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Book review: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

One for the travellers

One of the things many of us are missing sorely in 2020 is the freedom of international travel.

We all rejoiced when, a few months ago, interprovincial travel was unlocked, but many of us have had to delay or give up on travel to international countries. For those bitten by the travel bug it’s been a bitter pill to swallow, as travel to distant and exotic locations is the food that feeds the soul for many. It’s been a case of pleasure deferred; we hope.

Life in the 2020 Covid era has many challenges and missing out on travel has just been one of them. We are well aware that, for some people, these are even a matter of survival and our hearts go out to those suffering or who have lost loved ones.

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To feed my traveller soul and settle itchy feet, I took out a travel book by one of my favourite writers, Paul Theroux, of Mosquito Coast fame. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star has an interesting dynamic in that it follows a book written decades earlier by Theroux. In this 2008 book he retraces the steps he took as a much younger man in The Great Railway Bazaar, riding trains from London, across Western and Eastern Europe, through parts of the Middle East to Asia, South East Asia and eventually China, Japan and Russia.

A couple of things stand out: One is how his experience and perceptions of events reflect on how much he has changed as a person; the second, obviously, is that his expert eye-witness account reveals the perceived changes in the nations he visits.

It’s been a case of plans scotched or deferred in 2020, as many frustrated travellers have a horrible case of itchy feet. Picture: Wikipedia

Theroux is no casual visitor. He is a much-published travel writer, who has that eye for detail, a network of writing and academic contacts across many countries who he leans on for insider information and an outstanding grasp and analysis of the geopolitical/social status quo in many of the regions he visits.

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Along the way he meets and interviews normal folk travelling on trains, officials, writers, business people, holy men, university lecturers and experts on local cultures. He eats, drinks, talks, cries and laughs with some of them.

Theroux is brutally honest about his own path, his process to maturation and any shortcomings he witnesses, but he is able to retain his sense of wonder as a traveller, to describe some of the gorgeous moments he enjoys and is quite happy to criticise where he sees wrongs, injustices and failed systems.

In a virus-plagued year, this kind of book can at least let you dream again of being that wanderer, drifting on a train to somewhere.

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