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Book Reflections – Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

I enjoyed reading Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. I didn’t much enjoy Pillars of Hercules. I’m yet to read the Great Railway Bazaar and the Patagonian Express. Most recently I read Riding the Iron Rooster – by Train Through China. Theroux started in London on a tour using the train all the way to outer Mongolia. He left the tour group there and ventured off to cross China again and again by train. Some of those train journeys were for over 30 hours. He obviously had read widely in preparation and was knowledgeable about the Cultural Revolution. Amazingly he could also speak Mandarin Chinese and this helped him to chat with and ask probing questions of random people all over China. He didn’t like the cities, full of people and pollution but he did like remote towns like in Xinjiang, Manchuria and Tibet. He managed to find some wilderness, which was amazing considering the millennia of continual occupation and the over-population of China. If I had read this book first it would have been startling but too much of the content failed to shock me because I have read so many (more recent accounts) of China. Theroux did a marvellous job of this book and I can heartily recommended it. 

After 14 weeks of sightseeing on a round-the-world trip in 2003, I have found it increasingly difficult to be interested in sightseeing. I have travelled a lot since then but the focus has changed to cultural experiences over sightseeing:

Sightseeing is one of the more doubtful aspects of travel, and in China it is one of the least rewarding things a traveller can do – primarily a distraction and seldom even an amusement. It has all the boredom and ritual of a pilgrimage and none of the spiritual benefits. 

This reminded me of Italy:

Crossing it (the Yangtze River) is an event, because it is China’s equator, the north-south divide. The Chinese on the north are different from the Chinese on the south. In the north, the Chinese say, they are imperious, quarrelsome, rather aloof, political, proud noodle- eaters; and across the river they are talkative, friendly, complacent, dark, sloppy, commercial-minded and materialistic rice-eaters.

I’m agnostic but I have attended mass in Italy and Spain for the peaceful experience. The first part of this made me ponder:

He invited me to attend Mass, and out of politeness I said I might; but I knew I wouldn’t. I had no business there: I was a heretic. And I was often annoyed by westerners who, although they never went to church at home, would get the church- going bug in China, as an assertion of their difference or perhaps reproach to the Chinese – as if religious freedom was the test of China’s tolerance. 

Theroux’s reflection on train travel in China is amusing:

It was like a fire-drill, getting on or off a Chinese train, with people panting and pushing; but the journey itself was a great sluttish pleasure for everyone – a big middle-aged pyjama party, full of reminiscences. It seemed to me that the Chinese had no choice but to live the dullest lives and perform the most boring jobs imaginable – doing the same monotonous Chinese two-step from the cradle to the grave – and because of that, these people were never happier then when on a railway journey. They liked the crowded compartments and all the chatter; they liked smoking and slurping tea and playing cards and shuffling around in their slippers – and so did I. We dozed and woke and yawned and watched the world go by. 

About Gansu Province:

The whole landscape had been possessed and shaped and put to practical use. It was not pretty, but it was symmetrical. You couldn’t say ‘Look at that hillside’, because it was all terraces – mud-walled ditches and fields, and mud-walled houses and roads. What the Chinese managed in miniature with a peach stone, carving it into an intricate design, they had done on a gigantic scale with these honey-coloured mountains. If there was an outcrop of rock they balanced a rice paddy on it, and the steps and terraces down the steep hills gave them the look of Mayan pyramids. 

On a train into Yunnan province:

This was one of the routes where people complained of the length of the trip. But it was easily one of the most beautiful train-trips in China. I could not understand why tourists went from city to city, on a forced march of sightseeing. China existed in all the in-between places that were reachable only by train.

Considering the reading I’ve been doing this year about the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations and Chinese government response in 1989, this conversation in the mid 1980s with a senior government official about the student demonstrations that were occurring for the first time since the end of communism:

Theroux “Do you think these students are really dangerous? ”

Comrade Hu “The demonstrations could get out of hand. .. They could bring disorder. If there is no control there could be chaos – everyone does as he likes

I liked this analogy:

It was well known that Chinese phones were hopeless. It was impossible to direct-dial any Chinese city, and it was very hard to make even a local call. And when you got through you often heard five other voices – or more – holding simultaneous conversations. A Chinese phone was like Chinese life: it was full of other people, close together, doing exactly what you were trying to do. 

What books by Paul Theroux have you read? Do you like his writing? As he said in this book, travel writing reveals a lot about the writer. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t like Theroux as a person and he could have fun writing a biting vignette about me. I’m glad that he writes meticulous notes and shares his travel stories with us! He didn’t have many pleasant things to say about Chinese people and maybe that is the result of travelling relentlessly for one year, staying in cold and uncomfortable accommodation, eating sometimes bad food and being squashed together with strangers on trains. He certainly didn’t write about anyone like any of my intelligent, kind and generous Chinese friends. The New York Times summed it up here:

More often than not, he is passing judgment on China rather than describing it, all from a very limited perspective. The result is an opinionated, petty and incomplete portrait of that country. 

2 comments on “Book Reflections – Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

  1. Pingback: Book Reflections – The Silk Road by Sven Hedin | strivetoengage

  2. Pingback: The rectification of names. | Stuff I Done Wrote - The Michael A. Charles Online Presence

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This entry was posted on December 22, 2017 by in travel writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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