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Book Review - Riding the Iron Rooster, By Train Through China
by Paul Theroux

Reading Mr. Theroux' travelogue of Chnia made me realize I should know more of Chinese history than I do (which is practically nothing). School history textbooks in India focus mostly on local, state and national history. In higher grades you deal with European history, India's colonial past and some American history - for example, we learned of the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence. Of communism, our textbooks focused mostly on the USSR. However, besides the common knowledge that China had a communist government and India fought a war with the Chinese in 1962, our history textbooks were woefully inadequate in their coverage of contemporary Chinese history.

Mr. Theroux' twelve month journey through China takes place in 1986 and 1987, as the country is still dealing with the effects of Mao's Cultural Revolution. The author's journey, like many of his other great travel stories, begins in London as he heads to Mongolia by train. From Mongolia he takes a myriad of trains to explore the most far flung reaches of that immense country. From the freezing city of Harbin to the mostly inhospitable and deserted Tibetan Plateau. The book is funny, caustic and filled with the kind of absolute generalizations that Mr. Theroux excels at. He talks to fellow travellers, government orderlies, train conductors and hustlers in tourist towns. You get not just his perspective, but also of the people he meets and finds interesting. Unlike most of the author's other travels, he is forced to travel here with a Chinese "guide" who is there to ensure the author is not up to any kind of mischief. Mr. Theroux extracts his revenge by subjecting his handler to interminable train rides through the remotest parts of the Middle Kingdom. Because of the timing, the book also adds color to understanding the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. I learned a few things about the Cultural Revolution I was never aware of - my knowledge of that event is restricted to a few books and the Zhang Yimou movie, To Live. Some of the author's cultural observations are worth repeating - he ascribes a hidden meaning to they way the Chinese laugh, because they don't laugh with mirth but to convey something they'd rather not express verbally. The Chinese landscape is almost completely devoid of birds, trees and wild life - because the Chinese have cultivated and subjected all of the land to human use and eaten everything that can be masticated. And finally, the Chinese were enthusiastically adopting capitalism and the free market in the 1980s - it is not something that just happened.

The last section on driving to Lhasa from Golmud is the funniest - it is filled to the gills with ridiculous comedy. I've often asked myself while reading a Theroux book, why does he do this? In this instance he is in a near fatal car crash and then spends the night in a prison like hotel with stairs covered in human excrement and run by a crazed looking Tibetan man. Maybe that's why. Highly recommended.

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