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

( 28 )


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

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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

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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
From the Publisher
“Follow Theroux wherever he goes; you’ll be surprised and enthralled…”
Globe and Mail

“Brightly rendered and endlessly informative, it serves up one sharp, insightful anecdote or historical tidbit after another…”
Seattle Times

“Brilliant. No one writes with Theroux’s head-on intensity and raptness…”
— Pico Iyer

The Barnes & Noble Review
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547237930
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/6/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 349,999
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux’s highly acclaimed books include Dark Star Safari, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Old Patagonian Express, The Elephanta Suite, and, of course, The Great Railway Bazaar. Two of his books, The Mosquito Coast and Dr. Slaughter have been made into successful films. He is a frequent contributor to magazines, including the New Yorker, Smithsonian and Men’s Journal. He divides his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii where he is a professional beekeeper.

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Read an Excerpt

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, striking 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. . . .

Traveling into the darkness of a late-winter evening, knowing that I would be waking up in Vienna only to change trains, I felt that my trip had actually begun, that everything that had happened until now was merely a prelude. What intensified this feeling was the sight of the sodden, deep green meadows, the shadowy river, the bare trees, a chilly feeling of foreignness, and the sense that I had no clear idea where I was but only the knowledge that late tonight we would be passing through Strasbourg on the German border and tomorrow morning we’d be in Austria, and around noon in Budapest, where I’d catch another train. The rhythm of these clanging rails and the routine of changing trains would lead me into central Asia, since it was just a sequence of railway journeys from here to Tashkent in Uzbekistan.

A lovely feeling warmed me, the true laziness of the long-distance traveler. There was no other place I wished to be than right here in the corner seat, slightly tipsy from the wine and full of bouillabaisse, the rain lashing the window.

I did not know it then, of course, but I would be traveling through rain and wind all the way through Turkey, on the Black Sea coast, through Georgia, and as far as Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, and would not be warm – would be wearing a woolly sweater and a thick jacket – until I was in the middle of Turkmenistan, among praying Turkmen, mortifying themselves and performing the dusty ritual of waterless ablutions, called tayammum, also on a train, but a dirty and loudly clattering one, in the Karakum Desert, where it never rained.

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Table of Contents

Contents 1. The Eurostar 1 2. The Other Orient Express 14 3. The Ferry to Besiktas 40 4. Night Train to Ankara 59 5. Night Train to Tbilisi 68 6. Night Train to Baku: The Trans-Caucasian 88 7. Night Train from Ashgabat to Mary 103 8. Night Train to Tashkent 136 9. The Shan-e-Punjab Express to Delhi 146 10. Night Train to Jodhpur: The Mandore Express 164 11. Night Train to Jaipur 182 12. Night Train to Mumbai: The “Superfast” Express 193 13. Night Train to Bangalore: The Udyan Express 210 14. The Shatabdi Express to Chennai 225 15. The Coastal Line to Galle and Hambantota 237 16. The Slow Train to Kandy 258 17. Ghost Train to Mandalay 265 18. The Train to Pyin-Oo-Lwin 283 19. Night Train to Nong Khai 295 20. Night Train to Hat Yai Junction: Special Express 309 21. Night Train to Singapore: The Lankawi Express 316 22. The Slow Train to the Eastern Star 341 23. The Boat Sontepheap to Phnom Penh 351 24. The Mekong Express 367 25. Night Train to Hue 376 26. The Day Train to Hanoi 387 27. Tokyo Andaguraundo 400 28. Night Train to Hokkaido: Hayate Super Express 422 29. The Limited Express: Sarobetsu to Wakkanai 428 30. Night Train to Kyoto: The Twilight Express 440 31. The Trans-Siberian Express 460 32. Night Train to Berlin and Beyond 493
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 28 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Theroux has writtem much, too much of it overflows in this book.

    I always enjoy starting to read any of his books. I think The Great Railway Bazaar" was a better book than "Ghost".
    Theroux is very much a personal preference man, and he does impose himself on his writing,sometimes giving us more of himself than the train journey.
    In spite of that if one has a week or so his book is well worth reading. Recommended for its geographical and interactive inclusions.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 23, 2009

    Mid-Eastern and Far Eastern Travel Log PLUS

    Written from the perspective of a traveler with a "gift of gab" and insightful historical knowledge of the wide area traveled, Theroux is a good story teller and mixes his personal life with information that otherwise is lost in history books and buried in current newspaper events regarding the Middle East and Far East. Very objective in many parts, yet personalized with a touch of ego sometimes, this unique travel experience has been recreated from his earlier trip in around 1973-the comparisons are very interesting.

