The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar

First published more than thirty years ago, Paul Theroux's strange, unique, and hugely entertaining railway odyssey has become a modern classic of travel literature. Here Theroux recounts his early adventures on an unusual grand continental tour. Asia's fabled trains -- the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Frontier Mail, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Mand...

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Title:The Great Railway Bazaar
Author:Paul Theroux
Rating:
ISBN:0618658947
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:342 pages

The Great Railway Bazaar Reviews

  • Kirsten
    May 13, 2008

    oh dear, yes, he's observant and turns a pretty phrase on every page, makes you laugh, etc. but he's so contemptuous of everyone he comes across i lost interest. skipped all the trains between india and the soviet union. he really loses it at the end and addresses all the russians he meets on the trans siberian railway as monkeys. granted, i have now been in a similar situation, far from home in bleak surroundings at christmastime, like theroux on the trans siberian, homesick and irritated by ev

    oh dear, yes, he's observant and turns a pretty phrase on every page, makes you laugh, etc. but he's so contemptuous of everyone he comes across i lost interest. skipped all the trains between india and the soviet union. he really loses it at the end and addresses all the russians he meets on the trans siberian railway as monkeys. granted, i have now been in a similar situation, far from home in bleak surroundings at christmastime, like theroux on the trans siberian, homesick and irritated by everything and everyone, even contemptuous, but i can't imagine writing as theroux does, with no apology or introspection. the book seems a historical record of the traveling american's gaze of superiority.

  • Brad
    Oct 18, 2008

    ...you are a miserable bastard.

    On every excruciating page of this around Europe and Asia whine-fest, I wanted to shake your self-righteous little New England prick shoulders and beat some enjoyment into your crabby-bastardness.

    The trains are late or crowded or smelly -- waaaaah!

    The food is crappy or elsewhere or non-existent -- waaaaah! waaaaah!

    The service is poor or sarcastic or requiring bribes (sorry..."baksheesh." Boy are you ever cool and in the know) -- waaaaah! waaaaah! fucki

    ...you are a miserable bastard.

    On every excruciating page of this around Europe and Asia whine-fest, I wanted to shake your self-righteous little New England prick shoulders and beat some enjoyment into your crabby-bastardness.

    The trains are late or crowded or smelly -- waaaaah!

    The food is crappy or elsewhere or non-existent -- waaaaah! waaaaah!

    The service is poor or sarcastic or requiring bribes (sorry..."baksheesh." Boy are you ever cool and in the know) -- waaaaah! waaaaah! fucking waaaaah!

    Get over it, Paul. You left your family for a four month excursion on the railways of the world, a trip I would die to experience, and you're busy pissing and moaning about having to experience the very thing you were on the tracks to experience -- life.

    Where is your joy? Where is your excitement at hanging out with literary cats that are far more talented than you? Where's your sense of adventure? Wrapped up in the fucking books you were reading, that's where. How could you sit through Afghanistan and Russia and everywhere else with your nose in

    , shunning all but the most obnoxious Anglo-Saxon company? How?! (the answer probably has something to do with the fact that you're a Dickens fan, actually, but I digress).

    I can't believe that

    -- this piece of excruciating chauvinistic, Cold War, holier-than-thou trash -- is one of the essential works of travel literature. But it is. And I suppose that's why you're Paul Theroux, and I'm not.

    Silly me for thinking that travel literature was supposed to be about the the joy of flirting with something beyond my experience, enjoying other people enjoying life, but what do I know? I haven't traveled on the rails of the world like you have. Maybe the whole world does suck, just as you say, and the only good travel literature is that which is misanthropic.

    If that's the case, Mr. Theroux...YOU are the master.

  • Reid
    Dec 21, 2010

    Whereas this appears on the surface to be the story of one man taking trains around Asia, it is more an exploration of Theroux's own internal wanderlust. It is also fascinating to today's readers since it was written in 1975 and so much has changed since then, though perhaps most insistent is the fact that so much has not.

    It is a source of some head-scratching that Theroux generally eschews the investigation of any of the places he travels through, no matter how fascinating they may be. He has c

    Whereas this appears on the surface to be the story of one man taking trains around Asia, it is more an exploration of Theroux's own internal wanderlust. It is also fascinating to today's readers since it was written in 1975 and so much has changed since then, though perhaps most insistent is the fact that so much has not.

    It is a source of some head-scratching that Theroux generally eschews the investigation of any of the places he travels through, no matter how fascinating they may be. He has clearly made the choice to be a "traveler through" rather than a "traveler to"; the journey is the destination for him, and the only destination. His fascination is with this movement and with the people he meets in transit. He has a wonderful eye and ear, and his somewhat acid pen serves him well in his descriptions of them. But his selectiveness is somewhat disturbing, especially in the short shrift he gives to all of the (then) Soviet Union, a 6000-mile train trip that earns a scant 40 pages in a book of nearly 350. On the other hand, Theroux makes it clear from the start that this is a very personal book and more monologue than travelogue. He will take on no obligation to guide you through the lands he visits.

