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on 9 March 2002
From London to Tokyo by train (where possible) and back through Siberia - it's one hell of a journey, and sometimes it feels like it. The latter chapters especially are written in a kind of "Oh, let's get this over with" style, and you don't learn much about either Russia or Russians, except that there's so much snow and cold it drives everyone to drink. The earlier chapters are more enjoyable, and his account of Japan's sex and death fascination is quite an insight. The chapters on Vietnam and India are also enjoyable, and you have the impression that he wasn't as bored and lonely in these places as he becomes later.
Although this book was written in 1975, there are very few references to contemporary events, so I didn't have the feeling (reading it in 2002) that it was nearly thirty years old. No doubt everything has changed since then, and I'd like to read a more up to date account of the trip. Having read quite a few of Theroux's travelogues, I think he's mellowed with age and maybe if he went the other way 'round next time, London - Moscow - Tokyo - Calcutta - Kabul, he'd be kinder to many of those that he meets. Of course, it wouldn't be quite as entertaining then!
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on 21 July 2013
Having read most of Theroux's travel writings, I had saved this one up for my own recent journey in Asia. I was sadly disappointed by the really rather unpleasant tone of the book - Theroux is either drunk or simply unapproachable. He seems to eschew human contact when it suits him, but then berates other travellers for their unwillingness to indulge him. Woe betide you if you happened to be put into his berth - he is rude and boorish towards his roommates, unless you happen to be well provisioned with alcohol. He seems to spend the last third of the book in a grumpy, miserable cheap-champagne induced hangover, which is scarcely a joy to behold.

Worse than his attitude to other travellers is his disdain for most of the countries he passes through, an the perfunctory visits he pays to them. I appreciate that travelling by train means you are necessarily going to be a passing visitor at best, but there is seemingly no desire to understand a country or its people, beyond visiting sex shows, bars or red light areas. His seedy visit to a brothel was just plain unpleasant to read.

I would only recommend this to anyone who has already been to Asia - this would have put me off going, which would have been a terrible shame.
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on 5 May 2004
I read this book during a couple of train rides through India. It really captures the meatings you encounter on a train ride in such a country and the feelings you have both before, during and after the trip. The trip kicks off on Victoria Station in London and the authour has this idea about travelling around the world in train, since he realises that they all connects to a giant network. In the beginning he is very enthusiastic about everything, but as time passes by he gets tired and bored. This is especially clear in the last couple of chapters where he simply crosses Russia by almost not mentioning is and all off a sudden he is home. The core of this trip is the meetings with the people and the description of them in the book. The authous is very good at capturing the details and discuss them inside and out.
Overall this book captures a great trip and is both fun, teaching and interesting to read. Entertaining.
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on 19 October 2014
'He said that if I was a believer in yoga I wouldn't worry about catching trains. I said that was why I wasn't a believer in yoga.'

Marianne Macdonald nailed Paul Theroux when she referred to his 'somewhat pitiless craft', almost twenty years ago now, and 'he deliberately puts himself on the outside'. [Actually unfair. Could one pass through India unconcerned?] The dilettantesque pose should not deceive us. Besides being vehemently opposed to 'sightseeing' (box-ticking) as opposed to merely walking and looking, Theroux is fiendishly well read - on page 129 The Longest Journey gets treated with magisterial disdain - and once he relaxes (the initial carapace of smugness can be off-putting, not to mention the pair of stage Englishmen out of The Lady Vanishes) we do too, knowing we're in safe, albeit American, albeit Europeanised* hands. 'He was a small man, but I noticed that as soon as he stepped into the compartment he filled it; 'hunger's ear is not finely tuned'; 'the several tabernacles' [of a food vendor's trolley]; 'uninteresting acts of God'; a lone Turk 'like a weed' - all these by page 50! Yes, he writes sublimely - Indian passengers freighted with luggage as if 'lazily fleeing an ambiguous catastrophe'. He deploys with casual relish words like catamite, crapulous, epicene, eructating, rufous. Somebody has to. His distaste for his fellow countrymen is very endearing. Actually, come to think of it, his distaste is pretty evenly distributed. He even gets in a discreet lob at the Prophet, 'the only Arab in history to wear a size 14 triple-E sandal'; presumably these days the word Arab would be deemed racist. He responds to architecture rather more than to people (Bombay's 'threadbare metropolitan hauteur', Simla's 'rusty roofs') but can be scathing about both; Singapore's 'new hotels and apartment buildings.. look like juke boxes and filing cabinets respectively' - and people photograph them (modernity)! If the anomie gets in the bones, it's also addictive - surely there's no one one would rather be in Simla with? - and if Paul begins to pall, well, how very like life, alternately entertaining and depressing, with occasional depths - page 65, maybe? Like life then, not perfect but - by golly! - memorable, this has five stars in my heart

