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March 14-20, 2007

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'Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China'

Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China
(By Paul Theroux; Mariner Books; 480 pages; $15.95 paper)

Novelist and travel author Paul Theroux writes marvelous accounts of his far-flung excursions, but you might not want to share a train with him. In Riding the Iron Rooster (published in 1988 and reissued in a sturdy paperback edition), Theroux doesn't suffer lightly the fools in his group tour headed from London to Mongolia: "These people seem to be illiterate, which was a virtue, because they didn't know me." Theroux finally separates from his group and spends a year crisscrossing China by train. He quizzes people about the Cultural Revolution, which in the mid-'80s was still a painful memory. He visits the terra-cotta warriors in Xian and the Manchurian city of Harbin, where the citizens craft lighted ice sculptures. He also tussles with his government minders, who are officious but sometimes charming, especially Miss Tan, who loves "picturesque" English; "Time flies when you're having fun," she chirps. China has changed immensely since Theroux's trip, but Riding the Red Rooster still offers valuable insights, and it contains some priceless prose: "The mountains around Lhasa in new snow looked to me as though they had been made out of starched and crushed bed sheets, a mountain range of frozen laundry."

Review by Michael S. Gant


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