For four months in the early 1970s, the author traveled the rails from London to Japan via at least a dozen different countries, and then returned through the former Soviet Union. His method was at first cut and dried, or so he thought - making the initial leg of the journey using the fabled Orient Express.
Things only get interesting, and sometimes harrowing. There are language barriers and discomfort. Some train compartments touch on luxury, although as the story progresses, these seem the exception. Theroux has to wrangle with governmental officials, lackadaisical rail employees, irritable bunk mates, and the mind-numbing monotony of cruising a never-ending landscape (the chapter about traversing Siberia captures this all too well.) More often than not, he is shocked by the variety of cultural practices he comes across, but as a determined traveler, Theroux sees these through, and generally does well with the unavoidable tedium in each country.
The Great Railway Bazaar came out almost 40 years ago - as such, it helps if the reader has some knowledge of that time period. Vestiges of the Vietnam War were scarily in evidence when Theroux visited that country, and Japan was flush with economic possibilities and excesses. Afghanistan and Pakistan were (surprise) still difficult to navigate back then, although I think Theroux would have a worse time of it now.
Paul Theroux is still writing; his latest, The Last Train to Zona Verde, came out this year.
(William Hicks, Information Services)