When, some thirty years later, Paul Theroux repeated the journey that he had described in The Great Railway Bazaar, he declared travel writing to be 'the lowest form of literary self-indulgence.' His original journey in the early 1970s was a deliberate act, a ruse upon which to hang a book. The travel featured was nothing less than an occupation, whose sole product was to be collected and recorded experience. We, the readers, must thank him for his single-minded devotion to selfishness, for The Great Railway Bazaar takes us all the way there without having to leave the armchair.
The journey began and finished in London. In between Paul Theroux took the orient Express to Istanbul and then crossed Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan before doing the length of India. He even went to Sri Lanka by train. Then there was Burma and a meander through South-East Asia. His account of smoking cigarettes in Vientiane will stick in the mind. Malaysia and Singapore were taken in, the latter clearly not being to the writer's taste. Japan was clearly a curious experience, but the Trans Siberia from near Vladivostok to Moscow seemed strangely predictable, its length being its major characteristic. Eventually, the final leg across Europe hardly counted, a mere step along a much bigger way.
Any such journey can only offer mere impressions of the places en route, but such first impressions are always interesting in themselves, if not always accurate or justified. Thirty years on, some of them may even have historical significance. It would be a challenging task these days to cross the current Iran and Afghanistan by rail. And a contemporary journey would surely cross China, a route barred to the 1970s independent traveler.
But it's the people met along the way that give the book its prime characters. We never get to know these people and we encounter them largely as caricatures, but it is the experience of travel that is described, and this experience inevitably involves a multitude of these ephemeral encounters. They are always engaging. We expect to be confronted with the surprising, the unknown and the little understood. We expect the experience to be recorded, whilst the mundane is edited out of the account. And furthermore, we do try to make sense of our often confused responses to the unexpected. This is why we travel: at its base it is a challenge.
Paul Theroux does litter the trip with indulgence, however. There is a fairly constant search for alcoholic beverages, for instance. Furthermore, in several places there are encounters with and deliberate attempts to seek out the local low life. Offers of girls, boys, older women, wives, transvestites and every imaginable service are received. Sometimes, the services in question require some imagination. It is easy, of course, to sensationalise experience when it is sought at the margins of what a society dares to admit. In the case of Japan, where much of this material is located, it has to be admitted that the margins are rather wide.
Balancing this crudity is Paul Theroux's constant desire to reflect upon his love of literature. Some of the material he recollects produces some wonderful insights, surprising juxtapositions and apposite comment.
Travel writing might be pure self-indulgence, but this particular example of the vice transcends the purely personal. It feels like being taken along for the ride. Thus, like all good travel writing, The Great railway Bazaar is not merely an account of another's observations, it is nothing less than a journey to be experienced.