    As I have noted before in a review of a Theroux travel book, he is a rather discontented traveler, not at all what one would call the cheerful transient. Sometimes he seems to be trying a bit too hard to be crusty and hard-bitten, with his swilling of liquor, his lusting after women, and his chomping on stogies. He is at his most interesting when he is being intrepid rather than standoffish, curious rather than insular, engaging rather than isolated. Overall, though, this was a satisfying read, and recommended for all those who like a well-written travel yarn.

  • Matt
    Jul 18, 2012

    Less a travel book and more a book about the physical act of travelling. Theroux has a refreshing lack of romance about the journey and the places he visits; most places are dirty, dull, unbearably hot or cold, and full of locals whose sole aim seems to be to rip him off. And although Theroux seems to enjoy very few of his stopovers, he feels compelled to travel and to sample these places. And as the book progresses, you feel the main aspect of the book change from a simple travel book to a more

    Less a travel book and more a book about the physical act of travelling. Theroux has a refreshing lack of romance about the journey and the places he visits; most places are dirty, dull, unbearably hot or cold, and full of locals whose sole aim seems to be to rip him off. And although Theroux seems to enjoy very few of his stopovers, he feels compelled to travel and to sample these places. And as the book progresses, you feel the main aspect of the book change from a simple travel book to a more sophisticated portrait of a man with a weird obsession and a hankering for home.

    Theroux's writing is always humorous and littered with snappy insights and literary interludes. But he never strays too far from the paradox of this book; Theroux has travelled so he could write the book, and written the book so that he could travel. And the result? An aimless meander through a strange world, above all honest and always entertaining, and without any of the myopic fascination of all things 'exotic' you might see in other travel books. Theroux sees and writes as it is; ugly and depressing, beautiful and life-affirming in equal measure.

    A fantastic read.

  • Kavita
    Sep 15, 2012

    The book is an account of a journey through Europe and Asia by train. The concept is good, and the author made a great journey, and has the gift of story telling. But the author himself comes across as a stupid, rude and horrible person who abuses random people, makes snide remarks, plays practical jokes on helpful locals, and in general appears quite slap-worthy.

    He mostly behaves himself in the first half of the book, but on reaching Japan, he becomes a perfect pest. Giving away gifts that wou

    The book is an account of a journey through Europe and Asia by train. The concept is good, and the author made a great journey, and has the gift of story telling. But the author himself comes across as a stupid, rude and horrible person who abuses random people, makes snide remarks, plays practical jokes on helpful locals, and in general appears quite slap-worthy.

    He mostly behaves himself in the first half of the book, but on reaching Japan, he becomes a perfect pest. Giving away gifts that would not work, calling people 'monkeys' is NOT a way to endear himself to the readers. He asks very rude questions with the aim of making the other person uncomfortable. For example, there is this account of how he ridicules a doctor who sold blood to pay for his medical school. Was that supposed to be funny?

    And then the racist / imperialist tendencies show quite clearly. I might overlook it in a novel of the 20s, not one of the 70s. American excuses for the Vietnam war, obvious disgust with hippies, anti-Russian sentiment, implying that Japanese politicians strive to be like Churchill but would never achieve it, are more examples of the author's stupidity. Why should a Japanese politician aspire to be like Churchill anyway?

    The author's ridiculous behaviour spoilt what could have been a great novel. At the very least, he could have made some effort to keep his disgusting behaviour out of the book. And we certainly don't need to know how much drunk he got every single day.

    I had intended to buy the sequel to this book originally, but I somehow don't think I will now.

  • Jeremy Allan
    May 28, 2013

    So Paul Theroux takes a trip from Paris to Japan and back, all on the railroad (with some minor air and sea deviations), seeing the world in all its sundry chaos on the way. I couldn't have been more excited to start this book when I did, being a lover of train travel (mostly without the opportunity to express that love), and curious about all these places he had visited--Afghanistan, Siberia, Vietnam, India, Singapore, many more--that I would like to visit and still have not had the chance. So

    So Paul Theroux takes a trip from Paris to Japan and back, all on the railroad (with some minor air and sea deviations), seeing the world in all its sundry chaos on the way. I couldn't have been more excited to start this book when I did, being a lover of train travel (mostly without the opportunity to express that love), and curious about all these places he had visited--Afghanistan, Siberia, Vietnam, India, Singapore, many more--that I would like to visit and still have not had the chance. So yes, I was full of happy anticipation as I sat down to read

    , this book sure to be full of just the kinds of things I wanted to read about. Anticipation breeds disappointment, however, and I should have proceeded more warily.

