While Jan Morris is rightly lauded as one of the finest travel writers of the 20th century, I’ve always struggled to break into her brilliant, but dense prose. For me, Paul Theroux, and the epic train trips he undertakes in all of his travel books, are a touch more accessible, all the while offering a thoughtful and intelligent approach to the countries and cultures he encounters.
Although The Old Patagonian Express and The Pillars of Hercules are titans of travel writing, it’s The Great Railway Bazaar which remains Theroux’s crowning glory. Published in 1975, it follows the writer’s epic journey from London to Tokyo by train. It fascinates me largely because of the areas he travels through and the ways they have changed in the intervening 36 years. His journeys through Iran and Afghanistan would be impossible today without placing yourself in the line of extreme danger. Theroux discovers an unrecognisable secular Middle East and Central Asia, travelling across the Khyber Pass and following the so-called “hippie trail” before it became impassable.
Yet it’s his trip to Vietnam that is the book’s brilliant high point. A country on the cusp of reunification when Theroux arrived in 1973, the author was exposed to the dying days of a US-supported regime in the south. There’s genius in these passages, as the smells, sites and sounds of a nation on the verge of collapse jump off of the page.
Theroux’s currency is culture and no other writer immerses himself so fully in a nation than him. The Great Railway Bazaar transports you to every single street the author walks, with joyous descriptions and endless encounters with locals and fellow academics and writers who throw the kind of light on a location which the writer himself cannot do alone. Add a deeply personal undertone, with Theroux leaving his wife and young children in London to undertake this epic trip, and you have the makings of a classic of the genre.
What makes The Great Railway Bazaar even better is Theroux’s decison to retrace his footsteps in 2006’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. The differences along the route are telling, with towns like Hue in Vietnam changed beyond recognition, while Japan’s social shifts, highlighted by Theroux’s friend Haruki Murakami, offer an incisive insight into a nation struggling with its identity.
By Joe Minihane