* the kind of American who doesn't mind not showering for five days (for our sins, we Brits seem servilely to have gone the other way). It's a shock to stumble on center (p79) or the scattering of gottens (pp 104, 147, 333 - did I miss one?) It picks up with tyre-with-an-i on page 138, stogie [cigar](p154) and mold (p162), then there's a lull till labor (p231). Not much to show, is it? Bar these 'blemishes', and the quaint part (for parting) and lean out (the door) rather than out OF, Paul's sensibility is European theroux and theroux
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on 1 May 2013
The passage of many decades has not significantly dated this travelogue across Europe and Asia. At no time did I count pages or become bored, but I did read it in chapter chunks as it is a rich meal of experiences and people. So, a night-time read or a loo read imho rather than a, paradoxically perhaps, train read.

He writes well. His prose is rich and colourful. His narrations of people in their accents is very funny, especially the Japanese and Russians. Having myself lived in Japan, he does catch the nasty porn under-culture of this surface-civilised nation. And having read much on Russia I also recognised his capture of the casual brutality of daily life. The northern Middle East has clearly changed little, and remains a frightening place to travel through. India was fascinating, as was immediate post-war Vietnam.

It is one man's view, so there is a tad too much casual sexual referencing, but at least he is honest. How he went home to his wife after writing what he wrote, if not what he did, is challenging. As Paul's journey there is a change as the book progresses. It is rich and detailed up until it reaches Asia Pacific. Then it begins to turn into a kind of mild madness. Japan is clearly threatening. Russia is death on rails. The final trip home across Europe is all but omitted. This journey had taken a terrible toll on the man.

So, when you read this, don't be too critical of it not being entirely wholesome or uplifting. It mostly is, but it is also and most importantly an honest account written by the man at the time which you are invited to read rather than a piece of semi-fictional entertainment to amuse you. As such it is an awesome piece of detailed, costly writing. As the Americans say: respect.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 9 March 2008
It hardly needs repeating that Paul Theroux is an exceptionally gifted writer. Moreover, this is a very skilfully written story, full of original and acute perceptions put across with wit and point. Theroux recounts a series of train journeys, interspersed with boat trips or aeroplane links where the rail option is not available, as for instance when making a sea crossing or in railless Afghanistan. In the course of this journey he has a number of lecturing engagements, presumably arranged in advance, for which I assume (although he does not say so) that he received a fee. I assume also that what took him away from his home and family for so many long months was not just the enjoyment of rail travel that he owns up to, but financial recompense for the book that he intended to publish as a record of his trip.

Earning an honest living by writing, and by travel writing in particular, is a worthy and honourable pursuit. However when the people represented in the story are real people, and the incidents are true occurrences, and the statements recorded are what people really said, there are to my way of thinking certain standards of taste and propriety that should be carefully adhered to. Personal records of travel and encounters along the way are presented impeccably in, say, Germaine Greer's 'Daddy We Hardly Knew You' or in Peter Hessler's River Town and Oracle Bones. In these narratives the authors have reasons for being where they are and for meeting who they meet. These are accounts of research, investigation and exploration from which the books are a spin-off. They have not just taken a trip with a view to parading whoever they might happen to meet before the public at large, which is really what Theroux is doing here. Was the permission of Mr Duffill or Mr Molesworth sought before their statements and actions were made public? I doubt it somehow, but my idea of propriety doesn't even necessarily require that. The parties reported sympathetically by Dr Greer obviously knew what she was doing, but the personae she disliked would not have been consulted about what she intended to say about that them, and that is fine by me. What I am not happy about is going out on a fishing trip and subsequently dangling the fish on a line to be gawped at or derided. Some instances are worse than others. It is not particularly offensive to pillory the downmarket press of any country, such as the Indian weekly 'Blitz' which informed him regarding some rowdy individual that 'He was high and headstrong...Hurled abuse at some and then fisted a guest', in which the last verb is not used in a more recent sense but means 'punched'. I also can't deny that I was amused (rather guiltily) at the clever representation of his Japanese host's offer to show him the local Tiergarten 'You want to see tzu?' 'What kind of tzu?' 'Wid enemas'. Very smart, very clever, but coming from someone who spoke no Japanese more than a little patronising and de haut en bas.

I think it is the chapter on Japan that brings out in particular the slight sense of distaste I feel for this book. Theroux recounts at some length and with some particularity erotic shows and publications patronised by placid-seeming middle-class Japanese. I find the shows as he describes them somewhat disgusting, but in a rather detached way. What revolts me more acutely is the spectacle of the audiences themselves, and that brings to the fore in my mind the nature of Theroux's own narration. What exactly is he doing there in the first place? He is another audience on the next tier. Does he have some mission to tell the world about all this? Is he engaged in academic research? None of that, and he does at least show awareness of the issue, admitting that he is a bit of a drone amusing himself idly and in the process making rather free with other people's privacy for the entertainment of a paying public.

