book review: ghost train to the eastern star

In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.

Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.

But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.

Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).

It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):

“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”

I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?

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