RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER – PAUL THEROUX

1. It was my good fortune to be wrong; being mistaken is the essence of the traveller’s tale. (p.3)

2. How does Baudelaire put it? – ‘The real travellers are those who leave for the sake of leaving’ and something about not knowing why but always saying Allons! (p.8)

3. Most Poles seemed overweight; they talked constantly about food and food shortages – but that wasn’t odd. Food is a frequent topic with fatties. (p.20)

4. The individual is often dangerous and always a nuisance. Why bother with him when it is so much easier to bully a whole mob of tourists? The solitary traveller is despised and feared, and if he manages to triumph over the bureaucracy he will find it twice as expensive as travelling with a group. Soviet society does not recognise the individual. The answer is simple: travel with a group and, when it suits you, drop out. (p.34)

5. Every day is the same on the Trans-Siberian: that is one of its reassuring aspects. In itself it is not interesting, which is why it is such a pleasure to be a passenger and so maddening to write about it. There is nothing to write about. This train is an occasion, not a subject. It is more like an ocean-liner than any other train I know – the solid steady travel, the sameness of the view. (p.36)

6. This little fat fellow and his skinny wife slept in the berth just above my head. He filled the space and she curled about him like a wood shaving. She was just as thin and delicate and she was the colour of newly planed wood. They chattered and smooched. He was from Singapore, she was from Hong Kong; he was a wise-guy, one of the new breed of humourless computer people, who plug themselves into their machines and begin to resemble their main-frame – his big bum looked like part of a console. And she was always fluttering and giggling; she was dizzy, didn’t know anything, couldn’t cook, didn’t even speak English in spite of having grown up in a British colony – didn’t speak Mandarin – but what did it matter as long as fatso paid the bills and bought trinkets for her. His name was Ding and he was always pushing his chubby face into her. (p.97)

7. The Chinese on the north are different from the Chinese on the south. In the north, the Chinese say, they are imperious, quarrelsome, rather aloof, political, proud noodle-eaters; and across the river they are talkative, friendly, complacent, dark, sloppy, commercial-minded and materialistic rice-eaters. (p.101)

8. Readers, there is a limit to our energy, but none to our desires. A man who sets no bounds to his passion cannot live more than a short time… (p.103)

9. (…) but Chinese spitting is not half as bad as Chinese throat-clearing: the hoick that can be heard for fifty yards and that sounds like the suction on a monsoon drain. After that, the spitting itself is rather an anticlimax. (p.111)

10. The Chinese laugh is seldom a response to something 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 – but this Cantonese boffo was real mirth. (p.150)

11. And it was as wrong to lean on the fake Chinese imagery that comes third-hand to every westerner as it was to believe in the wholesome air of poverty. (p.160)

12. On its most ordinary-seeming street, this unravelling republic had sights to scare the hell out of me. But I was growing fond of its gorgeous insects. (p.160)

13. He had the face of a sea-lion – not an unusual face in China. (p.162)

14. By now I was able to differentiate between the various Chinese laughs. There were about twenty. None of them had the slightest suggestion of humour. (p.169)

15. Most of what I saw was through the blurring haze of the day’s dust, and the intimation at sunset was that I would fall off the edge of the world as soon as it got dark. (p.188)

16. Nothing is more abrupt than the end of a Chinese banquet. (p.208)

17. Yes, the Great Wall was a masterpiece and the Tang Dynasty had been glorious and they had managed to thrash the Japanese, and they invented posion gas, toilet paper and the decimal point; but they also had a long history of convulsions and reverses. Never mind that they forgot they invented the mechanical clock. Look at the upheavals that had taken place in just the past hundred years: the Taiping revolt, the humiliating colonialism by Europe and Japan, the Boxer Rebellion, the fall of the empire in 1911, the republic of Sun Yat Sen, the battling between Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang and Mao’s communists, the Sino-Japanese war, the Great Leap Forward and all the other witch-hunts and hysterical purges that followed the emergence of the People’s Republic, culminating in the Cultural Revolution. Who wouldn’t be uneasy? And these sudden agonies were undoubtedly the reason that few people ever showed confidence in the future. It was better not to think about it. And it was a loss of face to seem disappointed, which was another reason the Chinese never opened presents in front of the gift-giver (nor commented on the present, no matter how large or small), and why their impulse when startled was always to laugh. (p.227)

