The Great Railway Bazaar

The Great Railway Bazaar



The Pequod Review:

Paul Theroux's supremely entertaining memoir The Great Railway Bazaar is in many ways a love letter to train travel:

Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places — a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to — like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass. Better to go first class than to arrive, or, as the English novelist Michael Frayn once rephrased McLuhan: “the journey is the goal.” But I had chosen Asia, and when I remembered it was half a world away I was only glad. 

Then Asia was out the window, and I was carried through it on these eastbound expresses marveling as much at the bazaar within the train as the ones we whistled past. Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories. It was my intention to board every train that chugged into view from Victoria Station in London to Tokyo Central; to take the branch line to Simla, the spur through the Khyber Pass, and the chord line that links Indian Railways with those in Ceylon; the Mandalay Express, the Malaysian Golden Arrow, the locals in Vietnam, and the trains with bewitching names, the Orient Express, the North Star, the Trans-Siberian. I sought trains; I found passengers.

Theroux spent four months traveling by train throughout Europe and Asia — beginning in London and continuing through Continental Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and even as far as Singapore, before returning through Japan and then Europe by way of the Trans-Siberian Express — and his memoir is a collection of anecdotes and observations from his journey. Theroux has a lively and sharp-witted intelligence throughout, and he reveals eccentric (and some might say unfair) insights on the regions:

The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical.

In the Night Express from Nong Khai were many Chinese and Filipino mechanics, deeply tanned from working on the American air fields, and wearing their baseball caps pulled down over their eyes. Thais gambled in the second-class sleeper, where American servicemen sat sheepishly with Thai girls, looking homesick but very proper as they held hands. I was in a compartment with an American civilian who said he was a salesman. He didn’t look like a salesman. His hair was cut so short, I could see a white scar that ran along the top of his head from back to front like a part; he had a Thai charm around his neck and broken fingernails; on the back of his right hand was tattooed TIGER, and he talked continually of his “hog,” a Harley-Davidson Electraglide. He had been in Thailand for five years. He had no plans to go back to the States, and said it was his ambition to make $30,000 a year — or, as he put it, “thirty K.”


Money pulls the Iranian in one direction, religion drags him in another, and the result is a stupid starved creature for whom woman is only meat.


The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness.

He also has incisive comments on travel more generally, as when he describes sightseeing as "an activity that delights the truly idle because it seems so much like scholarship, gawping and eavesdropping on antiquity, flattering oneself with the notion that one is discovering the past when really one is inventing it, using a guidebook as a scenario of swift notations." This is a superb work of travel writing.