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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the…

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (2008)

by Paul Theroux

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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! ( )
  Eyejaybee | Jun 22, 2014 |
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.... ( )
  untraveller | Apr 21, 2014 |
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. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Oct 31, 2013 |
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. ( )
  questbird | Oct 30, 2013 |
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. ( )
  landlocked54 | May 11, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
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.
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.
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That feeling about trains, for instance. Of course he had long outgrown the boyish glamour of the steam engine. yet there was something that had an appeal for him in trains, especially in night trains, which always put queer, vaguely improper notions into his head.

George Simeon

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By
"I'd much rather go by train."

D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover
To Sheila, with love
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You think of travellers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time.
I think most serious and omnivorous readers are alike - intense in their dedication to the word, quiet-minded, but relieved and eagerly talkative when they meet other readers and kindred spirits. If you have gotten this far in this book, you are just such a singular person.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618418873, Hardcover)

Amazon Best of the Month, August 2008: Way back in the dark pre-Internet, limited-air-travel world of 1975, the way to get from Europe to Asia was by train. A young and ambitious writer named Paul Theroux made his literary mark by taking the 28,000-mile intercontinental journey via rail from London to Tokyo and back home again. His book, The Great Railway Bazaar, became a travel-lit classic. Thirty years later, an older, wiser, and even less sanguine Theroux decided to retrace his steps. The result is Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a fascinating account of the places you vaguely knew existed (Tbilisi), probably won't ever go to (Bangalore), but definitely should know something about (Mandalay). Get on board Theroux's fast-moving travelogue, which features some of the most astute commentary on our distorted notions of time, space, and each other in the age of jet speed, broadband connections, and cultural extinction. --Lauren Nemroff

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:01 -0400)

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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)

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