On Board The Ghost Train

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In the 1970s, Paul Theroux embarked on a train trip across Europe and Asia, which he chronicled in The Great Railway Bazaar. Some 30 years later, he decided to retrace his footsteps. As Theroux notes in his introduction, few of the great travel writers have returned to the far-away cities, countries, and continents about which they wrote:

What traveler backtracked to take the great trip again? None of the good ones that I know. Greene never returned to the Liberian bush, nor to Mexico, nor to Vietnam. In his latest fifties, Waugh dismissed modern travel altogether as mere tourism and a waste of time. Thesiger did not return to the Marsh Arabs. Burton did not mount another expedition to Utah, or to substantiate the source of the Nile — at my age he was living in Trieste, immersed in erotica. Darwin never went to sea again. Neither did Joseph Conrad, who ended up hating the prospect of seafaring. Eric Newby went down the Ganges once, Jonathan Raban down the Mississippi once, and Jan Morris climbed Everest once. Robert Byron did not take the road to Oxiana again, Cherry-Garrard made only one trip to Antarctica, Chatwin never returned to Patagonia, nor did Doughty go back to Arabia Deserta, nor Wallace to the Malay Archipelago, nor Waterton to the Amazon, nor Trollope to the West Indies, nor Edward Lear to Corsica, nor Stevenson to the Cevennes, nor Chekhov to Sakhalin, nor Gide to the Congo, nor Canetti to Marrakesh, nor Jack London to the Solomon Islands, nor Mark Twain to Hawaii.

For Theroux, the second trip proved to be more illuminating — and harder — than he expected it would be. (Reasons why his literary forebears did not retrace their footsteps, perhaps.) He chronicles the voyage in his new book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar.

What questions do you have for Paul Theroux? Did you read The Great Railway Bazaar? What did you think of it? Have you ever gone back and revisited a place you traveled to before? What was it like?

Comments

 

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I've never read The Great Railway Bazaar but, after reading The Old Patagonian Express, I had no desire to. Theroux is the sort of smug and patronizing writer that I hope never to meet in person. I've been to Patagonia many times, and no Argentine would use his phrase in any event - it's La Trochita, the little railway.

Sent by Wayne Bernhardson | 3:22 PM | 8-18-2008

What are your techniques for documenting your trip? Are you scribbling a couple of notes and doodling some sketches, or are there hours of written and audio recorded notes, photos and video all collected in the field?

Have your writing practices changed now that you can email notes in the field to your editors?

Any advice to a wanna-be travel writer?

Sent by Jack | 3:24 PM | 8-18-2008

I saw pictures of Chandigarh under construction in 1962. I was a 12 year old student in Dhaka then and had a desire to go to Chandigarh and see it for myself. Things on the ground such as politics were difficult and the logistics of such a journey was up to now impossible. After many years, I became an architect and travelled around the world. I have been on the train to the arctic circle, Istanbul on the Orient Express, Paris on TGV and Tokyo on the Bullet Train. Now,there is finally a link between Dhaka to Chandigarh and I am planning this trip. Next to my bed is the National Georaphy edition on the Great Indian Train Journey.
My childhood dream is now possible and I am planning the trip. It may take few days on the train but your journey is my inspiration. Wish me luck.

Sent by Rafique Islam | 4:06 PM | 8-18-2008

I look forward to reading The Ghost Train for my future trip to the former Soviet republics. His book Dark Star Safari served as a great read during my climbing expedition to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I do have a wander lust soul and traveled the world quite a bit. I try not to repeat places that I previously visited. If you really had a great experience, I think a repeat visit may take away the awe inspiring aspect of that first look or moment you had in a particular destination. For the really bad ones, it is just common sense not to do it again. I would probably not repeat another trip to the Venezuelan jungle near Angel Falls where I was unfortunately kidnapped for a few hours. Another example is the Trans-Mongolian train I took from Siberia to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I would not be able to deal again with waiting for almost an entire day waiting and sitting restlessly in a remote Siberian town for Russian immigration officials just to clear my visa!

I am guilty of revisiting several times of two great destinations: Italy and Brazil. I had a fond memory of living and studying in Italy. I try to come back to Italy whenever I get the opportunity. Brazil I love for its carnival, soccer, magical vibe and awesome energy that does not exist anywhere else in the world .Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador has become a yearly repeat tradition for me. The second time visiting both Italy and Brazil did kid take away the excitement and mystery, but nevertheless I still manage to have a great time. The repeat visits provided more opportunities to immerse in the local culture.

I am longing to repeat my Middle East trip from Istanbul to Cairo. What a great experience that was as I was greeted with unexpected warmth and hospitality by Turks, Nomadic Berbers, Jordanians, Palestinians and Egyptians. Africa did not have much of an extensive train infrastructure so I end up doing my land journey through buses in places like Rwanda and Mozambique. I would like to repeat Africa to work and live there. The Indian railway experience from Delhi-Mumbai-Goa I will probably going to hold off in repeating again. I love India and its people, but the transportation in getting around the country is probably the harshest experience for me so far.

Sent by Pablo Soledad from San Francisco | 5:38 PM | 8-18-2008

Any reason this was not included in the daily podcast?

Sent by Michael Cook | 10:39 AM | 8-19-2008

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