Sometimes I feel overwhelmed when looking at the ‘travel’ section in bookstores - where should I even begin? But there are some that are just excel at their craft and Paul Theroux is one of them. And whilst he has written a dozen or so travel books, It seems fitting to begin with his first, the story of his epic train journey across Asia, entitled "The Great Railway Bazaar."
Theroux, on his own admission, has been fascinated by trains since childhood and when, as an adult (making a living penning novels) he ran out of ideas, decides to take a journey by train. A long journey. Leaving London Victoria for Istanbul on the Orient Express, he spends the next four months criss-crossing Asia - from Turkey to Iran, from Afghanistan to India, from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Malaysia. And Theroux is no fan of sightseeing either...rather he chooses to write about the train journeys themselves and the eclectic characters he meets on them.
When interviewed by Wanderlust magazine, and asked how he finds inspiration, Theroux responds quite matter-of-factly.
"Go away. Go somewhere. Look for a story.."
And Theroux does just that. Quirky, humorous and painfully honest, his thumbnail sketches of opium dens, underage brothels and pimps show that he's not one for sugercoating difficult truths. But when reading his thumbnail sketches of India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Vietnam, many of his observations seems to be as pertinent now as they were in 1975. Theroux is not one for romanticising places or people, and at times can even be damning - in some ways, though, it is his often brutal honesty which makes The Great Railway Bazaar so compelling.
Theroux went on to write many more books after the Great Railway Bazaar (including a sequel in fact) but reviews of these are for another time.
Here's an interesting video, taken by the John Adams Institute, where Theroux is discussing "the tao of travel..."
Now whilst it's fair to say Theroux can be irritable on occasion (I think he refers to himself as 'grumpy') and has also been accused of being rude, and making snide remarks about those he meets on his journey, what makes this book appealing (in my opinion) is that the author is quite philosophical at times (reflecting on more than just your average travel experiences). Theroux is honest - he admits that travel can be uncomfortable, boring, dangerous and even damned unpleasant and yet still he has no desire to return home. He just keeps journeying on...
Sure, at times you can feel that he is way too much of a whiner, and for sure he's looking at the world from a somewhat 'colonial' point of view, but, still, I can't help but enjoy it. Wait for a rainy day, curl up on the sofa with this book and immerse yourself in a story of 1970's travel...