family. Overall I found 'Ghost Train' a thoughtful book, with the author musing about getting older as well as observing the people of the countries he passes through.… (more)
LibraryThing member kakadoo202
it feels you ate on the train with him. you smell the sweat of fellow travellers, you hear languages you dont understand, you eta food you dont know, you feel the swaying of the trian, you hear the clonking of the metal. for sure a good start to read this author. will for sure read more by him.
LibraryThing member untraveller
Excellent, intelligent travel writing. I recently reread The Great Railway Bazaar and this was a wonderful follow-up journey loaded with insights as well as ideas for my own personal travel. Theroux does get a bit carried away w/ himself at times....some of his vocabulary is beyond the confines of an inexpensive dictionary....
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Although he had previously published a few novels, Paul Theroux really made his name as a writer with his travel book, 'The Great Railway Bazaar', which documented his journey by train in the early 1970s from London to Paris and then by the Orient Express through Eastern Europe to Turkey whence he departed through Southern Asia all the way to Japan, before returning via the Trans-Siberian Express. Of course, there have always been travel books, though Theroux broke new ground by concentrating on descriptions of his journey rather than the destinations. He always took a supply of decent reading with him, and his books often prove as valuable for their literary insights as for the revelations about the countries and places he visits.

'The Great Railway Bazaar was immensely well received, and set a template that Theroux was to revisit several times throughout the rest of his career. To my mind his travel writing has always eclipsed his novels and short stories. I remember more than thirty years ago hearing my Wilfred Massiah, my marvellous English teacher at school, reading the chapter from 'The Old Patagonian Express' in which Theroux attended a football match between El Salvador and Nicaragua which he describes in a manner similar to Dante's descent into the inner rings of Hell - perhaps not without reason as the previous occasion on which those two countries had met at football had ended in them going to war.

'The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star' recounts Theroux's experiences thirty-three years later when he tried to recreate the earlier journey through Europe and Asia. In the intervening period international politics had put their stamp on the globe, especially in the Middle East, which forced some diversions from the earlier route. His original journey had also been made before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the former USSR, and Theroux gives some interesting descriptions of life in 'the Stans', particularly Kyrgyrstan and Turkmenistan. Much, however, remains surprisingly unchanged over the intervening third of a century. Amritsar strikes him as very similar to his memories of being there for the first time, and he remains baffled, but impressed, at how India continues somehow to function as a democracy, rattling along on a bureaucracy that creaks and strains but somehow holds together.

Theroux has always been known for his petulance, and is seldom slow to criticise the countries through which he travels. That trait is to the fore here, though I think it might more ready be termed simple petulance, or even plain rudeness. I am losing count of the number of times that I have read his phrase, 'The toilet was unspeakable.' It occurred two or three times in this book which seems to be par for the Theroux course.

I felt at times that he was struggling with this book, and he occasionally laboured the point over his comparisons with the earlier journey. Still, it was an interesting book and I am glad I read it. I was left, though, as ever feeling that while I am glad I read his book, I am even more glad that I didn't have to meet the writer!
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Although he had previously published a few novels, Paul Theroux really made his name as a writer with his travel book, 'The Great Railway Bazaar', which documented his journey by train in the early 1970s from London to Paris and then by the Orient Express through Eastern Europe to Turkey whence he departed through Southern Asia all the way to Japan, before returning via the Trans-Siberian Express. Of course, there have always been travel books, though Theroux broke new ground by concentrating on descriptions of his journey rather than the destinations. He always took a supply of decent reading with him, and his books often prove as valuable for their literary insights as for the revelations about the countries and places he visits.

'The Great Railway Bazaar was immensely well received, and set a template that Theroux was to revisit several times throughout the rest of his career. To my mind his travel writing has always eclipsed his novels and short stories. I remember more than thirty years ago hearing my Wilfred Massiah, my marvellous English teacher at school, reading the chapter from 'The Old Patagonian Express' in which Theroux attended a football match between El Salvador and Nicaragua which he describes in a manner similar to Dante's descent into the inner rings of Hell - perhaps not without reason as the previous occasion on which those two countries had met at football had ended in them going to war.

'The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star' recounts Theroux's experiences thirty-three years later when he tried to recreate the earlier journey through Europe and Asia. In the intervening period international politics had put their stamp on the globe, especially in the Middle East, which forced some diversions from the earlier route. His original journey had also been made before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the former USSR, and Theroux gives some interesting descriptions of life in 'the Stans', particularly Kyrgyrstan and Turkmenistan. Much, however, remains surprisingly unchanged over the intervening third of a century. Amritsar strikes him as very similar to his memories of being there for the first time, and he remains baffled, but impressed, at how India continues somehow to function as a democracy, rattling along on a bureaucracy that creaks and strains but somehow holds together.

Theroux has always been known for his petulance, and is seldom slow to criticise the countries through which he travels. That trait is to the fore here, though I think it might more ready be termed simple petulance, or even plain rudeness. I am losing count of the number of times that I have read his phrase, 'The toilet was unspeakable.' It occurred two or three times in this book which seems to be par for the Theroux course.

I felt at times that he was struggling with this book, and he occasionally laboured the point over his comparisons with the earlier journey. Still, it was an interesting book and I am glad I read it. I was left, though, as ever feeling that while I am glad I read his book, I am even more glad that I didn't have to meet the writer!
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LibraryThing member danoomistmatiste
The author retraces the route of his earlier trip across the world chronicled in the Great Railway Bazaar and finds a world that is in far worse shape than the one he encountered 33 years ago. The general theme is corruption, decay, decrepitude, over population, unbridled greed and growth at the cost of the environment.

His parting lines are very telling and here I quote a small fragment,

"Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. Politicians are always inferior to their citizens. No on one earth is well governed. Is there hope? Yes. Most people I'd met, in chance encounters, were strangers who helped me on my way. And we lucky ghosts can travel wherever we want. The going is still good, because arrivals are departures."
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LibraryThing member MeePuak
Enjoyed 95%
LibraryThing member kaitanya64
Paul Theroux retraces a journey he took thirty years earlier. He avoids the danger of lamenting the "good old days," but in typical Theroux fashion finds plenty not to like, especially in the suffering of the poor and the idiocy of various governments. But while he is somewhat pessimistic at times and sometimes a bit of a name dropper, he is erudite and so many of his criticisms are right on the money that I found it impossible not to get caught up in his journey across Europe and Asia.… (more)
LibraryThing member quiBee
Thirty years ago, Paul Theroux did a massive train trip from Europe through to Japan and back, writing it up in his first, famous travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar. This book recreates that trip where he tries to cover, as far as possible, that same trip, though covering a few new areas that were closed due to the danger back then (Cambodia, as an example) and not being able to retrace his steps to other areas this time for the same reason.
I probably read that first book about 25 years ago, and reading this one reminded me how much I enjoy his travel writing.
He writes with a very acerbic, often funny, but melancholic eye as he observes the changes that have happened right from one end of the trip to the other. So many changes and few of them for the better. Paul is much older and aware of the decay and/or loss attached to so much of the change.
I read the book with my tablet beside me so I could follow the journey on Google Maps--my geography certainly needs some revision (I, like the world, am aging and my memory is not as good as it used to be.)
I enjoyed the read very much.
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