'The Great Railway Bazaar' Revisited
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1973, Paul Theroux said goodbye to his wife and children in London and set off on a journey that would make his career and change his life. Theroux was a novelist then, out of ideas, and he hoped that a trip across Europe and Asia and back would inspire a new book. Theroux boarded the Golden Arrow, took the ferry to France, transferred to the Orient Express, and rode the rails east to Iran and Afghanistan, India, Burma, Vietnam, China, and Japan, then home again through the length of the Soviet Union. It took him four and a half months, and he then wrote a now classic book, "The Great Railway Bazaar," which many credit as the start of a new kind of travel literature.
More than three decades later, Theroux retraced his steps as much as he could. There are new train routes, different landscapes, new borders, and different political realities, and he chronicles that trip in his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star." If you'd like to talk with Paul Theroux about his travels, about what's changed, and what hasn't, along the way, our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. While you're there, you can go to our blog and read an excerpt from "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star." That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Later in the program, we'll talk with a woman from China who was told as a girl that she was too ugly to represent her country.
And we're having some difficulty with the studio in Massachusetts where Paul Theroux is going to join us, some technical problems. He's there. We'll be ready to go in just a moment. But in the meantime, why don't we read some excerpts from the "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star"? And this is the beginning.
(Reading) You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on Earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people's privacy.
Well, Paul Theroux is now with us. He's at the studios of WCAI, the Cape and Islands' NPR station in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and it's nice to have you with us today.
Mr. PAUL THEROUX (Author, "The Great Railway Bazaar" and "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star"): Hi. Neal, can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air.
Mr. THEROUX: Ah, fine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I'm glad you made it.
Mr. THEROUX: No, I made it, but I'm using a common or garden-type telephone.
CONAN: Well, we'll try to get the better connection up as soon as we can figure out the technical problems.
Mr. THEROUX: OK, that's great. I heard your introduction, anyway.
CONAN: Well, many of our listeners will well remember you as a marvelous traveling companion 35 years ago. You described yourself in this book as jolly in those days.
Mr. THEROUX: I've always been jolly. You know, if you're a traveler, you need to be optimistic and be in a fairly good mood. I have a reputation for being cantankerous and gloomy, but actually, you can't travel in that mood. And I've always been, I think, in a good mood, thinking there's going to be something good around the corner, even if the corner happens to be Gori in western Georgia.
CONAN: Well, we'll talk about that a bit later in the program. But I wanted to ask you why you didn't tell us an important part of that story 35 years ago, that that journey cost you your marriage?
Mr. THEROUX: I don't know whether actually - it certainly was one of the nails in the coffin of my marriage. I didn't - at that time, when I was in my - when I was around 30 years old, I found it difficult to write about myself in that way, personal, painful things. I was immersed in fiction writing, and I thought that travel itself was a way of not fictionalizing the world, but writing about the world as a traveler, and I thought that my own problems weren't part of it.
I also thought it was so awful. I mean, anyone who's been through a divorce - my marriage was sort of cracking at that time as I was writing - anyone would recognize the fact that that's impossible to write about. You can't write a book about your adventures, your travels, as I did in Vietnam, in India, the Soviet Union and Japan, and at the same time, say, oh, by the way, I'm miserable, I'm horrible. I mean, there must be - there's someone maybe who could have written that, but not me.
So, it took me almost 30 years to see that that was a factor. I actually think that there's a kind of hysteria in the book of gleefulness, of whistling, you know, whistling Dixie and trying to put on a brave face, but writing about the trip. So, it gave the book a peculiar flavor. One that - it strikes me now as kind of painful when I read it, because I realize everything that I was leaving out. And in this book, I put everything in.
CONAN: You didn't write about your crisis back then, but on this trip - basically, on your first stop in Paris, you arrived in the midst of a huge demonstration later to be called Black Tuesday.
Mr. THEROUX: Yeah.
CONAN: And what you say is fascinating. You say, you know, a national crisis is a gift to a traveler, an opportunity. What do you mean by that?