All that said, the book still has plenty to recommend it. I felt that the later chapters are better than the earlier, which have too much sense about them of 'oh look at these people doing these things' and 'this guy said this three-quarter's of a page worth to me'. There was a sharp improvement starting with the chapter on Singapore, where Theroux's trenchant comments seem to me to be not only valid in themselves but also to satisfy one of my own requirements from a book of this kind by offering analysis and generalisation rather than just random detail. Also, the book was written in the early 1970's, and so is a reminder of an epoch. This was pre-junta Burmah, for instance. It was the time of the cold war. South Africa was still under apartheid although the availability of the industrial capacity of the Japanese obtained for them the status of 'white' from Mr Botha or whoever was in charge in South Africa at the time in question. Above all, it was the time of the war in Vietnam, and the vignettes of that ravaged nation as recounted by so talented and independent a storyteller made a vivid impression on one reader at least.

At one point Theroux comments that travel narratives turn into autobiography. The books I have instanced by Greer and Hessler are certainly autobiography and rightly so. I only wish this book had practised what it preaches. Theroux gives away comparatively little about himself apart from his participation in a few dialogues, the purpose of which is largely to pillory his interlocutors, and I particularly miss precisely this sense of personal development which he himself says one should expect.

There is next to nothing for railway geeks, but if I remember one thing above all from the book, it is the tantalising semi-description of the viaduct at Gokteik in Burmah.
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on 14 March 2010
There are some very vivid descriptions in this book for example he says of Vientiene in Laos:

"The brothels are cleaner than the hotels, marijuana is cheaper than pipe tobacco, and opium easier to find than a cold glass of beer."

however despite some really good passages, I found the book rather dull and uninteresting. Like many I wanted to read about what these countries were like 35 years ago, but this famous book bar some bits doesn't live up to it's classic reputation for me. However I do highly recommend the sequel "Ghost Train on the Eastern Star" which I found far more enjoyable, interesting and also a clearer read.
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on 28 September 2016
Forty odd years on and this still packs a delightful literary punch, forever crackling away with resonant language and evocative description. Theroux’s journey is pulsing with rich promise, exotic places and an offbeat sense of humour. His writing is always charged with sharp insights and priceless one liners, all along retaining a reassuring and steady warmth that really pulls you into the heart of his world. He writes with authority, never suffering fools or pompous people gladly, regularly taking them down a peg or two.

This story is alive with an incredibly colourful and vibrant cast of characters from German heroin addicts, pseudo philosophers and false prophets to a seemingly endless stream of middle class American hippies. As well as being a great travelogue this is also serves as a compelling time capsule, in the way that his “Riding The Iron Rooster” was a great view on China around thirty years ago before it leaped into the depths of hyper-capitalism, this gives a real flavour for what places like Viet Nam was like towards the end of the war and what Thailand and Malaysia were like before they became the heavily commercialised places they are today. Not only that his adventures in 70s India, Japan and the USSR make for great reading too.
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VINE VOICEon 31 December 2013
This book, Paul Theroux's first travel book, was published in 1975 and has been held up as a classic travel book ever since. This version has an introduction written in 2008 by PT where he explores the idea of travel writing and describes the principles to which he subscribes.
He has a writing style which reads like a novel. The people he meets are presented as caricatures which works well to draw a quick picture of the individuals. The problem with this is that they are all very difficult to relate to as PT seems to emphasise extreme characteristics and other elements he dislikes about people.
PT comes across as someone not really enjoying his travelling although the level of detail in the book is superb. Also the experience of travel is easy to imagine due to the clever writing.
I have found this book difficult to read but clearly lot of people do love it.
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on 20 July 2009
This book came highly recommended to me and I was expecting much more than I got.

First, the things I liked: Theroux is a very good storyteller and this book carried the narrative well. His descriptions of the trains he travelled on, the places he travelled through and the people he met were very realistic; especially during his descriptions of weather and landscape I felt as though I were present. He has a gift for observation and description, and this book was no exception.

However, I was very disappointed in the author's attitude. I found the tone and manner in which he describes people different to him as dismissive and condescending; in some cases his mannerisms are borderline racist. This work seems to carry a superior attitude and describes other human beings as might a scientist working with dried insects in a lab: dismissing entire populations with a mere paragraph does nothing for the work's reputation.

I also was quite disappointed by the disdain with which the author generally regards all sorts of sightseeing; he seems to regard it as beneath him and his dignity. I understand the importance of the journey and the mode of transport, but the utter dismissiveness and contempt in which he held anything outside of the actual train itself was quite a let-down.
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