Author Topic: Riding the Iron Rooster


  • Guest
Riding the Iron Rooster
« on: July 27, 2006 »

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux


Paul Theroux is in a league of his own when it comes to train travel. After his best-selling book “The Great Railway Bazaar”, which charted the course of his epic, meandering train ride from London to Tokyo, he pronounced himself cured of the urge to get on another train for some time. Nevertheless he chooses to spend a year travelling the railways of China, a country which is just starting to experience the quickening thrill of a new-found prosperity (the book was first published in 1988). To get there, naturally he goes by train, retracing his earlier route through the bleakly existential housing projects of Paris, through Germany and into Poland which is reeling under the death knells of Communism, across the desperate vastness of Russia and into Mongolia, “travelling slowly across Asia’s wide forehead and then down into one of its eyes, Peking.”

The Iron Rooster is the affectionate nickname given to the train that travels from Lanzhou, in central China, to the distant north-west province of Xinjiang. The Chinese bestow metaphorical nicknames on everything – a train is huoche, “fire wagon”, and it runs along tielu, an “iron road”. Even China itself is referred to in oblique terms that hint at its enormity; “All beneath the sky” (tianxia) was one expression, “All between four seas” (sihai) another. Assigned an official guide, the perpetually lugubrious Mr Fang, Theroux sets off on a mission to catch as many trains as possible, spurred on by indignation at having to be accompanied. Mr Fang tries his best, but is a neat example of the mental contortions necessary to survive in a totalitarian society – like many Chinese, his laughter is a warning which says “that is enough questions”. A Russian specialist, when Russians became the enemy he was sent off to carry boulders in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and eventually clawed his way back into favour, landing a job shepherding a sardonic yet perpetually inquisitive American by rail around China. Exhausted by endless miles of trundling along the iron roads, at one point he howls “please, no more trains”. In vain.     

From the lush, tropical vegetation of south Yunnan to the searing wastelands of the Gobi, all of China rolls by beneath the wheels. A succession of characters populate the compartment – Hong Kong businessmen, soldiers of the People’s Army, young honeymooners, party cadres – each offering a snapshot of Chinese life. Theroux heads north as far as he can go, deep into Heilongjiang province, China’s Siberia. It’s mid-winter and the temperature is -35°C, but the cold gives him nightmares so he boards a train south, seeking warmer climes, then turns west towards Tibet. The local train to Xining travels through the wilds of Qinghai province, and he makes for Golmud which is the end of the line, deep in the desert. No railway runs into Tibet, so from Golmud he hires a car and driver, intending to drive the 1000km to Lhasa with Mr Fu and his girlfriend. Unfortunately Mr Fu turns out to be a terrible driver. His car is laughably small, the roads are appalling and the forecast is for heavy snow. Inevitably they crash in what is one of the most surreal and inhospitable landscapes on earth. 

After the near-death experience, Theroux looks around with new eyes. “The sky was like a radiant sea; and at every edge of this blasted desert with its leathery plants were strange grey hills and snowy peaks…of emptiness and wind-scoured rocks and dense light. I was filled with joy at the thought of being abandoned there, at the edge of the Tibetan plateau.” They are rescued by a group of Tibetan truck drivers, wild looking people in greasy, battered hats who laughingly right the car again and hiss with pleasure when handed a picture each of the Dalai Lama, touching the photo to their foreheads in gratitude before carefully stowing them in their quilted coats. Tibet is the highlight of the book, a stunning landscape somehow heightened by the rarefied air. The Tibetans appear ungovernable, cheerful, devout and fiercely independent. No people could be more unlike the Chinese paragon of virtue often quoted by the party as an exemplary citizen, the (probably fictitious) soldier Lei Feng, who said “A man’s usefulness to the revolutionary cause is like a small screw in a machine. I am willing to be a screw.” No self-respecting Tibetan in quilted coat with flapping sleeves, herding his yaks with a semi-feral pack of dogs, would ever piously say “I am willing to be a screw.”

Tibet’s isolation is coming to an end. A railway has been constructed between Golmud and Lhasa which is due to open on July 1st 2006. It is certain to bring enormous change, along with an influx of migrants from China’s crowded coastal cities. If there was ever a time to go and see Tibet, it is now. The real strength of Tibet is the enduring faith with which the Tibetans await the return of the Dalai Lama from over the mountains, which is something no railway will change. In the final lines of the book Theroux offers up a kind of prayer himself when he looks up at the dramatic snow-covered slopes sparkling in the clear light of Lhasa and says simply: “Please let me come back.”