Mr. THEROUX: I mean, that anything, not only a national crisis, but terrible weather, a typhoon, a flood - I traveled around Britain, in the Kingdom by the Sea, when I wrote that book. The Falklands War was on. It just started. I'd lived in Britain for 11 years, and I didn't know my neighbor, I mean, no one - neighbors, London. No one talked to each other. But then when the Falklands War started, people started to talk to each other, as they do in crises. And I think that the crisis that was in Paris - actually, Sarkozy was part of - he was moving in at that point. He was...
CONAN: Interior minister, I think.
Mr. THEROUX: Seeing himself as possible problem solver in that he moved in and now he's, you know, where he is. But yes, a national crisis is very, very helpful to the traveler. Sometimes it's inconvenient. I mean, if there's a revolution, if you get shot at, if you get threatened, if you, you know, get arrested or something like that, that can be very inconvenient. But on the other hand, you find out a lot about a country. You know, conversely, you go to a place with - when it's living its ordinary life and that's revealing, too. So, both are useful.
CONAN: Yet, you also write two of the most appalling words a newly-arrived traveler can hear are "national holiday."
Mr. THEROUX: Yeah, national holiday. You come in and they say, oh, everything shuts down. It's for two weeks. It's the Navrus Festival. For two weeks, nothing's going to happen, nothing's running. No buses, no trains, everyone's home having a really nice time, and you're wandering empty streets saying, what in heaven's name is going on here? To return to Britain - Britain's like that during Christmas.
People go to Britain over Christmas and they say, what's happening? You know, everyone's home. Even restaurants close. As a restaurateur told me once, you know, even restaurants need to have holidays, so they shut down. I had this experience in Azerbaijan at the Navrus Festival. I had it again in Sri Lanka. It's the Sri Lankan New Year, where two weeks go by and nothing. So, that was a - yeah, pretty dismal words.
CONAN: I had the same experience. It struck me as quite funny. I was in Vienna on a reporting trip, and I couldn't get anybody to agree to an interview on Tuesday. How could I have forgotten the Feast of Corpus Christi?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. THEROUX: Yeah, that's what I mean. You got it in one. But then - but you might have found out that, but it's the Zoroastrian calendar that turns you in Azerbaijan and other places, well, Iran, too, for that matter, or Sri Lanka, where they say, on Tuesday, you have to - if you live the house - you have to walk backwards and wear blue and stand on a certain kind of nuga leaf when you're doing it. You think, well, who told me about that before I got here?
CONAN: We're talking with Paul Theroux about his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar." 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join the conversation. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's get Martha on the line. And Martha is with us from Huachuca City in Arizona.
MARTHA (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Martha.
MARTHA: Hi. I'm a railroad nut from - all of my life and last year, I went on the Old Patagonian Express. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for that book. I read it years ago. I reread it before I went on the tour. We were on five different chartered trains, and the Old Patagonian Express was just wonderful.
Mr. THEROUX: Well, Martha, it's really nice of you to say that, and as you know, since you are railway-minded, that we can say, we told you so, now that the gas price are so high, ridership on trains is way up, commuter lines ridership is way up, and the trains in India, in China, in Russia and other places are doing booming business. So, 35 years ago, when I took the train, it was as though as I was taking some antique, you know, like an old samovar, having it sit and saying, well, that will - you know, someday, this can be replaced. But as you know, that's not the case, and there're really as many trains as there've ever been, and they're coming back in lots of places. When I was in China, there was no train to Tibet. Now there's a train.
MARTHA: My daughter and I are planning a trip on Coast Starlight soon, up the coast of California.
Mr. THEROUX: Yes, I know that. Doesn't that go to - San Francisco to Los Angeles?
MARTHA: Oh, it goes to Vancouver, British Columbia.
Mr. THEROUX: Oh, there you go. There you go. Well, it shows I haven't been on that one.
MARTHA: But thank you so much for "The Old Patagonian Express."