    The maps before and after text were very helpful while reading: My American education of the 1960's did not stress geography of these areas- this was a great tutorial for me (including the countries that have claimed new names in the government takeovers and/or expansion in the last three decades).

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 14, 2010

    Another Theroux Gem

    I've been a longtime fan of both his travel books and his earlier fiction. Am happy to say this book did not disappoint. A great read for both its coverage of the places he visits and the places he visits in his mind. Classic Theroux, a worthy successor to his earlier travel books. The story moves along with wit, humor, and insights into life. Well worth a place on your shelf.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010

    Eurasian Snapshots

    In some parts of the book, the author's comments come across as a bit cranky and self-centered, but he generally provides a very readable and interesting mix of history, politics, literature, and the pleasures and difficulties of travel. He also has written interesting literary snapshots of about a dozen countries in Europe and Asia.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A mellower Thoreaux

    Thoreaux's travel books, while always fascinating in their ability to peel open the skin of a place, have always seemed to focus on the unpleasent or ugly such that one closed them with a bad taste in one's mouth. His latest, an account of a retrospective of a trip 30 years earlier, while unquestionably exposing his places and peoples "warts and all", finds in most locales something to admire or enjoy. In so doing he shows his subjects in a truer light, letting us see what makes their lives worth living.

    He travels by train not as a railfan, but as a means of living with the peoples whose lives he limns, striking up conversations with high and low indifferently alike, listening as they tell him everything about their lives and their countries and reporting from the perspective of one who has seen it all, and can provide his own frame of reference.

    This immersion in the lives of specific people is the book's strength and also its weakness. You see the countries he travels through through a knothole, obtaining a detailed but severely limited view. While you end feeling that you know the countries,, upon reflection what you really know is how the people he observes feel about their country.

    In the end it remains what was intended: a fascinating guide to the ambience of south and southeast Asia (despite his announced premise, his interest in his work flags as he procedes north into China, and vanishes utterly as he swings west through Russia), but to fully understand them in depth one must seek elsewhere.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2014

    Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Because I had enjoyed Theroux's

    Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
    Because I had enjoyed Theroux's earlier book, "Great Railway Bazaar," I was eagerly anticipating his sequel, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star." What a letdown! In the former, readers are treated to a what is basically a journal of his experiences as he travels across Europe and Asia. We learn about diverse aspects of the countries to which he travels. Most of us will never go to these places personally, but vicariously accompanying the gifted Theroux via his book, was the next best thing. The book was refreshingly lacking in political agendae. However, I can't say the same for the followup book. "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" was quite a disappointment, with its obvious political goals.  I may agree with Theroux with on many issues, but the "Ghost Train" book was neither the time nor the place to get bogged down in political diatribes of people who have an "axe to grind" against the (then-) U.S. government. Of course, occasional mention of political views is relevant to a book like this, but he should have given the book a political title, if he intended to continue to quote people's anger ad infinitum! If I want to hear that, I will turn on either Fox News or MSNBC. Perhaps these political sidetracks are the reason the book contains more than 500 pages. I will never know, for he lost me early on. I am sorry that I wasted my money, and I can't get that back. But at least I won't waste any more money on Theroux; I won't make the same mistake with any more of this author's works.

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  • Posted November 26, 2013

    more from this reviewer


    didn't finish the book because I liked the author better when he was younger

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2010

    He threatened to kill his wife.

    This is the first book I have read by Paul Theroux. I picked it up, dove in and read voraciously for about the first 2/3s of the book. At the 2/3 point the book really slowed down and became rather uninteresting. I put it down for a while. When I picked it up again, after being away from home for about a year - he threatened to kill his wife. Violence it never appropriate. I have chosen to not finish this book and will probably never read a book by Mr. Theroux again.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 15, 2008


    Re-read the Great Railway Bazzar. This one's a bit too self-conscious and more resembles a ride on your local commuter train. Need a new train or a new author.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2008

    Paul in his usual great style!

    Paul goes where most of us would almost fear to tread. Places we should know more about, especially in contemporary terms. Most of us know less than we should about these ex-iron curtain-surrounded countries. Reflecting on Paul's note on the large casualties in one city during Genghis Khan's invasion, I now wonder if this was a religious war effort in the early 13th century to eliminate rapidly-growing Islam. Khan has been presented as a barbarian in fact he was a red-haired, grey-blue eyed, Nestorian Christian.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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