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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (Penguin Modern Classics)
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on 20 May 2017
Well written from a piece of literature point of view, although can be superfluous at times.
As for the content and feel of the book I found it humourless and dark; certainly a different attitude to my own travel experiences.
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on 3 July 2017
Good print size and holiday reading. Excellent service from bookseller and well packaged
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on 22 October 2017
Perfect !
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on 26 October 2017
Didn't enjoy the book. but the service was great
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on 21 July 2017
Once, long ago, I read Theroux's novel "The Mosquito Coast" and loved it, so I am unsure why it took me so long to start reading his travel books - but now I have, I'm hooked (and plan to read the rest of his novels too). I started reading this as research for one of my characters, a travel writer, in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series of novels, to help me understand a travel writer's perspective. My character, May Sayers, is a smart, , humane and generous but shrewd woman, and I feel I've hit the jackpot with Paul Theroux. I've been scribbling notes all the way through about the way his mind works and how a travel writer perceives his or her place in the world. But even if I didn't have this ulterior motive, I'd still have been gripped by his evocative narrative that is as much, if not more, about the people he encounters as the places he visits, and I've just ordered the sequel he wrote, retracing his tracks thirty years later. I'm looking forward to getting to know him better. Highly recommended whether you are an armchair traveller or an intrepid adventurer yourself. (Look out for the priceless passage where he is bamboozled by Chester, fellow American, who on a Japanese bullet train dismisses all travel writers as wasting their time.)
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on 16 April 2009
After being bowled over by Mosquito Coast (1980), which is a terrific novel, I went on to read two of Theroux's travel books - first The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) and then The Pillars of Hercules (1996). I found the former excellent and eye-opening. Theroux paddling around in his little kayak seemed to be a great adventure. I remember little of the second book and wasn't so impressed by it. Flicking back through my copy now I can see that I've underlined much of Theroux's copious observations on those Mediterranean countries he passes through: there's a lot in there.

In contrasts to these two volumes, which were written by an older and wiser Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) - a circular train journey from London, right round Asia, and back to London again - is a much less learned affair. Once I understood the priorities and preferences of the young Theroux in this book I wondered how on Earth it could be a good read: Theroux doesn't know much about most of the countries he travels through, he only gets off the train when he can't help doing so (or to give one of the lectures which, together with an advance from his publisher, helped fund his trip - see the new introduction by Theroux himself), he openly admits that he hates sightseeing, he travels in the most luxurious (and expensive) part of the trains that he can (which often means in a private compartment) and he doesn't have a taste for idle conversation with those he meets. Not the best ingredients for a travel book, I thought, and a sharp contrast to the knowledgeable, constantly questioning and investigative older Theroux.

But somehow this is a fascinating book, and probably the best out of the three Theroux travel books I have read. Theroux's intelligence shines through - his observations, though unfounded by research, are perceptive and valid - if he doesn't get things right, his guesses are still good ones and interesting in themselves. He's a great prose writer and always a pleasure to read. And he does end up having interesting encounters and the ones he chooses to relate are usually the more bizarre. They never go anywhere, and strange and enigmatic incidents and conversations are cut off as he parts ways with these fellow voyagers, their mysteries never to be resolved.
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VINE VOICEon 30 January 2009
I recently read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (which re-creates the trip described in The Great Railway Bazaar and comments on the earlier trip). Although I thought that the writing is better and more interesting in The Great Railway Bazaar, this book lacks the perspective on writing that makes Ghost Train to the Eastern Star special for authors.

For many years, I traveled across the United States by slow trains (on a free pass) over 72 hours. I was always glad to have the trip end . . . except for that one time I met an interesting young woman (but that's a story for another time).

I would find the kind of trip that Mr. Theroux describes to be unendurable. It's not surprising that he did, too. And that spoils much of the potential fun of this book.

He is fixated on giving you more than you ever wanted to know about bad meals, poor ticket-buying experiences, missing visas, getting drunk, poor sanitary facilities, and unpleasant companions. Mr. Theroux takes himself very seriously. That's too bad. A little humor about his situation would have helped.

From Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, it's not hard to know why: His marriage was falling apart and he couldn't really afford the trip. All I can say is that his problems show.

Imagine instead that a poor person had been granted this same opportunity: It would have been like a magic carpet ride. Unfortunately, you take yourself with you when you are a travel writer.