Mr. THEROUX: If you like that, you'll love "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," which is 28,000 miles...
MARTHA: Of course, oh, yes.
Mr. THEROUX: Of sheer merriment.
MARTHA: Yes. I read your book, you know, from Victoria. I read the Red Rooster.
Mr. THEROUX: Oh, that's great. "The Iron Rooster," but that's for China.
Mr. THEROUX: Very good, Martha. Thank you very much.
MARTHA: Oh, thank you for writing about it. Bye.
CONAN: And thanks for the call, Martha. Interestingly, one of the things that people complain about so much in the world is about the homogenization of culture. Well, you're going to be homogenized a lot if you arrive in airports, every one of which seems to have the same stores as everyone other one. Trains, though, a little different.
Mr. THEROUX: No, that's true. And you know, it's true of a place like Tbilisi. Tbilisi is in the news, so I can mention it. Everyone's heard the name Tbilisi. Everyone knows where Georgia is because Georgia's shown on the map in the newspapers. If this crisis hadn't happened, no one would really pay much attention to it. I was surprised by several things in Tbilisi, which is the capital. First, there is a big international airport that I didn't see. The road to the airport is the George W. Bush Avenue or street. Anyway, it's in Georgian and English.
If you arrived in Tbilisi, in that airport, I'm sure you could buy a bottle of whiskey and a pound of chocolates and some cigars. But if you enter Georgia as I did, by the back way, via Turkey, taking the bus to Trabzon, and then the train from Batumi on the Black Sea coast, Batumi to Caspi, and Gori to Tbilisi, you see that Georgia's quite a different place. It's a peasant place. People live in little huts, like little troglodytes, in some cases, in the sides of hills, and it's essentially a peasant economy. Fly into Tbilisi and you see gambling casinos, an opera house and, you know, a big square and grand buildings. But if you take the train from the edge of Georgia, entering through the hinterland, you see it's totally different. I wasn't surprised, really, by what happened.
CONAN: Paul, I'm going to have to interrupt, because we have to take a short break. But when we come back, if you would - do you have a copy of your book there?
Mr. THEROUX: I do.
CONAN: Would you turn to page 73? And when we come back, I'm going to ask you to read that opening paragraph that describes exactly what you're talking about so beautifully.
Mr. THEROUX: OK, fine.
CONAN: We're talking with Paul Theroux about his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Trains cross international frontiers at unlikely, often unlovely, places, quite unlike the studied presentation of international airports. In his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," Paul Theroux describes one such crossing. And Paul, would you mind reading us that paragraph in page 73?
Mr. THEROUX: No, no, not at all. It's actually when I was entering Georgia. I'd come through Turkey. I'd actually come overland by train from London to Istanbul, then to Ankara, then to the Black Sea, Trabzon, and then up to Batumi. I took a bus over the border - actually I walked over the border, and then went - Batumi was a town where Alfred Nobel and the Rothschilds were in the oil business. It was built on the oil fortunes of the Rothschilds.
(Reading) So, I said, as I got to Batumi in a drizzle, it seemed to me that this was the whole point of traveling, to arrive alone like a specter in a strange country at nightfall, not in the brightly lit capital, but by the back door in the wooded countryside, hundreds of miles from the metropolis, where typically, people didn't see many strangers and were hospitable. It did not instantly think of me as money on two legs. Life was harder but simpler here. I could see it in the rough houses and the crummy roads and the hayricks and the boys herding goats. Arriving in the hinterland with only the vaguest plans was a liberating event. I told myself that it was a solemn occasion for discovery, but I knew better. It was more like an irresponsible and random haunting of another planet.
CONAN: An excerpt read by the author from his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star." If you'd like to talk with Paul Theroux about his travels, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And as you were riding on the trans-Caucasian railway, no one could suspect that very rail line would be so much in the news.
