I recently read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (which re-creates the trip described in The Great Railway Bazaar and comments on the earlier trip). Although I thought that the writing is better and more interesting in The Great Railway Bazaar, this book lacks the perspective on writing that makes Ghost Train to the Eastern Star special for authors.
For many years, I traveled across the United States by slow trains (on a free pass) over 72 hours. I was always glad to have the trip end . . . except for that one time I met an interesting young woman (but that's a story for another time).
I would find the kind of trip that Mr. Theroux describes to be unendurable. It's not surprising that he did, too. And that spoils much of the potential fun of this book.
He is fixated on giving you more than you ever wanted to know about bad meals, poor ticket-buying experiences, missing visas, getting drunk, poor sanitary facilities, and unpleasant companions. Mr. Theroux takes himself very seriously. That's too bad. A little humor about his situation would have helped.
From Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, it's not hard to know why: His marriage was falling apart and he couldn't really afford the trip. All I can say is that his problems show.
Imagine instead that a poor person had been granted this same opportunity: It would have been like a magic carpet ride. Unfortunately, you take yourself with you when you are a travel writer.
There are some good moments in the book. Occasionally, Mr. Theroux has enough knowledge about a country and its people to use his journey to comment in a helpful way about the culture. Most Americans will be fascinated to read about South Vietnam after American troops had pulled out and before the final reunification by force. In the early going, a fellow traveler makes the mistake of spending a little too much time at a station . . . with consequences that Mr. Theroux has some fun with.
Japanese people may not like the portrait that Mr. Theroux displays of their nation. It has little to do with railways and railway travel.
Fans of India, by contrast, may enjoy his relative enthusiasm for that populous and challenging nation.
Sometimes the material isn't in the best of taste. I didn't really need to read about his investigation of the ladies-for-hire offerings in an Asian country.