Thursday, March 16, 2006

Book Review: Riding the Iron Rooster

Blogger has been having problems, so my blog hasn't been available since late Thursday. Hopefully this will post soon. Sorry if you've had problems accessing me. But rest assured that you're not alone, lots of people think I'm inaccessible.

I lifted the cover image of the book from "Travel Books by Paul Theroux."

Recently, when writing about travel journals, I mentioned Paul Theroux and it occurred I hadn’t read Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China. A decade or so ago I read his classic, The Great Railroad Bazaar and then several years ago read The Old Patagonian Express. A few weeks ago I atoned for that sin and read Riding the Iron Rooster, although I wondered why. The more I read of Theroux, the more I think he’s a jerk. I can only assume he travels by himself (even though he often traveled in China with an bureaucrat in tow), because he can find no one who he can stand riding a train with him that’s any longer than one found in an amusement park. He probably would complain just as much at home, so why not travel.

Theroux spent a year traveling in China in 1985, less than a decade after the Cultural Revolution. The country was just waking up and as Theroux traveled around, he often ran into Americans who were making investments there. Twenty years later, those investments have paid off as the country makes just about everything we use including a lot of stuff we don’t need such as happy meal toys. But in 1985, China itself was unsure of its future. Theroux found lots of disgruntled Chinese, mostly those in their 30s and 40s who felt robbed of opportunities for education by the Cultural Revolution. Theroux shows some of the absurdness of the Revolution. Students were given free reign to torment their teachers (I can’t imagine what I might have done if I’d been given such an opportunity at age 15). Intellectuals were sent into the countryside to learn to work with their hands. And areas with large Muslim populations were turned into hog farming regions. Perhaps the best purpose of this book is the snapshot it provides of China as it turns its back on Mao and begins openning up to the rest of the world. A second is Theroux’s descriptions of snorting, spitting and laughing among the Chinese—a topic of which I now know more than I need to know.

That said, there are some wonderful parts of this book. I’m always a sucker for a train ride. Coming into China from Russia, taking the Trans-Siberia, then the Inter-Mongolian Express, had to have been a wonderful experience. Cherry Blosoom, his government bureaucrat shadow in Dalian whose English consisted mainly of cliches, was a delight. Another interesting tidbit was the German influence in Chinese brewing. I can only assume they lost something in translation (although for a lager, Tsingtao isn’t too bad). But the best parts of the book are his travels through Mongolia, Xinjiang, the Gobi Desert, and to Tibet. Theroux took the train as far as he could toward Tibet, then had two "exciting" days of riding in a car in order to reach Lhasa. Along the way through Tibet, Theroux handed out illegal photos of the Dali Lama as a way to secure favors.

I have another of Theroux’s books to read—his recent one on about traveling the length of Africa. Reading the Iron Rooster got me daydreaming about travelling in China via train. I wondered constantly how things have changed in the past two decades since Theroux traveled there. I've always wanted to go to China but in my two visits to Asia, I've never been able to get there. Theroux may not be the person I would want to have tagging along on a trip, but that aside, his use of language is masterful and, despite a lack in social graces, he's a pleasure to read

13 comments:

  1. Ahhh Sage! What's up with your page? Are you experimenting with templates?

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  2. No daydreamer, I'm too chicken to try to experinment with templates!. My page wasn't available for much of Thursday evening and Friday due to something needing to be replaced by blogger and since then, I've only been able to partly post the page--Blogger says they're working on it so stay tuned.

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  3. I've always wanted to visit Asia. It was nice to live vicariously through your post.

    Michele sent me.

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  4. A Tsingtao and a train ride sound pretty good about right now

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  5. Yay! You're back :) Well, would you prefer to travel alone or with other people? If you're travelling to write then I guess it may be better to be alone...I'd prefer the trip to Africa!

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  7. There's something about trains and train rides that always attract me. Maybe, it's that they symbolize adventure and the unexplored to me. I think I would love a train ride through China.

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  8. there is supposed to be an amazing train ride through India... I forget what it is called though, so I am no help whatsoever.
    here from Michele's... sorry I'm so tired I can't think properly... I'll come back when I'm "normal" again.

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  9. I'm glad you quantified his writing and social graces at the end of this post...I kept asking myself "why, if Sage can't stand the man is she reading MORE of his books?" LOL! Sounds like some good books to read.

    Michele sent me!

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  10. Great post. I've not read any of Theroux's travel books but have much enjoyed his fiction in the past.

    Did you know his two sons are documentary film makers here in the UK. They are bright, witty and very intelligent young men - Louis and Marcel.

    Louis had a couple of wonderful TV series a few years ago - you can find out more here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Theroux

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  11. Once again, you have tickled my traveling buds and probably moved up some epic train journey on my list of epic journeys to do in my lifetime.

    For now though, I am just looking for a weekend get away that is pregnancy friendly sometime in the next month. It might be the last trip for awhile.

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  12. One of the characters in the book, 'Morris Least', was based on my father who was on the same tour as the author. I even have a photograph of the two of them sitting and chatting.

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