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Traveling through space is geography. Traveling through time is history. I just finished reading the Travels of Marco Polo and Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux simultaneously; okay, actually I was alternating between them. As fate would have it, they’re traveling somewhat the same route, at least part of the way. No I didn’t plan it that way. If I had, then it wouldn’t be serendipity. I like that word, and I like the meaning behind it—the happy accident, the brilliant mistake. It’s not a race, because I already know who’d win. Slow as they are, trains are fast compared to caravan travel on the Silk Road, or even the open seas, which was the only option in Marco Polo’s time. But as long as every picture tells a story, then overland travel is eminently worthwhile. Once they’re known and renowned, then even the most impressive trail among them can become boring.
The strangest thing is not that Polo’s observations seem so dated, though, as you would expect from travels that occurred some 750 years ago. No, the strange thing is how dated Theroux’s observations seem. Those observations are barely forty years old, and occurred in an era that I know well, the same one that gave birth to my own significant travels. In fact if I had to place them within a historical continuum between Polo’s era and this date of January 2013, then I’d place them about half-way, which is to say that almost as much has happened within the last forty years as in the seven hundred which preceded it. If that seems astounding and largely unprovable in any absolute sense, then in at least a personal one of gadgets and conveniences, I think the assertion holds up.
Do the math: Theroux had no cell-phone, no smart-phone, no laptop computer or Internet device of any sort, the likes of which had not even been imagined at that time. Young women learned to become keypunch operators and personal computers were still the stuff of wild speculation. He was traveling long-distance by train, for God’s sake, starting in Europe, and most of the passengers were on the way to India, if not Australia. What? Were the planes on strike? Many of the trains existed to deliver mail; mail, for God’s sake! What was that, an early form of internet?
Iran's Beefy Texas Oil Men
Then there’s the geo-politics. Just imagine: Theroux’s route ran through Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan—the latter two of which are very difficult for travel nowadays, if not impossible. Back then Iran was a country of ex-pats, Americans foremost among them, especially beefy Texas oil men—drillers and derrick-men, roughnecks and rednecks, chowing down on burgers and fries, talking sh*t and telling lies. There’s no mention of the large ex-pat homosexual community that found Iran so welcoming, but they were there, too. Don’t tell the ayatollah. I’m not sure what they chowed down on.
The fun part of reading Polo is trying to decipher the ancient names of places, so that you can see his historical perceptions of places that are well-known to us today, if you can figure out what the name refers to. Still the places Marco Polo described are generally as easily recognizable as those of Theroux, and the ultimate veracity of the tales probably about equal. The mythical figure of Prester John in Polo’s time was no more shadowy than the mythical figure of Mao Zedong in Theroux’s. Such secrecy seems more than a little quaint in the age of FaceBook and Twitter.
Che Guevara Skewered on a Spit
Maybe Prester John was indeed a historical figure, and we just haven’t figured out who the name refers to. Hearing Polo talking about the Nestorians and the Saracens would be no stranger than hearing Theroux talk about Communists, if I hadn’t lived through the Communist era myself. Maybe the Christ-like figure we assume to be the corpse of Che Guevara skewered on a spit really belongs to someone else, maybe an actor. No DNA tests were done. They didn’t exist then.
Marco Polo talked about people still in skins, Mongols without religion (they’ve been Buddhists now for hundreds of years), and court magicians named Tibet and Kashmir, after their homes of birth. You can’t make this stuff up. Look at the names of some of the more familiar places back then: Eastern Turkey (there was no Turkey then) was Turcomania; Central Asia was Great Turkey. North of ‘Rosia’ was the ‘Land of Darkness.’ That proves the heliocentric theory of the universe right there! Surely Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo knew this! Travelers get no credit for their contributions to science.
Most famously, though, Polo talked about paper money, something never even imagined in the Europe of the day, and not unchained from its link to precious metals in the US until Theroux’s day. Of course he just as famously neglected to mention the Great Wall and the use of tea or chopsticks, something which inspires conspiracy theories to this day, those that claim that he was never there, the same thing they said back in 1300, when the name Polo meant pure chicanery, outrageous and unfettered. Though I generally alternated days for reading Polo, then Theroux, sometimes I’d read them in the same sitting just to mix their voices and hear Theroux talk about the Nestorians and hear Polo talk about the Communists. History is nothing if not relative, appropriate to its era and subject to revision.
Hinged on a Gimmick
Agnew resigned while Theroux was there, so that pretty much defines the era. Nixon and Chou En-lai had just started talking, but China was still closed tighter than a… you name it. My favorite part was when he went through Vietnam while the war was still going on, though the Americans had already left. Saigon wouldn’t fall for a year or two yet. Everything else hinged on a gimmick—around the world by train—disregarding the fact that he rode planes and buses also, to link the trains together, and often went out of his way to include obscure train journeys in his itinerary.
Theroux went back on the trans-Siberian express through the old USSR; I guess it had just opened up for foreign travel, though certainly not wide open. That’s really the only part of the trip that makes sense. I like trains, too, but they were decrepit even then, and many of them don’t even exist now. It’s a good theme, though—the romance of the rails. I guess all travel is gimmick travel. The best of it probably is, though probably better-named as “theme” travel.
Theroux was certainly a better writer than Rustigielo, the scribe who told Polo’s story, and better than he is now, too. I read Theroux’s tales of Oceania not long ago, written much later, and this was far livelier and more spontaneous than the other. As a writer becomes old, does his writing become old? I hope I can avoid that trap. The thing that bothers me about both of them is that they rode above the heads of the crowd they observed, Polo in his escorted caravan, Theroux with his electric shaver, bottles of gin and hounds-tooth jacket.
Obsession with the Rich and Famous
Theroux even goes out of his way to remind us that he’s giving lectures and meeting important people, even when those observances do little or nothing to serve the story. Polo of course traveled in an era when travel most probably WAS difficult for the independent traveler—but not impossible—though Theroux certainly didn’t. Both missed countless opportunities to show and tell us of the customs of tribal peoples, many of which have disappeared even since Theroux’s day. Polo’s obsession with the lives of the rich and famous comprised the most boring tracts of his text in my opinion.
If I can contribute anything to this genre, it may just be to travel on the same level as the people I’m going to visit, and to honestly report on their lives and their cultures, not just the western-acculturated ones with Couchsurfing™ accounts, but the simple people of the countryside, the salt of the earth. I don’t think anyone has written the Great American Travel Book yet, and maybe it will never be written… but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Marco Polo was not the first Westerner to visit China, of course, but he was the first to write a book. We stand on the shoulders of giants.