There are some good moments in the book. Occasionally, Mr. Theroux has enough knowledge about a country and its people to use his journey to comment in a helpful way about the culture. Most Americans will be fascinated to read about South Vietnam after American troops had pulled out and before the final reunification by force. In the early going, a fellow traveler makes the mistake of spending a little too much time at a station . . . with consequences that Mr. Theroux has some fun with.

Japanese people may not like the portrait that Mr. Theroux displays of their nation. It has little to do with railways and railway travel.

Fans of India, by contrast, may enjoy his relative enthusiasm for that populous and challenging nation.

Sometimes the material isn't in the best of taste. I didn't really need to read about his investigation of the ladies-for-hire offerings in an Asian country.
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on 13 March 2012
When, some thirty years later, Paul Theroux repeated the journey that he had described in The Great Railway Bazaar, he declared travel writing to be `the lowest form of literary self-indulgence.' His original journey in the early 1970s was a deliberate act, a ruse upon which to hang a book. The travel featured was nothing less than an occupation, whose sole product was to be collected and recorded experience. We, the readers, must thank him for his single-minded devotion to selfishness, for The Great Railway Bazaar takes us all the way there without having to leave the armchair.

The journey began and finished in London. In between Paul Theroux took the orient Express to Istanbul and then crossed Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan before doing the length of India. He even went to Sri Lanka by train. Then there was Burma and a meander through South-East Asia. His account of smoking cigarettes in Vientiane will stick in the mind. Malaysia and Singapore were taken in, the latter clearly not being to the writer's taste. Japan was clearly a curious experience, but the Trans Siberia from near Vladivostok to Moscow seemed strangely predictable, its length being its major characteristic. Eventually, the final leg across Europe hardly counted, a mere step along a much bigger way.

Any such journey can only offer mere impressions of the places en route, but such first impressions are always interesting in themselves, if not always accurate or justified. Thirty years on, some of them may even have historical significance. It would be a challenging task these days to cross the current Iran and Afghanistan by rail. And a contemporary journey would surely cross China, a route barred to the 1970s independent traveller.

But it's the people met along the way that give the book its prime characters. We never get to know these people and we encounter them largely as caricatures, but it is the experience of travel that is described, and this experience inevitably involves a multitude of these ephemeral encounters. They are always engaging. We expect to be confronted with the surprising, the unknown and the little understood. We expect the experience to be recorded, whilst the mundane is edited out of the account. And furthermore, we do try to make sense of our often confused responses to the unexpected. This is why we travel: at its base it is a challenge.

Paul Theroux does litter the trip with indulgence, however. There is a fairly constant search for alcoholic beverages, for instance. Furthermore, in several places there are encounters with and deliberate attempts to seek out the local low life. Offers of girls, boys, older women, wives, transvestites and every imaginable service are received. Sometimes, the services in question require some imagination. It is easy, of course, to sensationalise experience when it is sought at the margins of what a society dares to admit. In the case of Japan, where much of this material is located, it has to be admitted that the margins are rather wide.

Balancing this crudity is Paul Theroux's constant desire to reflect upon his love of literature. Some of the material he recollects produces some wonderful insights, surprising juxtapositions and apposite comment.

Travel writing might be pure self-indulgence, but this particular example of the vice transcends the purely personal. It feels like being taken along for the ride. Thus, like all good travel writing, The Great railway Bazaar is not merely an account of another's observations, it is nothing less than a journey to be experienced.
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on 18 January 2013
Having read Paul Theroux's 'To the ends of the earth' my curiosity was piqued so I ordered this volume. In the range between enthusiastic-effusive-poetic and cynical-prosaic-down to earth, Theroux veers toward the conservative which probably makes him more readable. This might suggest he travels for need rather than desire, and at times he appears to lack empathy for characters he describes.
This book is one of his earlier travel books. It is unfortunate that the transient impressions in the train do not afford Theroux more understanding of the places through which he passes. Excerpts from his later work in 'To the ends of the earth' indicate more involvement in the present moment, which will encourage me to read more of Theroux's work.

I have travelled to many of the places described, including Vietnamese Indian and Russian railways, and concur with many of his impressions. However I wish Theroux felt more joy and there was less immature carping.
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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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