Once when I was telling a friend about all the troubles I had encountered during a visit to Myranmar in 2006, he responding by saying: "That sounds like a pain in the ass-my favorite kind of travel story." And I think I can agree with him, which is one of the biggest reasons I love to read Paul Theroux. My most recent voyage with Theroux was his 1983 visit to the middle kingdom, China in Riding The Iron Rooster. It has changed so much since then, in fact, my own first visit was in 2002, and my most recent visit was in May of 2015 and I think there was significant change in that interval as well. But I feel he captures the essence of China and the Chinese in many ways. He describes the "hoicking" and pitting that is my greatest memory from 2002-which I saw little of it in my most recent trip. Within the book there is almost a dissertation on the Chinese laugh that he comments on throughout the books as they are emitted from a variety of characters. But early on I think he identifies the general basis of the laugh:
"The Chinese laugh is seldom funny-it is usually Ha-ha, we're in deep shit or Ha-ha, I wish you hadn't said that or Ha-ha, I've never felt so miserable in my life..."
Here's another beauty from Chapter 8 "train Number 104 to Xian": "That was a ha-ha I hadn't heard before, and seemed to mean Death to the infidels." I also like his earnest distaste of the Chinese eating any and all animals-usually for perceives some medicinal purpose:
"I was prepared to believe the Chinese had the herbal solutions to high blood pressure, and that acupuncture had its practical uses; but when they scrunched up a dead owl and said, yum, yum-good for your eyes, I wanted to say Bullshit. If I didn't, it was only because I didn't yet know the Chinese word for it."
Then there was his incredulous analysis of the Chinese sending their skilled laborers to put up buildings in the Middle East, when those in China were so poorly constructed:
"It was rather as though Poland were exporting chefs, and Australia sending elocution teachers to England, and Americans running classes in humility or the Japanese in relaxation techniques."
Theroux finds a lot to dislike, but there were many things he did like such as old coastal China's seagoing communities. And near the end of the book where the reader is half expecting Theroux to end the trip early due to his miserable time in the north during winter, he falls in love with Tibet, and Lhasa in particular. I think he sums up the Chinese impact on Tibet well in this comment:
"The Chinese have a fatal tendency to take themselves and their projects seriously. In this they resemble some other evangelizing races, spreading the word and traveling the world to build churches, factories, or fast-food outlets-the intention may be different in each case but they are all impositions. What the evangelizer in his native seriousness does not understand is that there are some people on earth who do not wish to be saved."
I almost think Theroux stacked the deck by joining a group tour at the beginning of the book. I can't think of anyone less likely to enjoy a group tour than Theroux. To his credit, he was able to say that the people grew on him and some of them even manged to surprise him in the end. There was a great quote in the beginning of the book that I was unaware of that Theroux referenced from Henry David Thoreau's On Walden: "Consider the China pride and the stagnant self complacency of mankind." I didn't get as much reading inspiration form this book as other since he seemed to be reading a lot of literature related specifically to China, but early in the book he is reading Sinclair Lewis and singles out Elmer Gentry as a worthy read and the only one of the three novels he mentioned that I have not read (the other two being Mainstreet and Arrowsmith). It was interesting that he felt a connection to China via the cultural revolution when he was in the Peace Corps and thought he was starting a revolution himself-it says something about the young Theroux for sure. And it seems that he was way off by seeing the demonstrations that were taking place while he was there as insignificant, as well all know from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres that took place later. That being said, Theroux was entertaining and enlightening as usual.