Notes from an author: Paul Theroux reflects on the evolving nature of rail travel
Almost half a century since taking his first long-distance train journeys, the author reflects on the inspiring, fast-evolving nature of rail travel.
Just about 50 years ago, needing money to support my family — my novels weren’t bestsellers — I had the idea of taking the longest train trip imaginable and writing a travel book about it. I was then an alien in England, living in Catford, a seedy district in southeast London. But Catford was on a railway line. That meant I could walk to Catford Bridge Station, board a train to Charing Cross and thence to Victoria for the boat-train to Paris, and onward to — well, it seemed I could make it continuously all the way by train to the holy city of Mashhad in the distant northeast of Iran. After that, buses through Afghanistan, and then trains again, down the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and India and more trains eastward until the railways of Japan, and my return to Catford via the Trans-Siberian Express.
The trip would be improvisational — I’d be winging it. I didn’t have a credit card, I had no idea where I’d be staying, nor any notion of how long this trip would take. I’d never written a travel book, though I’d read many of them. My favourites were those recounting an ordeal, with drama and dialogue. I hoped my trip wouldn’t be an ordeal, though it was obviously a leap in the dark.
I set off with one small bag containing clothes, a map of Asia, a copy of Thomas Cook’s International Railway Guide and some travellers’ cheques. I made it to Mashhad, travelled by bus through Afghanistan and resumed riding the rails. I was often inconvenienced, sometimes threatened, now and then harassed for bribes, occasionally laid up with food poisoning — all of this vivid detail for my narrative. Most of all I was homesick, not the right mood for a traveller or a fit subject for a travel book; so I never mentioned it. On the contrary, I wrote about my trip as a spirited jaunt, and converted its loneliness into something self-mocking and jolly.
I met an Indian in Afghanistan who said I should look him up in Kanpur, and he gave me his address: “I live in Railway Bazaar.” So I had my title early on. Burmese trains were slow and dirty, Thai trains were clean and efficient, many of the rail lines in Vietnam had been blown up, Japanese trains were swift and several of the legs of the eight-day Trans-Siberian were pulled by steam locomotives.
What I remarked on again and again in the more than four-month trip was the pleasure of the sleeping car. Writing on board the Khyber Mail to Lahore in Pakistan, ‘The romance associated with the sleeping car derives from its extreme privacy, combining the best features of a cupboard with forward movement. Whatever drama is being enacted in this moving bedroom is heightened by the landscape passing the window: a swell of hilltops, the surprise of mountains, the loud metal bridge or the melancholy sight of people standing under yellow lamps… A train is a conveyance that allows residence: dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer.
’I wrote The Great Railway Bazaar on my return in 1974, and it appeared the following year to good reviews and brisk sales — and it’s still in print, in many languages. A few years later, stuck for an idea, I took a similar trip, mostly by train, from my home in Boston, Massachusetts to Patagonia in the southern tip of South America, and wrote about it in The Old Patagonian Express.
That’s the past. Nothing is the same. All travel is time-related. All such trips are singular and unrepeatable.
It’s not just that the steam trains of Asia are gone, much of the peace and order is gone. Who’d risk an Iranian train now or take a bus through Afghanistan? Mexico has virtually no passenger trains anymore, and they’ve been eliminated in Colombia and Ecuador. Buses have replaced them — ‘luxury’ long-distance coaches, but buses nonetheless, where you’re confined to a narrow seat.
But I’ve been surprised by some of the more recent developments in travel. I rode on Chinese trains for a year and wrote Riding the Iron Rooster, but now China is connected by much cleaner and swifter trains and modernised destinations, and a traveller today could take the same trip I took in 1986-87 and produce a completely different book. I got to Tibet by a snowy road. These days there’s a train to Lhasa.
All travel books are by their very nature dated. That’s their fault, that they’re old-fangled; and it’s their virtue, that they preserve something of the past that would otherwise be lost.
The Folio Society edition of Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, with a new foreword from the author, is exclusively available from foliosociety.com paultheroux.com
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