Picks and Pans Review: Riding the Iron Rooster: by Train Through China

updated 06/20/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Paul Theroux

This cautionary tale of travel suggests a paraphrase of a Chinese proverb: A journey of 10,000 miles can be a hell of a shlepp. Uniformly filthy toilets, freezing cars, sometimes rancid food: This, folks, is obviously not the Swiss Federal Railways. But even when afflicted by "service" personnel who in their determination to avoid unpaid overtime literally pull the bedding out from under one early in the morning, Theroux is far too acute an observer merely to fume. He explains the bad behavior: These people are overworked and underpaid. Theroux does not hide his disgust at many aspects of Chinese life. Saddled with "nannying" guides-cum-watchdogs before giving them the slip, he finds that many Chinese use hospitality as a means of control; in dealing with the outside world, they apparently pride themselves on their conviction that "we can always fool a foreigner." Nontypical tourists such as Theroux put this proposition to the test by asking too many awkward questions and sticking around too long—a year in his case, starting in spring 1986. Theroux gives evidence of having learned to speak a respectable amount of Chinese. He avoids most obvious historical gaffes. (One lapse is his claim that "the Manchus were a Mongol dynasty." The Manchus and the Mongols always have been two different ethnic groups.) But on more than one occasion Theroux's real familiarity with China festers into contempt: "Anything officially denied was probably a fact"; "The way Chinese lived and died bore a remarkable resemblance to their animals"; "The usual Chinese reaction to someone in distress is laughter." The only Chinese cities he seems to have enjoyed are Xiamen (Amoy) and Qingdao (Tsingtao), both coastal and outward looking. Theroux is partial to the peripheries: deserts, forests and, literally above all, Tibet. The road to Lhasa is for "Mr. Paul" (as he was often called) a revelation. In general, Theroux encounters revulsion at the Cultural Revolution—a sentiment he shares—but he is ambivalent about recent reforms. Maoist zealotry seems to have been transmogrified into a feeding frenzy of materialism, and uncertainty about the future stimulates people to "go for it" now. Is this simply greed or is a deeper psychic phenomenon at work? Theroux thinks there is. It is the society pledged to austerity, he writes, that is "probably the most prone to going on binges." (Putnam's, $21.95)

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