Paul Theroux is recognized as one of the world’s great travel writers. He went twice to China, and this book chronicles his trip by train to and throughout the country in the year of Chernobyl. Those were different times; Maoism was defunct, but there was still a sense of menace flowing between East and West. People were coming back from China, Theroux recounts, crying “Acupuncture! No flies! No tipping! They give your razor blades back!”
He didn’t find such a paradise as this advance press might indicate. He found that not only can the Chinese dupe their visitors, they take pleasure in repeating the axiom that all foreigners can be cheated. The axiom
was often accompanied by one of the various Chinese laughs that Theroux began to catalog, none of which, he avows, ever means that something is funny. The Chinese laugh when they’re nervous, angry, frightened or trying to deceive the listener. They laughed, for example, when describing the era of the Cultural Revolution, when telling Theroux about being tortured. Sometimes the torture verged on the absurd, years of listening to bad music or writing elementary themes about Maoist ideals. One man’s story was not absurd, and definitely not funny. He spent six years in prison but said that it was really only three because each night he dreamed of his home and family, so in his sleep he was free.
Theroux accurately reports that families forced to have only one child will almost certainly abort a baby if they learn it’s a girl, though this subject was not at the time a publicly acknowledged phenomenon, and now constitutes a major and increasing problem for China’s lovelorn young men. Theroux found that the phrase “new hotel” always meant a place that smelled of cement. He preferred the old places. When allowed, he walked among the ordinary folk and tried as much as possible to talk to them. Sometimes he was restricted, as in Mongolia where he was constantly diverted from the real country, being forced instead to visit and admire gaudy monuments and, in one case, a building in which the clock on the wall was merely a painted representation. He also tried to eat the simplest, cheapest foods, finding them the cleanest and most palatable. He avoided English and American tourists. He lurked with his journal and made copious notes on trains that rolled seemingly forever through bleak countryside. He found out that if he didn’t get out of bed early enough, hard-working humorless railway workers would pull his bedclothes out from under him in a practiced move that invariably left him feeling exposed and chilly.
Theroux reaches no conclusions. He observes with a bemused mind free of notional thinking, letting the reader connect the dots. Whether being feted by high-ranking officials, as occasionally happened, or lying on his cot listening to lovers cavorting across the aisle, Theroux is a detailed reporter. You will ride with him on the Iron Rooster. Welcome aboard.