“By Train Through China”
I’ve praised Paul Theroux‘s travel writing in the past (though not his fiction), and this book was in fact the first of his that I ever read. My impressions of Riding the Iron Rooster have long outlived my recollection of its specifics, so I can do no more than relate such impressions and then finish with a number of quotations I found noteworthy. After all, Theroux is a highly quotable author, a man with the ability to distill his experiences, his deepest thoughts and discussions, into pithy lines that say it all.
This being my first Theroux travelogue, I was a bit surprised that he strayed so far from the main rail lines of China. Prior to delving into a quality book, I tend not to read reviews or summaries other than the front-matter and the blurbs on the covers. Thus, my research of Paul Theroux’s trip through China was terribly lacking, and I missed entirely the fact this is M.O. is to see what most people try to avoid. Having read cultural explorations before, I had anticipated either the urbanized portrait of a country that—at the time at least—was far from urban, or the solo-village microcosm that can be both fascinating and sluggish. While Theroux does travel in each chapter from one major urban hub to the next, he also fills his pages with the places in between. Much of these chapters are spent people-watching on the trains themselves, though he also ventures into depots and villages along the way, providing his readers with a fittingly dusty portrait of a dusty world.
One particular passage I recall was his attempt to visit the far reaches of the Silk Road and the Great Wall. This portion hit me squarely, for those distant wastelands have become—in my sappy romantic mind—a true paradise, taking by a landslide the top slot on my Bucket List. I recall that Theroux became totally frustrated with the dirtiness and emptiness that is Northwest China and how worthless he found the “attractions” there to be. Certainly, China in the mid-80s must have differed greatly from the China of today, but I would have to disagree in principle with Theroux on this point: anyone who’s traveled much in China in the past decade would find any “empty” Chinese tourist site (no matter the quality of the “attractions”) to be a virtual Shangri-La, obviously mythical yet beautiful to imagine.
I was fascinated with Theroux’s interest in the political scenes, not so much from the top-down view of the Party members themselves, but the bottom-up opinions of the citizenry. After all, this book was published just a year before the Student Revolts in Tiananmen Square, so the interviewed citizens always seemed to have an air of frustration, almost of anticipation, though no one at the time of writing or publication could have known of what. As cultural snapshots go, this mid-to-late-80s treatment of China’s back country is one of the best and most essential for China-lovers to read.
Riding the Iron Rooster is also a fantastic treatise on what it means to be a travel writer, for as Theroux himself writes, “Travel writing is a minor form of autobiography.” (84) Included in the following quotes are Theroux’s own musings about writing and travel, and also about culture itself. These quotations are un-categorized.
“Nothing is stranger than being in a fairly bad place and being told that another place—your destination—is a great deal worse.” (425)
“Nothing puts human effort into better perspective than a ruined city…Probably American optimism arises from the fact that we don’t have any devastated cities. There is something wearying and demoralizing about a lost city, but it can also give you a healthy disregard for real estate.” (199)
“It is wrong to see a country in a bad mood: you begin to blame the country for your mood and to draw the wrong conclusions.” (289)
“Any travel book revealed more about the traveler than it did about the country.” (417)
“Being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale.” (17)
“One of the pleasures of travel is being anonymous.” (25)
“My motto: grin like a dog and wander aimlessly.” (87)