    Theroux has all the right ingredients as a writer: the power of observation, a sense of pace, a certain grace in his prose, a sense of style. I was surprised, though, when these didn't add up to a narrative that felt in any way fair to its subject. Thirty pages in, I found myself asking, "Where are the cultures themselves? Where is the richness? What am I learning here?" What I felt missing, throughout the book, was any kind of generosity. The Theroux-Narrator crosses the frontiers of culture, observes cooly, and mostly finds fault. Nearly everything is pitifully lacking in his eyes, nearly every person encountered is in some way inferior. His most joyous moments are when he manages to get a comfortable compartment to himself, or when he finds a cozy spot to reenact his habits from home. Is there anything inherently wrong with this? Perhaps not. But what we get from it is a book that tells so terribly little about the world it is meant to traverse. Instead, we get the image of a dissatisfied and unlikeable traveler, who lives to leave, to move on, to make an account of comforts experienced, and almost always in the negative. Of course there are traces of what I had originally hoped for, a bit of discovery: his various accounts of landscapes are worth reading, for example. Also, the travails of the constant traveller are instructive, sometimes humorous, such as his never-ending search for food in a world that seems bent on making it difficult. And anyone who has travelled even a few days will accept that some criticism is to be expected, if not needed, even, for the book to be honest.

    However, there is a limit to how much we can live with one man's perpetual displeasure. This book ends up being much less about the railway bazaar itself and much more about the narrator. He describes himself scantily, but we come to know him all the same. He is the miserly, introverted dilettant who makes little fuss over what is grand and yet flourishes over his annoyances. Everything is

    to him, if not downright backward, and all he wishes is to get moving, right to the point where it makes him sick. It's the sensation of running, forever, from his own dissatisfaction, that's what we're left with: an unfair and disappointing catalogue, if a well-written one, of his extended flight. This may please some readers, but I had hoped for more. If I have to spend a few hundred pages crammed in a railway compartment with a fellow traveler, can't I expect him to be a little more pleasant?

    (One caveat: I clearly love a good critique.

    is not that either.)

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)
    Jul 24, 2013

    I started out liking this book, but the author started to grate on my nerves. He took an amazing trip on trains from Europe to Turkey to Iran through Asia including Thailand, Japan, and Siberia. For a large portion of his journey, he is following the "hippie trail," popular in the 1960s and 1970s for people traveling from England to India. But his tone and commentary on the people he meets were not always the kindest. In fact he seemed rather uninterested in talking to anyone who wasn't already

    I started out liking this book, but the author started to grate on my nerves. He took an amazing trip on trains from Europe to Turkey to Iran through Asia including Thailand, Japan, and Siberia. For a large portion of his journey, he is following the "hippie trail," popular in the 1960s and 1970s for people traveling from England to India. But his tone and commentary on the people he meets were not always the kindest. In fact he seemed rather uninterested in talking to anyone who wasn't already like him, but only wrote about the people who weren't!

    He does mention why trains are perfect settings for conversations with strangers:

    "The conversation, like many others I had with people on trains, derived an easy candor from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again. The railway was a fictor's bazaar, in which anyone with the patience could carry away a memory to pore over in privacy."

    Still, it isn't as if you can board one train to see all these places, and I enjoyed reading about how the train itself changed as the country did. This is in 1973, and a lot of political upheaval has happened since then, so I'm still looking forward to reading

    where he revisits the same journey 30 years later. I'm hoping I'll find that he has matured too, but I'm not crossing my fingers.

    In an

    , Theroux talks about how this train trip was one of the elements in his first marriage ending. Within the book he only mentions his wife once that I can remember, and perhaps I should have suspected something from her absence.

    Examples of his racial stereotypes:

    "Money pulls the Iranian in one direction, religion drags him in another, and the result is a stupid starved creature for whom woman is only meat."

    "...The commissar and the monk meeting as equals on the common ground of indolent and smiling unhelpfulness. Nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen."

  • Santhosh
    Aug 04, 2014

    The travelogue of a drunk, imperialist, chauvinist, self-righteous, elitist travelling in first class, flaunting rules and baksheesh in equal measure, and generally getting on everybody's nerves and goodwill. With that as the base, the rest of the book is engaging enough, especially the conversations with fellow passengers. Set in 1973, the colonial hangover comes along as an undertone for the entire journey, though his connections do open doors, leading to some not-so-easily-accessible sights a

    The travelogue of a drunk, imperialist, chauvinist, self-righteous, elitist travelling in first class, flaunting rules and baksheesh in equal measure, and generally getting on everybody's nerves and goodwill. With that as the base, the rest of the book is engaging enough, especially the conversations with fellow passengers. Set in 1973, the colonial hangover comes along as an undertone for the entire journey, though his connections do open doors, leading to some not-so-easily-accessible sights and experiences.

