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

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

3.6 28
by Paul Theroux

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Paul Theroux returns to the transcontinental expedition that made Great Railway Bazaar a classic of travel literature and realizes—in rich, anecdotal detail—how much the world has changed.

Half a lifetime ago, Paul Theroux virtually invented the modern travel narrative by recounting his grand tour by train through Asia. In the three

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Paul Theroux returns to the transcontinental expedition that made Great Railway Bazaar a classic of travel literature and realizes—in rich, anecdotal detail—how much the world has changed.

Half a lifetime ago, Paul Theroux virtually invented the modern travel narrative by recounting his grand tour by train through Asia. In the three decades since, the world he recorded in that book has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed and China has risen; India booms while Burma smothers under dictatorship; Vietnam flourishes in the aftermath of the havoc America was unleashing on it the last time he passed through. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux re-creates that earlier journey. His odyssey takes him from eastern Europe, still hung-over from communism, through tense but thriving Turkey into the Caucasus, where Georgia limps back toward feudalism while its neighbor Azerbaijan revels in oil-fueled capitalism. Theroux is firsthand witness to it all, encountering adventures only he could have: from the literary (sparring with the incisive Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk) to the dissolute (surviving a week-long bender on the Trans-Siberian Railroad). Wherever he goes, his omnivorous curiosity and unerring eye for detail never fail to inspire, enlighten, inform, and entertain.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Spectacular . . . as much an emotional journey as a physical pilgrimage." — Christian Science Monitor

"With the world on a fast train to the godforsaken, Theroux counsels you to take the local — with its longueurs, aromas, riddles, and many stations." — San Francisco Chronicle

"Engaging and brilliant . . . can only add to his stature as one of our most original and agile writers." — Minneapolis Star Tribune

"An elegy for an epic writing career and a diminishing world . . . few writers can so precisely capture the strange qualities of travel." — Outside

"In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Theroux retraces the path he took 33 years earlier, assessing with his sharp eye and astringent pen what has changed and what has remained the same in the people and cultures he first encountered in his early 30s." — Chicago Tribune

"Theroux takes us not to mere places, but to regions in the mind that we likely haven’t known before." — Rocky Mountain News

"Theroux puts the brakes on his relentless momentum long enough to deliver some of his strongest writing and rewarding commentary on his beloved India . . . His prose explodes with texture, depth, and wisdom." — Boston Globe

"Traveling 28,000 miles with Paul Theroux is a lot like traveling the world with a long-lost friend." — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Brilliant. No one writes with Theroux's head-on intensity and raptness, and his descriptions made me want to jump on the next plane to Istanbul (and also, of course, to many of the other places he evokes). I particularly loved the spectral motif, the ghosts and shadows and underground presences that flit through the narrative, giving the whole a half-seen and haunting dimension that no book of travels I've ever read conjures up." — Pico Iyer

"Much of his writing reflects affection for the people in whose midst he is apt to find himself, and a spirit of inquiry that is part anthropological and part autobiographical." — Wall Street Journal

"Theroux is the ultimate globetrotter, finding something of value wherever he roams." — The Atlantic

"Brightly rendered and endlessly informative, it serves up one sharp, insightful anecdote or historical tidbit after another . . . Theroux's fresh phrasing is a treat whether he's evoking the desolation of rural Turkmenistan, the heat of Jodhpur or a massage in Bangkok." — Seattle Times

"Mature and thoroughly engrossing . . . We are the author’s companions rather than the audience for his tales." — Los Angeles Times

"Theroux fans are likely to enjoy every episode of this latest adventure." — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Here's a toast to a career-capping classic from a travel writing mentor and master." —National Geographic Traveler


Publishers Weekly

Acclaimed travel writer and novelist Theroux hasn't lost his affection for trains, but his view of the scenery outside has darkened in his latest odyssey. Reprising the itinerary of his 1973 The Great Railway Bazaar(with a detour around Iran and Afghanistan into the Central Asian republics), Theroux takes a contrarian stance toward the transformation of Asia over the intervening decades. The persistence of familiar, authentic, rural decrepitude usually heartens him, while the teeming modernity of great cities-the computer-and-oxcart madhouses of Mumbai and Bangalore, the neurotic orderliness of Singapore, the soullessness of Tokyo-appalls. The book is often an elegy for fixity in a globalizing age when everyone is a traveler anxious to get to America and "the world is deteriorating and shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation." Fortunately, Theroux is too rapt an observer of his surroundings and himself to wallow long in reaction or nostalgia; readers will find his usual wonderfully evocative landscapes and piquant character sketches (and, everywhere, prostitutes soliciting him-most stylishly in Hanoi, where they ride up on motorcycles crying, "You come! Boom-boom!"). No matter where his journey takes him, Theroux always sends back dazzling post cards. (Aug.)

