I’ve just about finished reading Theroux’s ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, a lengthy work covering his year of train travel across China. I recently read his “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, which was nothing short of amazing. To my surprise, Theroux expressed a strong dislike toward my beloved China, stating that there could be nothing worse than a stay within one of the Chinese cities. He didn’t mention, however, that he had not only spent a year traveling there, but even gone so far to write a book about it.
To begin with, I will say that Amazon really pulled the cotton over my eyes when I bought this book. The site showed that it was published in 2006, and I thought that it would be a great read to gain a sense of a more recent China. To my great irritation, however, an examination of the publishers page revealed that it had actually been first printed in 1988. 2006 is just a second publication. Despite this annoyance, I was still looking forward to reading a more personal account of travel in this period of time. The trip itself took place in 1986, a time of great change and expansion in a recently opened China. Mao had been dead for just over a decade, and the nation was still dealing with a serious post-cultural revolution hangover. This comes up in most of the conversations that Theroux has with the people he meets.
The trip itself is stupendous in length, covering every major portion of China, including the remote regions of Xinjiang, Tibet and the frozen and bleak expanse of northern Heilongjiang. In many respects, the trip was so long that it actually becomes boring. Just as Theroux drags on about the monotonous nature of Chinese cities, the way in which each one looks just like the last, so each progressive chapter seems to follow. Toward the last four or five sections of the narrative, the text becomes nothing short of gray as Theroux recounts every moment of the trip. Although he does cover an incredible distance and view a diverse range of landscape, he does not manage to convey very much about the area beyond the way things looked and the conversations he has.
These details are all well and good, but Theroux looses himself in the more broad descriptions of travel, and seems unable to form many solid impressions of the people that he meets. I did enjoy that he is consistent with the type of questions he asks, most of which pertain to people and their thoughts on the effect of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. He is unforgiving in his questions and his thoughts about the people that he meets, often interviewing in a manner that will make you grind your teeth. In many cases he is nothing short of offensive, but in many cases his worst questions are the ones that reveal the most about the people he encounters.
If you are looking for a good, straight-up account of a pretty amazing journey, you may find this book quite enjoyable. I would have liked to see it edited down significantly, but I don’t see any reason that skipping ahead here and there would damage the overall narrative, if that is what you chose to do. I would not recommend reading this book if you are looking for any particular insight into this time period in China, as there are many other works that can do a much better and more balanced job of this. Theroux has strong bias about a limitless number of things, and though he is an amazing writer, he doesn’t always provide a clear view of what is really going on. He does, however, put some well developed thoughts on the role of the traveler into play. His knowledge and beliefs on what it is to travel are unparalleled, in my opinion, and this book is worth a read, if only to see the mindset of a traveling maniac in his element.