18. The Chinese make a practice of not reacting to any sort of hospitality. (p.274)

19. One of the most common experiences a foreigner has is China (outside the three or four major cities) is of waking in a dreary room, seeing the water-stained ceiling, torn curtains, dented thermos bottle and rotting carpet, and not knowing whether you are a student, a guest, a patient or a prisoner. (p.278)

20. It is wrong to see a country in a bad mood: you begin to blame the country for your mood and to draw the wrong conclusions. (p.287)

21. It is not a reminiscing race, I thought. He kept walking. He did not look back. (p.288)

22. One of the worst aspects of living in brisk dictatorial China is that you seldom have an accurate idea of what is really going on. (p.295)

23. No one on earth is more silent that a silent Chinese. (p.295)

24. In some ways Hong Kong was somewhat like Britain itself: a bunch of offshore islands with an immigrant problem, a language barrier and a rigid class-system. (p.312)

25. In this land of red, wind-chafed cheeks and runny noses, Harbin seemed an unlikely city. It looked Russian (onion-domed churches, villas with turrets and gables, office blocks with pompous colonnades), and it had that strange fossilized appearance that cities have in very cold countries –  a sort of dead and petrified shabbiness. Its Russian ornateness was overlaid with soot and frozen slush. Here and there was a Japanese roof or a Chinese ministry or statue – mostly monstrosities, which added to the weirdness of the place, because in addition to their odd proportions, they were also hung with long, gnarled icicles. I liked the city best in the early morning, when it glittered with frost – little prismatic pinpoints on its ugly face. (p.316)

26. They didn’t wash, for many reasons, the main one being that they did not have hot water or bathrooms. It hardly mattered;  stinks are seldom obvious in icy northern lands. They did not take their clothes off, even indoors – neither their hats nor coats, even when they ate. It was easy to see why. The heating was turned to an absolute minimum – the Maoist doctrine of saving fuel and regarding heating and lighting as luxuries except where they affected production of something like pig-iron or cotton cloth. This constant coat- and hat-wearing, inside and out, had given them some very bad habits. The worst was that they never seemed to close doors, and wherever you went there was a door ajar and a wind like a knife coursing through it. (p.317)

27. They had the furtive look of Early Christians, but it was obvious that no one persecuted them. (p.318)

28. They were the simplest slant-roofed dwellings and looked like the sort of houses that children draw in the first form, with a narrow door and a single window and a blunt chimney with a screw of smoke coming out of it. (p.329)

29. (…) and in a rare moment of tactfulness I remained silent. (p.334)

30. In Langxiang it was the low temperatures that gave me long exhausting dreams. The cold kept me from deep sleep, and so i lay just beneath the surface of consciousness, like a drifting fish. In one of my Langxiang dreams I was besieged in a house in San Francisco. I ran from the front door shooting a machine-gun and wearing headphones. I escaped on a passing cable car – President Reagan was on it, strap-hanging. I wasasking him whether he was having a tough time as president. He said, ‘Terrible.’ We were still talking when I woke up feeling very cold. (p.336)

31. Mr Tian shrugged, shook my hand, and without another word walked off. It was the Chinese farewell: there was no lingering, no swapping of addresses, no reminiscence, nothing sentimental. At the moment of parting they turned their back, because you ceased to matter and because they had so much else to worry about. It was like the departure after a Chinese meal, the curtain falling abruptly with a thud and everyone vanishing. I did not mind that such rituals were perfunctory – it certainly kept them from being hypocritical. Mr Tian was soon a little blue figure in a mob of blue figures. (p.345)

