Early in his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux, one of the great modern chroniclers of the road, asks of the thirty-three years that have passed since his last trip overland through Europe and Asia, “Had my long-ago itinerary changed as much as me?” His first journey over this route, from London, through Europe, across the Middle East, crisscrossing Asia, and back across the length of Russia, was captured in The Great Railway Bazaar. More than three decades later, Theroux decided to answer the question by recreating the trip in a world that had radically changed politically, structurally, and culturally.
Theroux, while occasionally irritable (especially in the first book–he mellows with age), is mostly a curious and educated guide on these trips. He writes with great detail about the people he meets, their appearances, their lives, and steers clear of the condescension you might find in a less road-worn writer. Theroux has lived and worked and traveled all over the world, and he isn’t so naive as to think of a place as simple or one-dimensional, even if it might at first appear that way through the window of a passing train. He finds much to admire and appreciate in the people he meets on the road, but he is also honest about the difficulties of traveling, the problems inherent in being a well-off Western man in poor countries, and some of the culture clashes and anti-American/British (Theroux is American but lives in the UK) sentiment he runs into as well. Neither of these books, despite their moments of transcendental beauty and eye-opening encounters, gloss over the fact that food is sometimes awful, people sometimes try to take advantage of foreigners, and long days on the road are sometimes dull. And he visits not only glamorous places like Istanbul and Kyoto but also spots usually overlooked on a tourist’s map–the freezing eastern Russian port town of Nakhodka or the call center farms of Bangalore populated by young Indians with fake American names and accents–giving a fuller picture of the world that people live in, not just the world people visit.
Either of these books makes for excellent reading on its own, but the best way to read them is as a set. I picked up Ghost Train at a bookstore having never read any Theroux before, got a few pages in, and then realized I should really read Railway Bazaar first. I’d recommend that approach–both books, in order, in quick succession, so you can compare and contrast the changes in, as the author himself points out, both the countries traveled through and the man who travels through them. It’s something I always think about when revisiting a place: What did I do last time I was here? What did I think? Who was I then? What’s different now?
Summarizing his journeys, Theroux writes, “Travel gives you glimpses of the past and the future, your own and other people’s.” When you leave a place, it keeps moving and growing, and you do too, separately. Bringing yourself and the place together again makes for a natural point to reflect and take the measure of both and come to understand the world, ugly or beautiful, difficult or welcoming, dull or awe-inducing, a little better.