I finally finished my little book of travel to Asia by train. Actually by 30 trains, a few planes and the odd ship. I travelled along side Paul Theroux or i felt like i were right there with him.
Whenever i think of a bazaar i think of a brightly coloured, pungent smelling, amazing market full of that special something that is just around the corner or out of sight. This is what The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux really reminds me of too. It was originally written in 1975 when Theroux decides to take a trip though Asia via train and write a travel log. It was his first non-fiction book that he had written and his first travel log too, although he has gone onto write others since.
In the book he describes the trains, the people that he meets and the places that he goes. How 1st, 2nd or 3rd class mean completely different things depending on which country you happen to be in and how an upgrade can usually be obtained with a slight of hand and an exchange of money. The journey begin at Victoria station, London and travels via France, Italy, Iran, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Japan, Russia, Germany, Poland, Holland and back to England, to name but a few of the countries he visited. There were some places he stayed in and some he just passed through.
On the train he meets many colourful characters the first being Duffill who we are introduced to on Victoria station, London, his destination Istanbul. Theroux says of Duffill the following -
‘His oversized clothes made him seem frail. A mouse grey gaberdine coat slumped in folds from his shoulders, the cuffs so long, they reached to his fingertips and answered the length of his trampled trousers. He smelled of bread crusts. He still wore his tweed cap, and he too was fighting a cold. His shoes were interesting, the all-purpose brogans country people wear.’
Theroux and Duffill then boarded the Orient Express from Paris together heading in the direction of Istanbul. There were several stops along the way and as there was no dining car attached to the train and the only way to obtain food was to buy at the stations along the way. The problem with this became apparent when they pulled in at Domodossola, Italy. The trains had little or no time table to stick to and when the train was ready to leave, it would just leave. The guard called ‘adiamo’ (let’s go) but Duffill didn’t heed that call and the train pulled out leaving him on the platform. From this point forward in Theroux’s journey being left on a station became as being ‘Duffilled’ and Theroux was often afraid of being Duffilled at some deserted station in the middle of no where. We don’t actually know if Duffill reaches Istanbul or not.
Theroux spends some time in Vietnam and him being an American and it being just after the war had finished he was treated like a VIP and protected. All around him were displaced people, many living in make-do housing because there was nothing else. As he was escorted up country the damage of the war was very apparent and in places local groups were continuing to fight and cause problems. He was handed a number of babies at first he thought the women were showing the blond haired, blue eyed babies to him but he quickly realised that they actually wanted him to take the babies with him. Another remnant of the war.
The last major journey he took by train was the Trans-Siberian Express. He was on the train for several days. To begin with there were other English speaking people but the longer the journey continued the more isolated he became even to the point where he no longer knew what day or even what time of day it was. He was finally losing all sense of who he was or where he was heading and couldn’t wait to get to Moscow where that part of the journey would end. Theroux arrived at Moscow, rushed to purchase his train ticket for the journey onward only to find that he needed a visa to travel through Poland, which he didn’t have. It took him 6 days to obtain the visa before he could travel. His promise of being home for the New Year came to an end and he arrived home 2 weeks into the year.
The journey had taken him 4 months.
The book was well written, had a nice easy flow to it and i often found myself travelling along with him and laughing at the things he laughed at and saddened by the those things that were difficult for him to come to terms with. I even felt his solitude on the Trans-Siberian Express and his longing for home. He wrote has he travelled which i think made the book come alive. The bazaar was not a market but a collection of trains and people and places. Thirty years later in 2005 he takes the same journey and writes a second book and i have that on my book list too.
|“To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company.”|
|- Andre Gide|