The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

A quick rundown… A man crosses Europe and Asia by train in the 1970s.

Strengths: Looking back at the way travelling was then (no iAnything to entertain you)

Weaknesses: The author gets grumpy in places; more about the journey than the countries

Why I read it: Another Popular Penguin

Pages: 372

Published: 2011 (first published 1975)

Publisher: Penguin Australia

Setting: Europe and Asia

Rating: 7 out of 10

If you liked this, try: Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin


The Popular Penguin series means that I’m always finding a new genre or author to try. This book is no exception – a railway journey from London to Asia and back through the USSR in the 1970s appealed to my love of Michael Palin’s travel books. Unlike Palin though, Theroux has no camera crew, just him and leaves his family for a solo tour. He does fly some of the time when there’s no other option, but the majority of the travel is taken on a variety of railway cars – from the old and dilapidated to the new and spartan.

The book takes you back to a time when there was no such thing as a mobile phone, iPod or iPad. All Theroux has to entertain him are some books, a journal to write in and the passengers. He brings to life some of the more quirky passengers (from the passenger who says nothing but eats and eats to the passenger left forgotten at a station), but not so much the destinations. This book is about the journey – descriptions of the berths, compartments and carriages married with vignettes of the passengers making the journey. Plus the food! The food was very varied in both flavour and quality throughout the different railways.

If you’re hoping for in-depth discussion and description of the countries Theroux visits, you’ll be disappointed. Some places warrant more text (India for example) but there was very little on others. Singapore is described in not so hopeful terms and is ridiculed for the government’s wish to deliver information wirelessly to everyone, such as through a fax. Well, we have that now and I’ve used it in Singapore, and it’s really very good! As a modern reader, I laughed at this discarding of technology.

Theroux seems particularly grumpy on the return journey across the USSR and it shows in the narrative. It felt rushed and bleak, as does the ending.

This copy came with the first chapter of a new book the author has written, making the same journey in the 2000s. Will I read it? I skimmed the first chapter and decided I’d be better off watching Michael Palin or reading Bill Bryson. It’s good writing, but I catch trains regularly and know about carriages and engines. What I want to know is more about different countries – food, culture and people.


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