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Library Journal

Thirty-three years after taking the trek he recounted in The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux hits the rails again, duplicating as best he can that earlier trip through Eastern Europe, central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Siberia. His new memoir abounds with comparisons to that first trip, geographically, politically, and personally. Theroux recalls how one critique of The Great Railway Bazaar described it as "caustic"; his descriptions here may not be precisely that, but his tone can be off-putting, e.g., there's a touch of misogyny in his treatment of some of the women he encounters. He also adopts a traveler-not-tourist tone, which some readers may find refreshing but others may simply see as smug. In conjunction with this outlook, he tends to seek out the seedier sides of his locales in order to find what he believes is the "real" place. These "real" places include everything from porn shops to sex traffickers. In short, this is not light reading. Nevertheless, Theroux is an important American writer. Recommended for libraries where The Great Railway Bazaar has been popular. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/08.]
—Lee Arnold

Kirkus Reviews
Travel writer and novelist Theroux (The Elephanta Suite, 2007, etc.) offers an elegiac retracing of roads and railroads taken across the vastness of Eurasia. Rejoining his 1975 travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux takes to the chemin de fer from London to Kyoto four decades older and, it seems, more inclined to the better things in life ("a woman in a blue uniform brought me a bottle of Les Jamelles Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc 2004 . . . and then the lunch tray: terrine de poulet et de broccolis, chutney de tomates, the entree a fillet of lightly peppered salmon, with coup de chocolat for dessert"). He is a touch rueful and more than a touch reflective, viewing his metaphorically mirrored self in the sleeping-compartment window and thinking of marriages, friendships and youth lost. The meditative aspect soon yields to Theroux's testy, Kiplingesque impatience with the cultures east of Folkestone, to his allergy to the "Asiatic ambiguity" that lies before him. He is willing to debate such things with the people he meets, unafraid to argue the relative merits of Western civilization vis-a-vis Islam, to name just one topic of conversation. As with his previous books, Theroux is unafraid of roughing it in the interest of getting a story, and some of his new memoir's best moments find him stealing across snowy, remote borders, "like a specter, in a strange country at nightfall," only to have his strength and compass restored by a delicious bottle of wine or morsel. Theroux wanders to places that scarcely cross most other travel writers' minds, among them Vientiane ("a sleepy town on the banks of the muddy river, famous for its cheap beer") and Phnom Penh ("scruffy, rather beaten-up . .. like a scarred human face in which its violent past was evident"). 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 bete 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.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson
The photo on the jacket of The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Paul Theroux's 1975 account of a 28,000-mile odyssey through Eastern Europe, the Far East, Indonesia, India, and the Middle East, is a perfect catalog of antediluvian fashion. Sideburns to the jawline, paisley tie, lapels that could carry a two-seater aloft. Now, more than 30 years later, his re-creation of the journey in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star pictures a polo-shirted elder, with much smaller glasses. How times change. And how they do not.

That is his point, this writer of 41 (count 'em!) previous books. The population of India may have doubled in the intervening years -- how's that for change? -- but plenty of regional differences remain even on this globalized globe. We can be grateful to the man, for instance, for visiting Romania, so we don't have to. (Bucharest is "a city of sullen, desperate vice.")

This trip, though, is not only about seeing what's up in the world these days. It's about seeing what's up with Paul Theroux as he makes an emblematic trip into the past -- the one stored in a middle-aged memory -- at the same time he makes one into the world of today.

Along the way, Theroux unwraps the secret of nonfiction writers: They lie. Well, not lie, exactly; they reframe. If the picture doesn't look good with certain details in it, out they go. Thus he dispatches a notion retailed in the earlier book, that his journey to the unknown was undertaken with adventuresome spirit and devil-take-the-hindmost high hopes: "[T]he first trip had not gone as planned.... I was homesick the whole way -- four and a half months of first melancholy experience of the traveler's long lonely evenings." One never suspects. The people he met back then on the Direct-Orient Express -- sometimes in close quarters indeed, literally on top of one another -- were rendered with perfect realism. And that is to say, not realistically at all. Details as ideal as the Japanese man who asks if Theroux wants to visit a "tzu," one with "enemas in cages,? tend to be made, not born. The author is, after all, a novelist too.

Both books spill forth a wealth of aphoristic appreciation: Venice, given its surroundings, is "like a drawing room in a gas station"; Sikhs worshiping at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, are "swallowing grace and dystentery in the same mouthful."

