The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is in a way a sequel to his first book, The Great Railway Bazaar, which was published in 1975. For the second book, which is made up of 496 pages, he takes almost the same route. He starts off in the UK, travels up to Japan then takes a different route on his way back. He skips Iran and Afghanistan this time but travels through the various ‘stans’ in Central Asia before landing in India. And when he cannot take the train, he travels by car or flies.

Theroux is not a tourist, but a traveller who loves trains. I could not fathom from his book how long he spent travelling but it must have been a long time and there were days at a stretch when spent 24/7 on a train. Some of these are not the comfortable trains that one sees in parts of North America or western Europe, but really run-down carriages with rough seats and cafeteria selling greasy food prepared by men wearing thick glasses made thicker with layers of grease.

But Theroux seems to love them, just as he seem to love the solitude of the rolling stock. In fact, it even appears that he does not like changes. There are times he finds a strange sense of comfort when things have remained the same way – particularly if it is very rudimentary and even ugly. It is as if he fears changes.

Theroux loves east Asia – in fact there are times one gets the feeling this was after all a trip to Asia, particularly to south east Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia – where even beggars have a beauty and dignity – and Japan. He spends pages and pages describing his experiences while most of the European countries get but a passing glance – because he just travels through them.

One of the happiest moments for a writer is when someone recognises his or her name when introduced, or even better, when the writer sees someone reading his or her piece of work.

And Theroux witnesses both.

In Myanmar (Burma) he is given a special treat in a hotel by its Indian managers when they realised he had brought much fame to their hotel when he wrote about them in his first book. And he also sees a woman reading his book while he was on a train.

All in all, a great read, if you have the patience and you can overlook some of his rather partial or errenous statements on the politics of countries he visits.

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