Books: The Great Railway Bazaar

I’ve written about books here and here, but I thought I should go back a little and have a look at those which first inspired me to travel. In short, books which told me to wake up, get off my behind and see the world around me.

Every self-respecting traveller has heard of Paul Theroux and his classic, ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ (1975), the book which kick-started a new style of travelling- one that encouraged you to take your time and not be too obsessed about having a final destination or how to get there. Theroux made train travel extremely sexy, in fact, he pretty much made it the only way to travel if you wanted to be taken seriously as a true traveller.

In this book, Theroux takes us through an epic train journey which begins in London’s Victoria Station, snakes through Europe and Asia and ends on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow.

Just to give you a rough idea of his route, I’ll say that again: He takes a train from London, England to Paris (France), then gets on the famed Orient Express to Venice (Italy)-Belgrade (former Yugoslavia)- Istanbul (Turkey). He then proceeds to Tehran (Iran) to Meshed, then takes a bus and plane to Kabul (Afghanistan). He then jumps on the rails again to Peshawar (Pakistan) on to Amritsar (India)-Delhi-Mumbai-Madras (now Chennai), then hops on a boat to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Galle-Colombo. He goes back to Madras-Calcutta-then on to Rangoon (Burma, now Myanmar) to Maymyo. His next leg is from Vientiane (Laos)-Bangkok (Thailand)-Butterworth (Malaysia)-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore, after which he takes a ship to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam)-Hue-Da Nang. This is followed by a ship to Japan bound for Tokyo, after which he moves on to Hakodate-Sapporo-Kyoto, then from Osaka to Yokohama. From Yokohoma, he takes another ship to Nakhoda (Russia), then a train to Khabarovsk from where he rides on the Trans-Siberian to Moscow.

It’s impossible to not be inspired, not just by the nature of the journey, but also by the book itself. Paul Theroux is a great traveller in that he’s observant and pays attention to the things and people around him, but his ability to put his experiences down on paper and in the process take us there with him, makes him a great travel writer. Not everyone likes him; some find him judgmental and harsh in his observations, but I didn’t get that here.

Theroux describes the places he sees in great detail, but what stands out in ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ are the people he meets along the way. This was one book which made me realise that travel is not always about the places you go to or even the journey- instead, on most occasions it’s about the people you meet. Theroux says it himself on the second page: “I sought trains; I found passengers”.

The good news is that while writing this I found my old copy of the ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’. I think it’s time to give it another read.


© 2012 – 2014, Anis. All rights reserved.

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