Never Too Late to Try Paul Theroux’s Iron Rooster Ride

Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China

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My father visited China a couple of years ago, and with a skill for getting chatting to interesting people that I was lucky enough to inherit from him, he met a middle-aged Chinese man in Beijing who was sitting in a park reading Charles Dickens. The industrial revolution hell of many Dickens novels is not far removed from parts of China today, but my father still thought it unusual.

So did I, but in Paul Theroux’s 1988 travel narrative Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China (aff), he has a similar experience. In Xining, Theroux meets Mr Xun, a young man studying English, who starts quoting passages from what he admits is his favorite book, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s privileged world is a good distance from China, but that doesn’t bother Mr Xun.

I don’t know what all these literary-minded people mean for China, but for me, they help make the pages of Riding the Iron Rooster even more turnable. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t feel a strong affection for Paul Theroux, and that usually turns me off a book — but in this case, the strong writing and the fascinating characters win me over every time.

Theroux and his train journeys cover many corners of China, and even reach into Mongolia and Tibet. He has that very important knack of the good travel writer: he tells tales with highly specific details, but knows which details are not interesting for us. We meet fellow travelers, intriguing locals and see all manner of landscapes, foods and animals.

The question you might be asking — I was, when I first read the Iron Rooster – is do we actually get to know the real China? It took me a while to realize that this is probably an impossible ask, even for a travel writer of Theroux’s caliber. Of course we can’t get to know the vast country that is the real China. Even the Chinese don’t know that.

Theroux knew it too, and knew it before he even arrived. At the beginning of the book, Theroux mentions that his brother is something of an expert when it comes to visiting China. It was clear to him that China was changing day by day, and that made Theroux determined to see it before it changed too much. We can’t go back twenty years and do that, but the next best thing — or in some ways, even better — is to pick up Riding the Iron Rooster, for at least a snapshot in time of how China used to be. For me, this is definitely the kind of book that makes me want to visit a place, in the vain hope of hunting out similar experiences to Theroux’s. Except that he ate horse sausages and endangered turtles, and I think I’ll give them a miss.

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