A Review of The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation; and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind.
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

One to two weeks: the time period in which most people enjoy their vacations. Back when I had a job that required me to be in an office, all my excursions fit neatly in this box. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to take several trips that kept me away for much longer periods. Especially when done solo, my experience is that these extended journeys are a completely different animal. The more time you spend away from home, the importance of logistics begins to fade, while the management of your psyche comes to the fore.

I recently returned from a trip to Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong that lasted a bit over a month. While en route, I met someone at a conference in Bangkok who suggested I read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. The book is a travelogue, detailing an epic train trip through Europe and Asia in 1973. Starting in London, Theroux travels to Paris, catching the venerable Orient Express to Turkey. From there, he makes his way through Iran, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Burma (now called Myanmar), Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan. Of course, train tracks don’t connect all these places, so boats and cars fill in the gaps. Finally, the very long return to Europe happens on the Trans-Siberian Express through Russia. What an epic itinerary.

And what a great book recommendation! The further I got into Theroux’s story, my personal connections to his story accumulated. I’ve been on long trips (including the same one where I got the tip to read the book). I too have ridden some of the trains he did, and was about to take the same train he wrote about in Vietnam (now called the Reunification Express). I also was grappling with the exhilarating and draining ups-and-downs of long-term travel.

“Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer.” Is the romance of the rails a thing of the past? Even during Theroux’s journey in 1973, rail travel was becoming more utilitarian.
(Image: Library of Congress)

I like books about journeys because, once I get hooked, I want to see the quest all the way to the end. The Great Railway Bazaar is different than an adventure story about Shackleton’s struggles, or one of Colin Angus’ daring river trips. Like everyone else who has dared to trust public transport, we guess that Theroux will (eventually) make it to his destination. We suspect that there will be difficulties, but they will be of a different kind than the travails of the arctic explorer or conquistador. But whether it’s obstacles big or small, a good yarn is made in the strands of its telling, and Theroux knows how to turn everyday observations into profound writing.

The construction of The Great Railway Bazaar will instantly be familiar to anyone who has arrived home from a long journey and then is asked “How was it?” Sometimes people only ask to be polite, so what exactly do you tell friends and family? Even when conversing with the most interested inquisitor, by necessity a compression takes place: there are parts of your trip you emphasize, parts you barely mention, and parts you leave out entirely. For your sake and the listener’s, recounting every detail would be impossibly long—and boring.

What Theroux chooses to tell us about his trip is also selective: you get the sense that some days passed without comment, while others are worthy of a whole chapter. His return ride through Europe only merits a single sentence (“I slept through Warsaw, glared at Berlin, and entered Holland with a stone in my stomach.”). I completely understand these compressions and omissions: at the end of a long journey I’m exhausted too. The excitement is gone, and all the open-ended possibilities have collapsed down to specific realities that span the spectrum from good to bad. The buzz of airports and train stations, language barriers leading to amusing misunderstandings, discovering that tasty new dish you can’t pronounce, boldly finding your way from point A to B, the sheen of new places and cultures: romantic fantasies of these things fuel your decision to step out of your door. However, our imaginations are powerful, so when reality confronts our dreams the friction can be tiresome; the grind required to meet even your basic needs abroad can so easily lead to weariness. At the end of a long journey, it’s often: “GET ME HOME!”

Theroux says that long-term travel leads to encapsulation. After many long trips, I think I know what he means. You leave with open arms, ready to embrace the world. But the world doesn’t always give back in kind. For every amazing connection you’ll make with a random stranger, there will be many more touts, cheats, indifferent bureaucrats, cranky customer service agents, and people who just don’t understand you (and you them). Plus, we’d all be too exhausted if every night out ended in a Before Sunrise type of situation.

Encounters like that are the cherry on the top of travel, but the rest of the time you’re focused on balancing self-preservation with openness. If you err too much on the side of caution, you might spend the whole time in your hotel room—or never leave home at all. Living wide open also has its perils: in India I quickly learned to toughen up or be eaten alive (my Midwestern naïveté was catnip to the bottomless well of scammers we attracted). Especially for introverts, there’s always the question of when to interact. Theroux grapples with this universal travel problem, the rarely fulfilled desire to precisely control how and when you’ll have solitude:

“I’m up here,” he said, patting the upper berth. He was a small man, but I noticed that as soon as he stepped into the compartment he filled it.
“How far are you going?” I asked gamely, and even though I knew his reply, when I heard it I cringed. I had planned on studying him from a little distance; I was counting on having the compartment to myself. This was unwelcome news. He saw I was taking it badly.
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

For moments like these, most people defensively pull out a book, magazine, or their smartphone. Theroux has his pen, paper, and many hours to kill while he searches for the perfect words to describe an annoying bunkmate. Perhaps he’s not clinging to the side of a mountain or praying for safe passage on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, but what Bazaar lacks in large scale drama is more than compensated by Theroux’s talent for rich descriptions. There’s plenty going on in the enclosed world of a cross-continent train to hold your attention, should you take the time to be a keen observer (and having 4 months, Theroux obviously does). I didn’t want the book to end because of the way his imagination elevates descriptions of the mundane:

A workman came, dressed like a grizzly bear. He set up a ladder with the meaningless mechanical care of an actor in an experimental play whose purpose is to baffle a bored audience. My feet had turned to ice, my Japanese gloves admitted the wind, my nose burned with frostbite—even my knees were cold. The man’s paws fumbled with metal plates.
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

I wasn’t sure how relevant a travelogue from the 1970’s would be today but, the more I read, the more I realized that the challenges of extended treks remain the same. Theroux chronicles the same problems solo travelers have today: the tedium of visas, changing money, staying fed, etc. Most importantly, it was moving to see how he dealt with loneliness and assigning meaning to a journey’s struggles (or not). I’ve often felt blasé about a long trip near its end, wondering if I’ve bitten off too much. It’s at this point, when the place names on your itinerary become easily confused and any novelty has long since worn off, that the chance for introspection increases:

Twenty-nine train trips turn the most intrepid writer into Willy Loman. But: all journeys were return journeys. The farther one traveled, the nakeder one got, until, towards the end, ceasing to be animated by any scene, one was most oneself, a man in a bed surrounded by empty bottles.
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

The ending of Bazaar was simple and poignant, reflecting the often circular nature of travel. Since we usually return to where we started, you have to wonder why we even do it… What do all those planes, trains, ferries, taxis, hotel rooms, museums, monuments, guides, hikes, souvenirs, and restaurants really do for us? Since most people end where they begin, we can only guess they want something, partly physical, partly spiritual, that they can bring back home with them. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure Theroux found it. Sometimes, when absentmindedly staring out the window of a lumbering train…I think I have too.

All travel is circular. I had been jerked through Asia, making a parabola on one of the planet’s hemispheres. After all, the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar


  • Header image: Collier, John, photographer. Whiling away the time through the Deep South. On the Southern Railroad. Georgia. Aug, 1941. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa2000051409/PP/.
  • Theroux, Paul. The Great Railway Bazaar. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: