Travel Book of the Week: The Great Railway Bazaar

The trains contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character.

Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
Older edition of The Great Railway Bazaar

Author: Paul Theroux

Published: 1975

Geographic Area: Most of Europe and Asia

Original Language: English

One of famous travel writer Paul Theroux’s first travelogues, and to this day still one of his most celebrated.

In this seminal book, Theroux recounts his travels–almost entirely by train–from London to Tokyo and back. He explores–if I’m reading this map right–24 different countries over the course of a few months. He explores Communist Eastern Europe, Sri Lanka in the midst of a civil war, and Vietnam at a time when the war with the US was still going on.

Map of Theroux’s train journey as found in the book

This particular voyage, having been undertaken in the early-’70s, is a bit dated: Sri Lanka is Ceylon, Myanmar is Burma, Russia is part of the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia is still a thing. However, Theroux’s sharp eye and keen awareness craft a timeless observation of countries and cultures spanning thousands of miles, some at war with other countries, and others at war with themselves.

He writes about the pleasant but hopelessly inefficient effect of Buddhism at the government level in Burma, the efficient but eerie influence of pervasive machines in Japan, and gets questioned by government officials who suspect him of being a spy. He meets disaffected American soldiers in Vietnam, a junky from Germany, and a man who quite possibly robbed a train soon after his interaction with the author. Of course, as with all of his books, Theroux shows his characteristic borderline-curmudgeonly, semi-standoffish demeanor in its prime, as well as his cultural perspicacity.

Paul Theroux always had a love of trains, ever since hearing them pierce the night outside his Massachusetts home as a boy. Finally as a man he gets the opportunity to undergo the trip of a lifetime, and recount his experiences. He saw the train as not just a pleasant mode of travel, but also as a microcosm of society as a whole. Like a great iron marketplace speeding across the face of the earth, transporting a little bit of the soul of a people within.

If you’re in need of an inspiring travelogue like none other, look no further.

If you would like to purchase a copy of the book, I’ve included an affiliate link below. I do get a small percentage if you choose to buy it using this link.

Buy The Great Railway Bazaar on Amazon
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