Friday, June 19, 2009

The Great Railway Bazaar

I have been reading The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, one of the great classics of travel writing. In the early 70's Theroux journeyed by rail from London to Tokyo and back again, taking in the whole of the Asian continent. He works his way down to Instanbul on the Orient Express: travels through the Middle East, India, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand on trains with such colorful names as the Tehran Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Mandalay Express and the Trans-Siberian.

It's no picnic. Theroux's memoir is filled with danger, boredom, irritating passengers, truculent porters, war, poverty, and loneliness. It's no Walk in the Woods, but it isn't supposed to be. Traveling through Vietnam during the wind down of the Vietnam war wouldn't be a walk in the park. And reading about the extreme poverty in India where people live in the train stations and use the rails as public lavatories is as sad as it is oddly comical. But still, it's a pleasure to read, full of Theroux's observations and humor. The world has changed immeasurably since the Great Railway Bazaar was first published in 1975, but some things never change. Most of the countries Theroux traveled through are still politically unstable, dangerous and fascinating places. But that shouldn't keep you from widening your gaze and taking in the view. A must read for any traveler.