Train travel, Europe

There is no mode of transport that has inspired such extensive, reflective observation and commentary as train travel has. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find any real literature on the joys of bus or air travel. Journeys aboard trains naturally invite quiet contemplation and deep impressions of the passing scenes remain with the traveller long after the train reaches its destination.

Prolific American travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux is best known for his travel writing exploring this very subject: the joys of railway travel and his travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), has become a classic in the genre.

These 5 excerpts from Paul Theroux’s writing will make you want to take a train journey instead:

Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I were on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places — a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to. — Paul Theroux, ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’.

The great challenge in travel is not arriving at the glamorous foreign city, but solving the departure problem, finding a way out of it, without flying. Buses are usually nasty, and bus stations the world over are dens of thieves, cutpurses, intimidators, mountebanks and muggers. Hired cars are convenient but nearly always a ripoff, and who wants narration from the driver? The train is still the ideal — show up and hop on. -Paul Theroux, ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’

The romance associated with the sleeping car derives from its extreme privacy, combining the best features of a cupboard with forward movement. Whatever drama is being enacted in this moving bedroom is heightened by the landscape passing the window: a swell of hills, the surprise of mountains, the loud metal bridge, or the melancholy sight of people standing under yellow lamps. And the notion of travel as a continuous vision, a grand tour’s succession of memorable images across a curved earth — with none of the distorting emptiness of air or sea — is possible only on a train. A train is a vehicle that allows residence: dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer. — Paul Theroux, ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’

Years before, I had noticed how trains accurately represented the culture of a country: the seedy distressed country has seedy distressed railway trains, the proud efficient nation is similarly reflected in its rolling stock, as Japan is. There is hope in India because the trains are considered vastly more important than the monkey wagons some Indians drive. Dining cars, I found, told the whole story (and if there were no dining cars the country was beneath consideration). The noodle stall in the Malaysian train, the borscht and bad manners on the Trans-Siberian, the kippers and fried bread on the Flying Scotsman. And here on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited I scrutinized the breakfast menu and discovered that it was possible for me to order a Bloody Mary or a Screwdriver: ‘a morning pick-me-up’, as that injection of vodka into my system was described. There is not another train in the world where one can order a stiff drink at that hour of the morning. — Paul Theroux, ‘The Old Patagonian Express’

The best story about Cairo Railway Station, told to me by a man who witnessed it unfold, does not concern a luminary but rather a person delayed in the third-class ticket line. When this fussed and furious man at last got to the window he expressed his exasperation to the clerk, saying, ‘Do you know who I am?’ The clerk looked him up and down and, without missing a beat, said, ‘In that shabby suit, with a watermelon under your arm, and a third-class ticket to El Minya, who could you possibly be?’ — Paul Theroux, ‘Dark Star Safari’

Do these excerpts make you want to take a long train journey? Or have you already had the pleasure of taking one? Share your comments below!