The new book is, perhaps necessarily, a much darker affair than the old. (He undertook the journey looking for what 19th-century traveler Henry Morton Stanley found upon returning to Africa ten years after his first visit: "a different place, with ominous changes, and a new book.") This is because part of the territory explored is that of memory, and the act of exploration a return to places associated with a youth that is gone, a time of life that will never be recaptured. And the traveler possesses the knowledge that to try can be unwise: "The decision to return to an early scene in your life is dangerous but is like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this funny-looking and bruised old fruit." One senses Theroux judging himself here as much as any object of desire long vanished; it lends new depths to his writing in Ghost Train, as well as a feeling of sad detachment.

At the same time, he discovers joy in revisiting the past, but with fresh eyes, and the chance to right old wrongs. Of Istanbul, a city he thinks so beautiful it is "heart-stopping" (and, he points out, he finds "most cities nasty"), he realizes that "I had been too young and hurried to appreciate its virtues on my first visit." While there, he dines with Orhan Pamuk, and although it is ostensibly fascinating to sit in on a meal with Turkey's most illustrious writer, Theroux never quite makes this brush with celebrity as engaging as what he witnesses through the blurred lens of the train window, the miserable poverty along the tracks to Mandalay, the grace and colors of Rajasthan.

One afternoon in Tblisi he eats at the House of Charity and that night attends an evening premiere of Giselle. It is that kind of book, he that kind of well-connected gentleman.

Wherever he goes, though, he is followed by himself, the ghost of the young man who took this trip in a different time. He remarks often on the "invisibility" of the older man (and here I thought this kind of unwilling disappearance was just a rueful punishment for females who dared to age!).

Upon arriving in Rangoon, he writes wistfully,

If a place, after decades, is the same, or worse than before, it is almost shaming to behold. Like a prayer you regret has been answered, it exists as a mirror image of yourself, the traveler, who has to admit: I'm the same too, but aged -- wearier, frailer, fractured, abused, weaker, shabbier, spookier.

Yet some things just could not have been foreseen from 1975: there are no ghosts in the Mumbai of today, just the disembodied voices of technology's outsourced spirits. Theroux visits Tata Consultancy Services, a call center for an unnamed American retailer. "If you have a problem with your electric drill, we will sort it out," says a representative of the company. In hundreds of cubicles sit headphoned employees, ready to take your call. Overhead hangs a banner declaiming, What can I do to resolve your problem today?

If only they could.

In fact, as we see in the mirror Theroux holds up, the world is filled with irresolvable problems. And the more there are in a place, apparently, the more prostitution and pornography there is too. (In Vladivostok, Theroux everywhere sees "the girlie shows that catered to sailors, and the piles of Russian tit-and-bum magazines that were sold by shivering old ladies in ragged overcoats all over town." One sells what will be bought in such a place, and that's how you measure desperation -- by how much sex is for sale.)

Although we pass by places that seem nothing but ravaged, hopeless, bleak, the author points out that there is always something more to be seen. So long as one stands at a different point of view -- one that is older, perhaps wiser; but certainly, welcoming of the ghosts one accumulates as one goes on. In Siberia, where the book ends, he looks out at a village at a station stop. "In the past I had sneered at a half-buried place like this and wanted to move on." Now, though, he suspects it is peaceful, self-sufficient, and a possibility for a life well-lived.

Well, if it weren't so cold, maybe. And as long as there weren't other places to go, eternally farther down the tracks. --Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle; Dark Horses and Black Beauties; and The Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy—being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveler’s personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption, and mythomania bordering on the pathological. This is why a traveler’s worst nightmare is not the secret police or the witch doctors or malaria, but rather the prospect of meeting another traveler.
Most writing about travel takes the form of jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous, the thinnest, most transparent monologuing. Little better than a license to bore, travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing, much of it distorted with Munchausen syndrome.
Of course, it’s much harder to stay at home and be polite to people and face things, but where’s the book in that? Better the boastful charade of pretending to be an adventurer:

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads, Crouch in the fo’c’sle Stubbly with goodness,