Mr. THEROUX: Not - in the news, very much so. Two days ago, the Russians blew up the bridge outside Gori, and I may say that I haven't seen this mentioned in any news stories, but Stalin was born in Gori. Joseph Dzhugashvili was a lame, pockmarked, web-toed boy, an urchin, a street fighter, choir boy at the Gori church school. He was a gang leader, robbed banks, and so forth. But Stalin - and he wasn't quite sure who his father was, either. He knew who his mother was. She was kind of crazy and possessive.
But that hasn't been mentioned. But the idea that the Russians are blowing up and destroying this town where Stalin was born is amazing. It's amazing, strange, allegorical weirdness, but there you go. I mean, I went through Gori, so - and then I found that the Georgians were incredibly Russia-phobic. Every time you mention Russia, they kind of roll their eyes, oh, God, them again, because the Georgians, of course, have their own language. It's not called Georgian. They call it Sakartvelo. And they talked about South Ossetia and Abkhazia all the time, but they see themselves as beleaguered. They don't have any energy. They don't have any oil, any natural gas. They get it all from Russia. And Russia, occasionally, to persecute them, shuts of the gas or the oil, shuts off the energy, sometimes the electricity. So, they have very cold winters in Georgia, all over.
CONAN: I suspect this next one is going to be colder than most.
Mr. THEROUX: You can say that again. But I must say, they're incredibly pro-American. I mean, they have - the previous hour I was listening to Ted Koppel and Strobe Talbot talk about it - but the affection of Georgians for America, which is, you know, in its, kind of, common dislike of Russia or feeling the paranoia about Russia, is very strong. So, they feel really as though they've been left out in the cold.
But I suppose - I didn't want to, you know, belabor the point - but you really don't know Georgia unless you have been in Batumi and Gori and Caspi, any small, peasant, wood-fired little villages and towns with slate roofs and the people outside getting water from a well. You realize it's not grand Tbilisi, with the opera house and the synagogue and all of that business. I think the value in taking a train there, in Turkmenistan, in Azerbaijan, in India, and then again, you know, even in Japan and Russia, is to find out how people live.
And the people who live in these places, who really don't have a lot of money, take the train, and they take their food on the train, their children on the train, and they talk when they're on the train. So, you're sitting there and if you're taking a two or three-day, or, in the case of the trans-Siberia, eight-day railway ride, you really get to talk to people and find out a lot about them. I knew that on "The Great Railway Bazaar" and it was even more emphatic on this trip.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Terry. Terry's with us from San Francisco.
TERRY (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Terry, are you there?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TERRY: Hey, Paul. Great to hear you. Thanks for taking my call. I love your books, especially "Happy Islands of Oceania." I'm still trying to get to the answer of all these (unintelligible). Good luck with the Happy Isles.
Mr. THEROUX: They're pretty happy still. Not a lot happens in the Happy Isles. We're talking Oceania.
TERRY: I'm glad to hear that. Some islands can get run over kind of quick with tourism, yeah. But my question or comment, and I'll take the answer off the air. But I find that riding trains in the States can be a little claustrophobic. A lot of windows. but you can't open them. You know, if you ride on the Rhodesian railroad or, you know, chugging through India, you can climb out the windows and sit on the roof. They don't really care as long as you paid your fare. Whereas here in the States, I'm kind of an energetic guy, and I could sort of feel like I'm just dying for the next stop. So, you know, if you have any comments on that...
CONAN: The smells of the country are excluded if you can't open the windows.
Mr. THEROUX: Yes. And to coin the phrase, Amtrak Railways do disparage hanging bodily from a carriage, You know, who wants - I don't want to ride on the roof of an Amtrak train, or hang out the window, for that matter. There are reasons why people aren't allowed to hang on the sides of trains. I was with Steve McCurry, the photographer, in Bangladesh once, and we had to ride on the roof of a train and a shout went up every 15 or 20 minutes. We had to crouch down because we were going under a bridge, and he actually lost a camera that way. You don't want to do that.
