In his essay on “self-reliance,” Emerson wrote that “travelling is a fool’s paradise.”  He was referring to those who travel to escape the boredom or sadness of their lives, and who hope to return home somehow transformed.  Yet we may add those who travel to boast (“Look, here I am at the Parthenon!” or “I kayaked off Antarctica!”), and those who hope to experience, if only temporarily, a state of bliss, as indicated by the demand for luxurious accommodations.  Such vain quests are characteristic of the pampered tourist rather than the adventurous traveler.  Travelers don’t know where they’re going, while tourists don’t know where they’ve been.

In all of his travel writing, Paul Theroux has never shrunk from telling it as it is.  This is what makes his writing so valuable, so essential.  Few tourists would wish to observe his rules of travel: Go alone, go cheap, stay on the ground, be patient, avoid luxury, leave all electronics behind.  Yet it is only by following them that one learns anything about the world, or has anything to write about or tell about afterward.  “Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world.  That is its purpose.”

In Ghost Train, Theroux retraces his 1973 trip—as recounted in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), his first travel book—by train through Asia via the Orient Express, and back via the Trans-Siberian.  His only significant deviation is a northern detour around Iran and Afghanistan, which takes him through the southern Caucasus and former Soviet Central Asia.

This is Theroux’s best, most philosophical work.  The motif of change, of relentless transformation as a natural law, suffuses this book and gives it a meditative and slightly mystical air.  “It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay, the epiphany of Wordsworth . . . nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts.”  Travel “gives you glimpses of the past and the future, your own and other people’s.”  What he sees is a world that, on balance, is getting worse, despite (or is it because of?) progress, development, globalization.

Most people on earth are poor.  Most places on earth are blighted and nothing will stop the blight getting worse. . . . [T]here are too many people and an enormous number of them spend their hungry days thinking about America as the Mother Ship. . . . Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation.  Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. . . . No one on earth is well governed.

Theroux does not exempt from this judgment the United States, which he views as something of a paradise lost.  What bothers him is “the disposable dreariness of American architecture,” the increased crowding, the erosion of privacy, and, above all, the loss of space.  “[It] was the way of the world.  The population . . . has doubled in my lifetime, and the old simple world I had known as a boy was gone.”

Everyone he meets on his journey wants to move to America, or Canada, or the western fringe of Europe.  In Eastern Europe, “the great wish was to travel west, to leave home.”  Rumanians are on the move, “furnishing western Europe with factory workers, hookers, and car thieves.”  In Georgia, the young and educated all want to flee to America.  The same is true of Azerbaijan, despite its oil wealth and abundance of jobs.  Theroux is taken aback by a young and well-employed Azeri patriot, who, after praising the beauty and glory of his country, announces, “I’m going to Canada.”  Theroux also puzzles over an Uzbek he met who “seemed to dislike America, but he badly wanted to go to America.”  He finds this a common attitude among Muslims.  Even in Vietnam, a beautiful country whose people Theroux finds self-confident and prosperous, there is a crowd lined up at the American consulate in Saigon “waiting for visas.”  Hanoi may be a “kind of Asiatic Paris,” but the young still “want to go to America.”

Everywhere, it seems, “the world of settled people had evolved into a world of people wishing to emigrate.”  That, of course, is a problem, and not only for the developing world, which cannot afford to lose its most talented and best-educated citizens; it is a problem for us, too.  (Even worse, such countries as India and China can afford to lose their teeming surplus of younger people.)  Theroux finds the universal and foremost motivation for migration to be economic.  Whether people are destitute or reasonably well off, they calculate that they can dramatically and instantaneously improve their standard of living simply by moving west, so why stay where they are?  I suspect that the image of a sensual paradise projected by film and television is another, possibly more powerful, draw.  Who would not want to live in the land of wish and dream?  Regardless, the demographic pressure upon the western lands seems certain to increase.

Like Tom Jefferson and Ed Abbey, Theroux hates cities—“I think of them generally as snake pits, places to escape from”—but he loves wilderness and openness as well as unspoiled places, which are vanishing.  Some places he visits are being preserved only by violence (e.g., Sri Lanka, which is bedeviled by the Tamil Tigers) or brutal repression (Myanmar), and in such places, the citizens are impoverished.  Yet wherever there is development, there is exploitation (of man and nature) and overpopulation.  Despite India’s boast that “we are modern now,” there are 400 million of her people living in poverty.  Indian employers refused to tell Theroux how much they pay their employees.  He discovers that low-level tailors earn a mere $1,000 per year; entry-level call-center workers, as little as $2,500.  Yet meager salaries, made possible by an inexhaustible labor pool (much of it well educated), are what drive the Indian economy:

the half-billion people earning a dollar a day are producing India’s food surplus; the sweatshop factory workers are the backbone of its textile industry; and low-paid employees are the workforce of its high-tech sector.

He notes the paradox: “India’s poor were its wealth.”

Indians wanted him to be dazzled by the new Bangalore (“like Silicon Valley!”), but he is “more horrified than awed.”  Because of the frenetic construction, “the whole place smoldered in the foul dusty air of a building site.”  He has difficulty even crossing the street through the throng of people.  All the cities are choked with people and traffic.  In Chennai (formerly Madras, a city of two million metastasized into a “sprawl of eleven million”), he makes the mistake of trying to walk instead of taking a taxi, and soon repents of his error.  The “mobbed streets” are “unendurable, pure horror,” the exploding cities “nightmarish in new ways.”

China, too.  Kunming, “a small habitable city I had once visited,” has become “an ugly sprawl of . . . four million.”  It is a microcosm of the new China, “ugly and soulless.”  He decides to fly to Japan, “reveling in the thought that I was done with China—its factory blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, . . . its honking horn capitalists.”

In Tokyo, he glimpses what could be our dystopic future.  It is a regimented city in which everything works, and “the worst social problems were solved,” but there is little freedom, “an almost robotic obedience, decorum, rigidity, order with no thrills, a scaling down of space, . . . the virtual abolition of private cars, an intimidating police presence.”  “The price to be paid for success in the future was surrendering space and privacy.”  Is there no hope, then?  There is always hope.  Robinson Jeffers points to the mountains, The-roux to the next journey (he is planning to travel through Scandinavia), the Christian to the Terra Nova.


[Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 496 pp., $28.00]