The Great Railway Bazaar

Dark Star Safari was the first travel book I read, I think, I mean I’m pretty sure it was.  That makes sense in my head.  All the others came after, and because of Paul Theroux’s journey from the top of Africa to the bottom by train.  Since then some of my favourite books (that list is still coming) have been travel books, including John Lane’s A Very Peruvian Practice and John Malathronas’s Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul.

Theroux’s other travel books were a mixed bag for me, The Pillars of Hercules..meh, the Old Patagonian express passed admirably, he is after all travelling down my favourite part of the world and Riding the Iron Rooster was also ok.  But don’t let that fool you, I actually enjoy his travel books on the whole, I like way he describes his travels, observations and conversations.  He rarely falls into stereotype and he can be refreshingly crouchy.  Most of the other travel books I see seem to fall into either “I’ve moved to Spain and gosh, it’s not London and the locals are refreshing laid back, but it’s taken a year for them to build a wall for me” or “I’m somewhere thats known for drugs so I must get involved in some drug story”.  I haven’t actually read any of these books, because I can’t be bothered.

So anyhoo, this convluted intro is basically because I’ve just finished reading the Railway Bazaar.  Admittedly I’m about 30 years behind the times with this, but you see I saw his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the tracks of the Railway Bazaar, and I thought it would be pointless reading it without reading the Railway Bazaar first.  And I’ve savoured every clickety clack of the rails over the tracks for the last few weeks.  It’s a journey that Theroux takes purely because he loves trains, and purely to write a travel book.
What I enjoyed reading, possibly quite bizarrely, is that more unhinged he seems to get the further east he gets.  It’s as if the colours, sounds, people in the asian subcontinent distract him from realising what he’s actually doing and from being lonely, and once he hits Japan, the point at which he then heads back, it’s like the elastic has stretched that too far, he starts to unravel. Travelling back across the vast expanse of the siberian winter sees him sinking vodka to get through the days and we get a keen insight into his mind as the endless nothingness outside the window of his carriage forces him to look in himself and he lays himself out on the page.
Not that it’s not without it’s funny moments, at one point he is questioning why the Japanese trains don’t stop for long at their stations:

‘In other countries passengers might want more than forty-five seconds at a major station.’
‘Ah! Then the trains are slow!’
‘Right, right, but why is it -‘
As I spoke, orchestral music filled the large office.  From my experience on Japanese railways I knew an announcement was coming…
‘You were saying?’
‘I forgot my question,’ I said … I looked around.  No one was working.  Each clerk had put his pencil down and had risen.  Now the voice came over the loudspeaker, first seeming to explain and then speaking in the familiar sing-song of the exercise leader.  The office workers began to swing their arms…

Interestingly the chapter in afghanistan was cut, apparently because it didn’t actually contain any train journeys, but he has put it in Sunrise with Seamonsters (Which convinced me that as much as I love his travel writing, I’m not sure I would enjoy his novels).  I wonder if there were any further chapters that were omitted, as, and this is my only complaint, the journey back almost feels rushed.  Perhaps because he was trying to get home for Christmas or maybe because he was tired of his journey and wanted to just be home, selfishly, I didn’t want his journey to end.

Bring on Ghost Train to the Eastern Star


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