I think what Terry's suggesting is that it's less atmospheric, but you know, I don't need a lot of atmosphere of that kind. Even in India, you know, you can't open the windows in this first class AC, second class AC, and there are certain classes - even, I don't know what they call third class, but even in the lower classes, they keep the windows shut to keep thieves away. The trains in Japan are like - they're like jet planes. They go very fast. You're in the seat. But it's still a train and people do talk.
I think he's suggesting, too, that the people don't talk as much on American trains as they do on others. But I think that's really the way American life is. I mean, people on trains behave in a culturally specific way. Indians on Indian trains observe the nicer piece of Indian life, and same with Russians, Japanese and in Turkmenistan. I was in Turkmenistan and traveling from Ashkhabad toward Bukhara in Uzbekistan - I had to actually walk across the border.
But there was a man - I had some food, and he was a Muslim, and we were talking through an interpreter and I had some food. And I offered him the food, and he offered up a ritual prayer in the train and did - there's a ritual washing with dust because we were in the dessert. We ate the food, and I was thinking, well, this wouldn't happen on Amtrak, you know? He's just eating. He was a cotton picker outside a place called Merv. Now, who knew that there was a train from Ashkhabad to Turkmenabad? I didn't. But for four dollars, you can get a berth there, and it's like being in Turkmenistan. It's not like Amtrak.
CONAN: Exchange rates these days are probably after five.
Mr. THEROUX: Yeah.
CONAN: Terry, if you're going to do train surfing, be very, very careful.
Mr. THEROUX: I wouldn't suggest it. You see it in Bangladesh and some places in India, people hang on the train. It's not a good idea.
CONAN: Email from Mark in Boulder, Colorado. My late father used to tell about traveling in the Brazilian interior. At the station, he saw a sign that indicated firs-t and second-class tickets, inquired why the price difference, since it was only one type of car. The clerk at the ticket window told my dad, get on board, and eventually you'll find out the difference. The train took off and after a couple of hours, it came to a halt and the conductor yelled, all second-class passengers get out to gather wood for the locomotive. Did Mr. Theroux ever find himself in a similar predicament?
Mr. THEROUX: No, no. I never did. That's a good story, though. I do remember, though, that in Malawi when the train went - was going along when a man in the locomotive pulled the whistle for - the steam whistle, the train slowed down. Steam would kind of (unintelligible). And then sometimes they had two or three goes in central Malawi. When I was in the Peace Corps taking the train, the train didn't make it up a hill, and it would roll back. They'd have to take two or three tries to get up the hill.
CONAN: Mm. You'd have to push, though.
Mr. THEROUX: We travel - I could say, though, that when things like that happen, people say, how inconvenient. I would say on the contrary. When things like that happen, you have something to write about. What you need, if you're writing a book, as I am, occasionally, you need a vent. You need someone to say, OK, pick up the firewood, and then all the people - while, people are complaining, you say, oh, great, I get something to write about.
CONAN: Here's George. And George is calling us from Warsaw in Poland.
GEORGE (Caller): Hello there.
Mr. THEROUX: Hi, George.
GEORGE: I'm an expat American living in Warsaw, Poland, now. But apparently, in about the same time as your guest was writing his first book, I was on the Orient Express from Budapest, Hungary, to Istanbul, but my interim destination was in Pennsylvania. And as I was traveling alone, since I was on one of these lengthy excursions in Europe starting from Trondheim, via the Arctic Circle and traveling all the way down to Cairo, Egypt, I was stopping in Pennsylvania to visit some friends. And while I was on train, I was well advised to be careful about taking pictures. And keeping that in mind, can you hear me all right?
CONAN: Yes. Go ahead, please.
Mr. THEROUX: Yes. Go on, George. This is fascinating.
GEORGE: Keeping that in mind, I called the conductor over and I said, will it be all right if I take some pictures? He says, of course it will. I said, well, just to be sure, would you mind to stand by me while I'm taking the pictures? And I actually had the conductor partially in all the pictures that I took through the window.