32. It was a Chinese city, and therefore a nightmare (…) (p.348)

33. The cold was mystifying. I hated it like boredom or bad air. (p.354)

34. It is a blessing that cold is hard to decribe and impossible to remember clearly. (p.355)

35. Transportation in China is always crowded; it is nearly always uncomfortable; it is often a struggle. The pleasures are rare, but they are intense and memorable. Travel in China, I suspected, would give me a lasting desire for solitude. (p.365)

36. And I like him for never saying I. He nearly always replied saying we; but it was a socialist we, not a royal we. (p.367)

37. Everyone in his life has wished at one time or another for someone he disliked to be trundled off to shovel shit – especially an uppity person who had never got his hands dirty. Mao carried this satisfying little fantasy to its nasty limit. (p.368)

38. One snowy day a large group of pilgrims appeared in the hotel, wearing the smile that one instantly associated with people in possession of the Christian message. (p.374)

39. They were picking at Chinese spinach and another sinister-looking vegetable. (p.377)

40. After all, a nightmare is the world turned upside-down, and thousands of Chinese mobbing a German railway station on a frosty night is a good example of that. It was a tangle of the familiar and the absurd, to produce fear. And all around it was very dark. (p.378)

41. This featureless brown farmland with its ditches and its telephone poles and its tile-roofed houses looked as dreary as Belgium. (p.389)

42. In any case, travel is frequently a matter of seizing a moment. It is personal. Even if I were travelling with you, your trip would not be mine. Our accounts of the journeys would be different. You would notice how I provoked people with questions, and how I loitered in the market, and my fear of Chinese water that amounted almost to hydrophobia. I might mention your impatience, or your liking for dumplings, or the way you wilted in the heat. You would write about the kinds of Chinese food, and I about the way they wolfed it. If you spoke about Mao I would contradict you. (p.394)

43. It was wonderful to be anonymous those dark nights in Shanghai, when no one could see my face, and I heard a mother scolding a child with ‘Where have you been?’ (p.400)

44. The soil was crumbly, the colour and texture of very old Cheddar cheese – the sort that has remained untouched in a mousetrap all winter. (p.424)

45. A girl in a nightcap and apron went through the car with a tray, plonking bowls down. There was a sudden hush; a silence, and then a tremendous slurping. The chopsticks clicked like knitting-needles for a minute or so, and then the people stood and shoved their chairs back and went away. That was breakfast. (p.425)

46. It was a terrible-looking place, but it was friendly; and I liked being the only barbarous foreign devil (yang guedze) in town. (p.439)

47. It was a horrible train. But that was not a bad thing. It is almost axiomatic that the worst trains take you through magical places. (p.440)

48. There were many soldiers, there were rowdies and spitters and shitters and oddballs in long underwear who pitched up in the train’s corridors and blew their noses on the curtains. (p.442)

49. I had never in my life seen such light – the sky was like a radiant sea; and at every edge of this blasted desert with its leathery plants were strange grey hills and snowy peaks. We were on the plateau. It was a world I had never seen before – of emptiness and wind-scored rocks and dense light. I thought: If I have be stranded anywhere, this is the place I want it to be. I was filled with joy at the thought of being abandoned there, at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. (p.455)

50. I liked this. I liked listening to music. I liked the fact that the other passengers were asleep. I loved the look of Tibet. I might have died there back on the road; but I was alive. It was wonderful to be alive and doing the driving. (p.457)

51. The Chinese have a fatal tendency to take themselves and their projects too seriously. In this they resemble some other evangelizing races, spreading the word and travelling the world to build churches, factories, or fast-food outlets – the intention may be different in each case but they are all an imposition. What the evangelizer in his naive seriousness does not understand is that there are some people on earth who do not wish to be saved. (p.481)

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