    As a travel freak myself, this book was much anticipated, given that it's near the top on many a list for travel books. While I wouldn't say I was let down badly, the book could have been awesome with some sensible and sensitive guidance from the editor. I'm not too taken with Theroux the person, if this book is anything to go by, though Theroux the writer is still good enough for me to chance some of his later works (by when he's hopefully become a little more world-wise).

  • Andrew Smith
    Nov 09, 2015

    I’ve been hearing about Theroux for years and yet had never read one of books. The idea of reading about a man journeying alone was something I couldn’t quite settle to. Would it be tedious and repetitious? Perhaps it’d be like delving into one of those dry guidebooks we’ve all taken with us to a foreign city – lots of information but very little pleasure? In the end curiosity got the better of me and I grabbed an audio copy of perhaps his best known book.

    Set in 1973 (but released in 1975) it te

    I’ve been hearing about Theroux for years and yet had never read one of books. The idea of reading about a man journeying alone was something I couldn’t quite settle to. Would it be tedious and repetitious? Perhaps it’d be like delving into one of those dry guidebooks we’ve all taken with us to a foreign city – lots of information but very little pleasure? In the end curiosity got the better of me and I grabbed an audio copy of perhaps his best known book.

    Set in 1973 (but released in 1975) it tells the story of his travels to and across Asia. It’s really a collection of episodes, the focus of which is on the trains, the passengers - many of whom he engages in discourse – and the railway stations. We actually learn precious little of the cities he visits.

    There is a secondary purpose to the travel as he eludes to a number of lectures he delivers in various cities along the way, though no background to or coverage of these events is included.

    The train journeys are mostly long affairs and he has booked sleeping cars which he’s usually required to share with a mixed bag of companions. The accounts of these encounters and those with others he meets along the way are often hilarious, with Theroux recounting whole conversations (though I wonder how accurately) with a dry humour that had me laughing out loud. He paints vivid pictures of some memorable characters he met along the way.

    We follow his journey from London and across Europe and then through much of Asia. The section of the journey I enjoyed most was his travel through India, which takes up the central part of the book. The whole thing takes on a slight

    feel as each place seems wilder and each character wackier than the last. There’s a bit of historical information thrown in but it’s really about the conversations he has and of him recording his instant impression of the places he visits. Of the northern city of Simla he reflects.

    Somehow Theroux manages to make each stage of the journey feel fresh and different, despite the obvious self-limitations. He writes with erudition and humour and I can’t help thinking he’d be a great guy to share a meal and a few drinks with. I’ll certainly be back to sample more of his work.

    A quick note on the audio version I listened to. Frank Muller is superb as narrator of this book, with his pacing and phrasing seeming to draw the best out of Theroux’s words. My only niggle is the very strange Indian accent he deployed though, in truth, it didn’t impinge on my enjoyment.

    Finally, I owe thanks to

    for helping me to identify that this was a book I should read (or, in fact, listen to).

  • Teresa
    Feb 08, 2017

    Penso (pensava) que viajar é algo para viver, não para ler ou ouvir contar; por isso nunca me interessei por literatura de viagens. Mas como tenho um fraquinho por comboios, e muitos dos livros do Paul Theroux têm comboios nas capas, decidi escolher um para experimentar:

    que foi o primeiro relato de viagens de Theroux.

    Partiu de Londres em Setembro de 1973 e regressou quatro meses depois. Diz, no Prefácio, que na sua ausência a mulher o trocou por outro:

    Penso (pensava) que viajar é algo para viver, não para ler ou ouvir contar; por isso nunca me interessei por literatura de viagens. Mas como tenho um fraquinho por comboios, e muitos dos livros do Paul Theroux têm comboios nas capas, decidi escolher um para experimentar:

    que foi o primeiro relato de viagens de Theroux.

    Partiu de Londres em Setembro de 1973 e regressou quatro meses depois. Diz, no Prefácio, que na sua ausência a mulher o trocou por outro:

    Gostei desta franqueza, que se mantém sempre ao longo do livro; diz sempre o que pensa (mal ou bem) quer dos lugares, quer das pessoas.

    A viagem é feita quase toda em comboio - o Expresso do Oriente, o Flecha Negra, o Transiberiano e tantos mais - passando pela Turquia, Irão, Índia, Tailândia, Japão, Vietname, União Soviética e outros países asiáticos. Não visita os locais turísticos, e quase todo o relato paisagístico é sobre o que vê das janelas do comboio e nas estações onde faz o transbordo. A grande riqueza desta viagem assenta nos diálogos que Theroux estabelece com as dezenas de pessoas com que se cruza; os habitantes dos locais e outros passageiros.

    Trinta anos depois, Theroux faz a mesma viagem, relatada em

    . Não vou esperar tanto para voltar a viajar com ele...