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“Ghost Train To The Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles In Search of the Railway Bazaar,” by Paul Theroux

  1. Paultheroux_200_3 Review by Richard West

"How pleasant ’tis to travel brisk," wrote Samuel Coleridge after riding the Liverpool stage in 1812. "The horror" Paul Theroux (left) surely would reply thinking of today’s even brisker air travel: the complete absence of mystique, delays, obtrusive searches, impatient passengers, the jet-lagged, hemlockian sleepiness that always brought to my mind Mr. Toad’s immortal phrase: "Here today in next week tomorrow."

Thus for 35 years Theroux has ridden and written about the pleasures of train travel’s slower tempos, of the train as its own world: wandering leisurely between hedges and hills, chatting up fellow travelers in his compartments and dining cars, a "vehicle that allows residence," whistling past mournful, dark towns:

"…the clacking of the cars rocking him to sleep.

What does he see in the passing frames?

Stories. Stories like long tracts of land.

There goes an old house, a sycamore…" ("Riding Backwards on a Train", James Hoch).

Stories indeed. Paul Theroux reignited American travel writing with his "The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia" (1975), then chronicled life observed in "The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas" (1979) and "Riding The Iron Rooster: By Train Through China" (1988).

With "Ghost Train" he has come full circle, generally retracing that first train trip, again beginning in London, through Europe, Istanbul, Central Asia, India/Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Japan, and returning across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express.

I find that the best travel books envelop a subject with a written medley– autobiography, essays, history, a dash of poetry, imaginative narration and certainly "Ghost Train" is one. It’s truffled with autobiographical tidbits Theroux claims here he will never write. We learn he returned from "Railway Bazaar" research to a marriage that didn’t survive mutual adulteries, that he suffers from gout, dislikes being read to, sports a tattoo, hates monkeys, and now is happily married to a wife he refers to here as Penelope who, like her mythical namesake, knits during his absence on this trip.

Theroux-as-Odysseus, then, older, wiser, weary after a day’s travel (to bed rather than bars), the book’s titled-ghost returning to ghostly-memories, past adventures and places, working his way back home to Penelope.

As in " Railway Bazaar," Europe gets short shrift Paris, a luminous stage-set; Budapest, agreeably seedy; Bucharest, colorless, grim, city as fourth-class waiting room and it’s only upon arrival in Istanbul that Theroux’s real odyssey begins. He admires the ancient city for its self-sufficiency, eternalness, the rose-petal jam-narghile pipe-raki-worry beadedness of the place. The change this trip, Theroux notices, is its visible prosperity and well-dressed populace. One of the pleasures of "Ghost Train" is Theroux’s visits with famous writers Sir Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan and here we eavesdrop on a fascinating conversation with Nobelist-novelist Orhan Pamuk.

Ghosttrain The world’s changed so this time no Yugoslavia (dissolved), no Iran (visa refused) or Afghanistan (war) for Theroux; instead trains across Turkey, through Georgia to Baku, across Turkmenistan ("Loonistan" with landscape like "cat litter"), Uzbekistan, and down the length of India.

Theroux loves India but despairs over the impossible traffic (bad carma?) and gnat-swarm crowds indicating the biggest change of all, a population that has doubled to 1.3 billion since his 1973 journey. He indeed finds a confident mood, good-humor, rickshaw wallahs with mobile phones, but despite the ballyhoo-ha about outsourcing growth areas, still half a billion Indians, with Sisyphean resignation, earn a $1 daily. As anyone knows who’s traveled to India, it is everything and more so.

Continuing on, his train of thought has no caboose:

…Sri Lanka: despite Tamil Tiger terrorism in the northern region, beautiful and pleasant, unchanged.

… Myanmar: the only changes from 1973, more prisons, more police, more misery.

…Laos: Vientiane no longer the decadent sexploitation capital now that the American military’s vanished, just a sleepy river town.

…Cambodia: Siem Reap outside Angkor Wat, today one million people, ruined by tourism, Phnom Penh still recovering from Khmer Rouge genocidal violence.

…Singapore: dramatically changed for the worst, more "corporation and cult than country," Theroux’s most hated destination on this trip; the people "abrasive, abrupt, thin-skinned, unsmiling, rude, puritanical, bossy…" His disgust reminded me of an old Asian aphorism:

"So worked up

Lucky he has two nostrils."

…Viet Nam: unrecognizable, revitalized, beach resorts instead of army outposts, people and country prospering. "The difference was so great as to almost erase the memory."

…Russia: trains the same (crummy), the railway employees still characterized by discarded Seven Dwarfs’ names (Crabby, Shifty, Awful, etc.) but previously-closed towns open; as ever, "the same place as it had ever been: a pretentious empire with a cruel government that was helpless without secret police."

Because Theroux is an expert colloquialist, meeting his traveling companions in all his train books is one of their great pleasures. No more so than Tapa Snim, a Korean Zen monk encountered on the Mandalay train. All his worldly posssessions were tied in a cloth sack.

"May I ask you what’s inside?" said Theroux.

Tapa Snim agreed: a begging bowl, soap, sunglasses, flashlight, mosquito repellant, aspirin tin, razor blades, sewing thread/needle, scissors, Q-tips, thimble, nail clippers, rubber bands, two-inch mirror, foot fungus cream, lip balm, nasal spray. Money hidden elsewhere.

Another Tao of Travel moment Theroux experienced in this his best travel work, one that helped him sum it all up:

"I’d come to see that travel for me was no longer a fun-seeking interlude…but a way of living my life: a trip without end where the only destination was darkness. "

Penelope, I’m home, it’s me, Odysseus.

<Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar
by Paul Theroux ( Houghton Mifflin Co., $28, 496 pgs.)

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