If you’ve been following the media closely over the last few days, you might have – among all the news about Dutch elections, Belgian elections and of course the World Cup – read that there is civil unrest in Kyrgysistan. News from this distant part of the globe hardly ever comes to our attention. Who can, honestly, locate on a map or even distinguish between all those countries that end with "-stan" without looking them up on Wikipedia? They are, by and large, off our radar. If you would like to do something about your ignorance, I have just the right book for you: Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
Paul Theroux is a writer of fiction and non-fiction who became famous about thirty years ago for his The Great Railway Bazaar, in which he wrote about his journey by train from London through Asia and back again, which took him several month to complete. In 2005, he decided to repeat that journey, to find out whether such an endeavour is still possible, to see what has changed and to experience how it feels to visit the places from your past as an old man.
Theroux is weary of the typical travel writers who all too often either stick to superficial descriptions of exotic landscapes and foreign cultures or indulge in self-obsessed ramblings about their inner feelings. "A traveller's worst nightmare is not the secret police or the witch doctors or malaria, but rather the prospect of meeting another traveller."
His writing is unobtrusive; Theroux merely invites us to accompany him on his journey and to meet the people he meets – without falling into the pretentious ‘then I did this, then I did that’. He has enough of the knowledge and wisdom of old age not to lose himself in exotic impressions; nor does he lay claim to explaining the world. The chapters are named after the trains he took, from the Eurostar to the Trans-Siberian Express and the many night trains in between. He always engages his fellow passengers and seeks contact, showing a genuine interest in his encounters and their way of life. Hence his determination to stay on the ground. "There is nothing to discover at an airport and there is no one to talk to on a plane."
It is an excellent book to read during the summer holidays, be it on the beach or in your garden at home. Theroux's writing is lucid, entertaining, insightful and has certainly spurred on my own desire to travel the world myself. I hope you have a great journey!