in a lusty “Look-at-me!” in exotic landscapes.
This was more or less my mood as I was packing to leave home. I also thought: But there is curiosity. Even the most timid fantasists need the satisfaction of now and then enacting their fantasies. And sometimes you just have to clear out. Trespassing is a pleasure for some of us. As for idleness, “An aimless joy is a pure joy.” And there are dreams: one, the dream of a foreign land that I enjoy at home, staring east into space at imagined temples, crowded bazaars, and what V. S. Pritchett called “human architecture,” lovely women in gauzy clothes, old trains clattering on mountainsides, the mirage of happiness; two, the dream state of travel itself. Often on a trip, I seem to be alive in a hallucinatory vision of difference, the highly colored unreality of foreignness, where I am vividly aware (as in most dreams) that I don’t belong; yet I am floating, an idle anonymous visitor among busy people, an utter stranger. When you’re strange, as the song goes, no one remembers your name.
Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen. Being invisible—the usual condition of the older traveler—is much more useful than being obvious. You see more, you are not interrupted, you are ignored. Such a traveler isn’t in a hurry, which is why you might mistake him for a bum. Hating schedules, depending on chance encounters, I am attracted by travel’s slow tempo.
Ghosts have all the time in the world, another pleasure of long- distance aimlessness—traveling at half speed on slow trains and procrastinating. And this ghostliness, I was to find, was also an effect of the journey I had chosen, returning to places I had known many years ago. It is almost impossible to return to an early scene in your traveling life and not feel like a specter. And many places I saw were themselves sad and spectral, others big and hectic, while I was the haunting presence, the eavesdropping shadow on the ghost train.

Long after I took the trip I wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar I went on thinking how I’d gone overland, changing trains across Asia, improvising my trip, rubbing against the world. And reflecting on what I’d seen—the way the unrevisited past is always looping in your dreams. Memory is a ghost train too. Ages later, you still ponder the beautiful face you once glimpsed in a distant country. Or the sight of a noble tree, or a country road, or a happy table in a café, or some angry boys armed with rusty spears shrieking, “Run you life, dim-dim!”—or the sound of a train at night, sounding that precise musical note of train whistles, a diminished third, into the darkness, as you lie in the train, moving through the world as travelers do, “inside the whale.” Thirty-three years went by. I was then twice as old as the person who had ridden those trains, most of them pulled by steam locomotives, boiling across the hinterland of Turkey and India. I loved the symmetry in the time difference. Time passing had become something serious to me, embodied in the process of my growing old. As a young man I regarded the earth as a fixed and trustworthy thing that would see me into my old age; but older, I began to understand transformation as a natural law, something emotional in an undependable world that was visibly spoiled. It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay, the epiphany of Wordsworth, the wisdom of wabi-sabi: nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts.
“Without change there can be no nostalgia,” a friend once said to me, and I realized that what I began to witness was not just change and decay, but imminent extinction. Had my long-ago itinerary changed as much as me? I had the idea of taking the same trip again, traveling in my own footsteps—a serious enterprise, but the sort of trip that younger, opportunistic punks often take to make a book and get famous. (The list is very long and includes travelers’ books in the footsteps of Graham Greene, George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Leonard Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Mister Kurtz, H. M. Stanley, Leopold Bloom, Saint Paul, Basho, Jesus, and Buddha.) The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life. Travel also holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home. In a distant place no one knows you—nearly always a plus. And you can pretend, in travel, to be different from the person you are, unattached, enigmatic, younger, richer or poorer, anyone you choose to be, the rebirth that many travelers experience if they go far enough.
The decision to return to any early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible, not as a search for lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since. In most cases it is like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this funny-looking and bruised old fruit. We all live with fantasies of transformation. Live long enough and you see them enacted—the young made old, the road improved, houses where there were once fields; and their opposites, a good school turned into a ruin, a river poisoned, a pond shrunk and filled with trash, and dismal reports: “He’s dead,” “She’s huge,” “She committed suicide,” “He’s now prime minister,” “He’s in jail,” “You can’t go there anymore.” A great satisfaction in growing old—one of many—is assuming the role of a witness to the wobbling of the world and seeing irreversible changes. The downside, besides the tedium of listening to the delusions of the young, is hearing the same hackneyed opinions over and over, not just those of callow youth but, much worse and seemingly criminal, the opinions of even callower people who ought to know better, all the lies about war and fear and progress and the enemy—the world as a wheel of repetition. They—I should say “we”—are bored by things we’ve heard a million times before, books we’ve dismissed, the discoveries that are not new, the proposed solutions that will solve nothing. “I can tell that I am growing old,” says the narrator in Borges’s story “The Congress.” “One unmistakable sign is the fact that I find novelty neither interesting nor surprising, perhaps because I see nothing essentially new in it—it’s little more than timid variations on what’s already been.” Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes—but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps—a glib, debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer—would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.
Since I will never write the autobiography I once envisioned—volume one, Who I Was; volume two, I Told You So—writing about travel has become a way of making sense of my life, the nearest I will come to autobiography—as the novel is, the short story, and the essay. As Pedro Almodóvar once remarked, “Anything that is not autobiography is plagiarism.” The thing to avoid while in my own footsteps would be the tedious reminiscences of better days, the twittering of the nostalgia bore, whose message is usually I was there and you weren’t. “I remember when you could get four of those for a dollar.” “There was a big tree in a field where that building is now.” “In my day . . .” Oh, shut up!

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