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Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China Paperback – December 8, 2006
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"[A] very funny, beautifully written, wonderfully observant, and deeply insightful description of the vagaries of life and politics in China." -- Conde Nast Traveler
"Fascinating...the portrait that emerges is a luminous, almost uncanny, and situationally accurate one. Theroux is particularly good at catching the surreal quality of China." The Miami Herald
"Theroux's genius is in his clear-eyed rendition of a fresh world and the deeper observations he attaches to it." The Chicago Tribune
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Theroux passes through the most significant regions of China; his descriptions, particularly of his fellow passengers will delight some and almost anger others. As any readers to Theroux's books know he does not query his verbiage when describing the people in whose country he is passing through. He is at his best when describing the passengers with whom he must share his cabin or his dining room car.
The reader cannot but realise that Theroux is confronted frequently by references to the Cultural Revolution and Mao's death throughout the journey in China; both of these tumultuous events had occurred in resent Chinese history. He makes no apologies for his distaste of both; they form a stage curtin for his entire journey.
Consequently I found his descriptions of his final destination, Tibet, to be sweet, dare I say when dealing with Teroux's written language virtually beautiful to the extent you might need to return to the passages for a re-read. This Theroux book is worth putting aside, leaving for some years anthem returning; it is that good
However, as the title indicates, these oases of fascinating accounts are often littered with somewhat dull accounts that made the book feel too long (in fact at nearly 500 pages for the paperback version, I might argue it WAS too long). Some parts dragged and at that point I would check what percentage I was finished (read it on Kindle) and couldn't believe how long it took to progress even 1%. I found myself doing a skimming/skipping combo at these parts. Particularly from about halfway through the book until the concluding Tibet part it seemed to take a long time. On that, the concluding part on getting to Tibet and Tibet itself was one of the more interesting parts, and probably saved this from being a two-star review.
Also, maps should have been added to the book. It became very confusing to understand where he was journeying which may have defused the ability to imagine yourself riding and experiencing 1980s China with him. Perhaps there is a map in the paper copy, but in the Kindle version, no such map is readily accessible. This could be one of the reasons that it seemed to drag at parts; you start to get the "why should I care?" feeling about the writing.
People particularly interested in China - particularly a close-up, qualitative, at times very humorous look at Chinese society during the transition period of agricultural collective to the economic powerhouse - will perhaps enjoy this more relaxed account of a foreigner traveling in China as it is. But there are other books you should probably read first if you want something a little more serious (for example "My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats and Journalists Reflect on their First Encounters with China").
For people with just a mere passing interest in China, it is too bad there is not an edited-down 200-300 page version. That would be more enjoyable. In its current state, I would say skip it or be prepared to skip parts.
All I know is that I want to make that journey. I was near there not too many years ago, shortly after I read the book for the first time. I was on a boat on the Amur River in the Russian Far East, and looked down toward China and thought of Theroux and his journey.
Riding the Iron Rooster is great literature for anyone who loves adventure travel.