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The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar
By Train Through Asia

by Paul Theroux
1975, 2006; Paperback, 342 pages

Reviewed by Melanie Bush

If you want to take the most mind-blowing train journey ever across the entire continent of Asia…The Great Railway Bazaar, by novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux is your ticket to ride. “Ever since childhood,” Theroux writes, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” So get on it he does, and stays on it beginning with the Orient Express to Turkey and continuing on innumerable types of trains through Iran, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma (now Myanmar), Thailand, Singapore, Viet Nam (North and South), Korea (North and South), and Japan, ending with a grueling nine-day slog on the Trans-Siberian Express across the flat plains of Russia on a train boasting not much heat, water, or food but plenty of vodka, ironic pontificating, and fistfights. It’s hard to convey the sheer thrillingness of this journey: Theroux rides rail lines in North Korea unseen by virtually any Westerner; he travels on routes in Viet Nam that were blown up after his visit (the war was still on while he was there) and were never rebuilt. Yet the places he describes—overwhelming, terrifying, and gorgeous—are ably rivaled by the inexhaustible diversity of astonishing people he meets on the way. “I sought trains,” writes Theroux. “I found passengers.” Freud believed that all dreams of trains are dreams about the journey of one’s own life; just so, it is Theroux’s fellow passengers who perform the real magic—they lend him their eyes for seeing the world. In my view, this is the best travel book of the twentieth century.

Melanie Bush would rather be out exploring our planet, but since she can’t right now she reads books.