Well, be as it might, I arrive in this large town in Pennsylvania and when I get my bags, and the porter is carrying them, all of a sudden, a couple of Romanian Ceausescu militiamen start walking alongside of us, and they have said in Romanian something to the porter. But anyhow, the next thing I know, I'm the guest of the Securitate. And it was rather scary, because they were wearing these theatrical costumes, the shiny, high, black-leather boots and all of that.
But the next four and a half hours, I had a lengthy interview in which they were primarily interested in how much money an engineer earns in America. That was their primary interest, plus they wanted to see the films in my camera. And I said, oops, we're going to have a problem with that, because I was using a professional Kodak film. And by that time, I was in the office of the chief of the Securitate in this big town, and he says, don't worry about it, no problem, we can develop any film made any place in the world, and sure enough, they took...
Mr. THEROUX: It might have an ominous ending, George. How did it end?
GEORGE: It ended that I said, fun is fun, I gave them my card and invitation to Disneyland if they ever let him out of Romania. But in the meantime, I said, in about 15 minutes, unless I'm released and given my rental car, the next person I will speak with will be the United States ambassador. And apparently, that worked. They let me go.
CONAN: George, thank you very much for the story. We're glad you got away.
GEORGE: Right. But he was the only Securitate chief who had an official invitation to Disneyland. Of course, he never took me up on it.
CONAN: Thanks very much, George, with us from Warsaw in Poland. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And here's an email they have from Jane in Newburgh in North Carolina. Do you pay for your trips, or are they subsidized by hotels, rail companies, restaurants et cetera? If any of your trips are subsidized, it's more difficult to write honestly about your experiences, no?
Mr. THEROUX: No., I pay for everything. I'm the last of the full-fare passengers. I can say that it's expensive, though. It does - I mean, that's a serious question. If you take a - at the end of my trip, I took a train from Berlin to Paris to London that - just a leg from Berlin to Paris cost about 400 dollars. And I was thinking, why am I doing this? And I thought I know why, because I'm writing a book about it. But it is expensive. I had a private compartment and it had a shower and so forth, and I was going to try that. In most places, traveling by train isn't expensive, but hotels generally are.
CONAN: You rode the Orient Express, but we should be clear, the Orient Express you took was the local, not the luxury, train. In fact, you write that luxury is the enemy of observation.
Mr. THEROUX: It is. Luxury is the enemy. With luxury, all you say is, I had a nice time. And I don't want to say I had an awful time, but I'd like to, you know, see something, do something. I took the train from Thailand, from Bangkok to the border, Aranyaprathet, but I took a bus because there was no train to Siem Reap. And when I got off the bus in Siem Reap to go to Angkor, I had the option of, you know, lots of hotels but - Siem Reap is a city now of a million people. So, they have five-star hotels and four-star hotels. They have casinos. They have girly shows. They have really everything you want if you're stupid.
But I stayed in a hotel called the Green Town Guest house for 10 dollars a night. And to do laundry was a dollar for two kilos. And I thought, I could stay here for the next two years, you know, at 10 dollars night. I saw some grizzled old men doing pretty much that, actually long-term residents. So, you don't - it wasn't that I was - I didn't want luxury. I thought, this is really pleasant, staying in a place with a courtyard. eating noodles and paying 10 bucks a night was really pleasant.
I don't know what my total trip cost but some parts were incredibly expensive. Japan is an expensive country. The Trans-Siberian is expensive. But in general, you can get along quite cheaply if you put your mind to it and you don't mind a few cockroaches.
CONAN: Siem Reap, one of the many places described by Paul Theroux in his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bizarre," a place you may remember dimly from news reports of the war in Cambodia so many years ago. Paul Theroux joined us today from the studios of WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Thanks very much for your time.
Mr. THEROUX: Thank you, Neal. It's a pleasure talking to you.
CONAN: Paul Theroux with us from Woods Hole. Coming up, the Olympic lip-sync scandal and another girl who was told she was too ugly to represent her country. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.