Image credit: Andrea Boldizsar

There is something uncanny about travel. It’s as if you pack your bags to enter an enigmatic portal where time in the “real” world stops and is replaced by a warped perception where nothing should rush you, where you make your own heaven of long walks, aimless hours of discoveries and drifting thoughts about new environments. Taking an unknown journey awakens all our senses, transforms us, allows us to materialise our dreams of landscapes and cities, and humbles us in front of bewitching places with names that seem impossible to pronounce.

Sometimes we travel to look for the unfamiliar, to get away from ourselves or better yet, reconnect with our inner selves, to explore the charisma of a far-off city and its historical riches, or add a little more essence to our life by experiencing the world through its cultures. Whatever our reasons of travel may be, we can’t deny the fact that far-flung destinations or any places away from home bring us a great deal of joy, pleasure and excitement.

But there is something else about travel that helps us understand and experience the world in depth. Sometimes “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”, as Marcel Proust said, and sometimes it’s all about slowing down.

In November, during the Singapore Writers Festival, novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, who is known to have spent decades traversing continents on whizzing trains and jam-packed buses by his wits, proffered some insight on why travelling terrestrially will unveil landscapes that otherwise are difficult to see.

“When I travel, Theroux says, I try to avoid cities, as the heart of a country can probably be found in a small town.” He also said that 100% immersion in the “now” will unveil an “uncontaminated” idea about what a place is like.

Considered one of the most-acclaimed writers in the English language, Theroux has authored more than 20 non-fiction and 30 fiction works which have not only earned him the reputation of a masterful storyteller but also of an ultimate traveller to some of the farthest and most remote places around the world.

In a quest to discover the perfect recipe of slow travel, Quotient takes a look at three great novels by Theroux, which will give any traveller itchy feet and the precious taste of going slowly but intently.

The Eastern & Oriental Luxury Train recaptures the golden age of train travel through one of the world’s most exotic regions. Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Simon Pielow, 2004)

The baazar of life
In 1973, Theroux embarked on an epic four-month journey by rail through Europe, Middle East and Asia, from London to Tokyo and back again, exploring timeless train routes such as the Orient Express, Khyber Pass Local, the Delhi Mail from Jaipur, the Golden Arrow of Kuala Lumpur and the Trans-Siberian Express. Between the Western and Eastern worlds, the author observes the outlandish colours of the off-the-beaten-tracks towns and villages with their own culture, traditions and people. With wry and lucid observations, the prolific writer pays tribute to the delights of train travel in his first and arguably the best novel, The Great Railway Bazaar, which is a pièce de résistance for any keen traveller.

“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories,” writes Theroux.

Today, intrepid travellers can still enjoy bits of the fabled original train route by taking Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient Express and experiencing the heady mix of pre-war glamour of one of the world’s top train rides. Itineraries include classic journeys to European cities, such as London, Paris, Venice, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. Additionally, Eastern & Oriental Express, also by Belmond, offers a lovely journey through Southeast Asia — a cultural adventure which unveils a different angle of Bangkok, Lampang and Chiang Mai or whisks you off to Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands and Huay Yang.

La Trochita or the Old Patagonian Express runs through the foothills of the Andes in Patagonia. Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Gustavo Perretto, 2009)

Swing and sway in elusive Patagonia
In The Old Patagonian Express, Theroux offers a narrative of a heroic two-month rail journey from his parents’ house in Medford, Massachusetts, all the way through Mexico and Central America to the southern tip of South America, in the remote and barren Patagonia. With profound cultural observations and an excellent articulation of exotic travel, the writer knows exactly how to meld his stories into a complete masterpiece with the power to send travellers scrambling to the nearest train ticket booth.

For a glimpse of Theroux’s idiosyncrasy-peppered trip, you can hop on the Old Patagonian Express yourself. Ready to whistle its way to the rural Patagonian landscapes, through the foothills of the Andes, Argentina’s famous narrow-gauge steam train known as La Trochita will take you from misty Esquel, in the northwest of Chubut, in Argentine Patagonia, through picturesque mountain landscapes till Nahuel Pan station. A stop at Nahuel Pan will reveal, among poignant natural beauties, a museum of native crafts and artworks with many items on display, while another will invite you in the world of traditional weaving and dying used to create beautiful ponchos and rugs.

The Pride of Africa trains from Rovos Rail are excellent to discover the beauty of South Africa. Image credit: Rovos Rail Tours

Top of the Table
Dark Star Safari
is yet another travel allegory that charts the author’s strenuous journey through Africa, down the Nile past Sudan and Ethiopia, to Kenya, Uganda and ultimately the tip of South Africa. Travelling by train, dugout canoe, “chicken bus” and cattle truck, Theroux passes through some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. In this journey, the writer finds awe-inspiring sights that leave him breathless — from the mighty pyramids of Sudan to Ethiopia’s walled city of Harar — and made him feel at once humbled and uplifted. With his obsessive curiosity and wit, Theroux draws readers in an enlightening and brave journey once again, calling them right into the heart of the ‘bright continent’.

Unlike Theroux’s extreme jaunt, travellers with a milder “wild” side can explore fragments of the destinations from the book, and delve right in the richness of southern Africa, with The Pride of Africa trains from Rovos Rail famed for the north and southbound routes between Pretoria and Cape Town as well as a range of amazing journeys to the east and to the west. The trains blend the golden age of rail travel with modern conveniences, creating the extravagant elegance of a bygone era in a country where coloured dunes are contoured by the Atlantic, and where the immensity of Table Mountain with its neighbouring peaks will surely be a view to remember.

With the swoosh of the train huffing and puffing in our minds, we are continuously reminded of Theroux’s wise words. Going slowly, he says, “was the best way of being reminded that there is a relationship between Here and There, and that travel narrative was the story of There and Back”.