Originally published in 1977, this is the first of Theroux’s travel books and it remains one of the best. This is a book about transport as much as travel: the train is the inspiration, the destinations almost an inconvenience.
Theroux takes a circular ride from London via Iran, India, south-east Asia, Japan and Russia. The passages by air or road are glossed over, and this is one of the more infuriating aspects of the book. Theroux’s interest in trains means that entire passages are missed. He ends one chapter in Calcutta and starts the next in Rangoon, with little description of what happened between the two.
The places visited are sometimes hardly granted a mention. If you’re looking for a thorough description of the places Theroux visits, try one of the many Silk Road travel tomes (Danziger’s Travels by Nick Danziger and In Xanadu by William Dalrymple are particularly worthwhile). Theroux is unimpressed by many of the destinations: the tombs of Cain and Abel in India are almost accused of being fakes, Teheran has “little interest” and Afghanistan is “a nuisance”.
But this inconvenience is made up for by the romance of the trains. It starts with the names: “The Khyber Mail to Lahore Junction”, “The Mandalay Express”, “The Ozora Big Sky Limited Express to Sapporo”, and, of course “The Trans-Siberian Express”.
Theroux enthuses about the look and feel of the trains, although avoids train-spotter detail. He’s most at home watching the scenery go by, smoking, drinking, reading, and chatting to fellow passengers. The human contact is one of the most appealing aspects of the book. Where other travel writers indulge in historical or geographical detail, Theroux enthuses about his fellow passengers. Thus we meet Duffill, who is abandoned (without luggage) in Italy, we meet tycoons and drug addicts, we meet the US military in Vietnam, and Chinese dentists in Sri Lanka.
Indeed, it’s the people who really make the book. Although in places the book is starting to look dated (travelling through Afghanistan would be more difficult these days), the people to be met at today’s railway bazaar are probably similar to those Theroux meets. The reader has Theroux to thank for plucking up the courage to speak to them all.
Overall verdict:An all-time travel writing classic. Definitely worth a read, and probably a re-read too.