Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Paul Theroux on visiting the uncool places

I'm a big fan of the writing of Paul Theroux (a little less of the person, although I've long wondered if the grumpy projection is just a marketing ploy - perhaps he's actually quite a teddy bear), and particularly of his two books encompassing Trans-Siberian journeys because, as most of you would already know, I'm a little bit in love with train travel. So when a link to his recent New York Times article crossed my Twitter feed I saved it to read in a quiet moment - and I've just (finally!) found that quiet moment.

Go read it! (Then come back here!). He talks about what I'd call travelling to "uncool places" - the destinations that for various reasons are just not on the general tourist radar at this point in time. With his decades of travel experiences, he's been to the uncool places both before, during and after they were uncool and has so many insightful things to say about it. I've long been a fan of visiting places that are not the "usual" tourist destinations; that's why I loved so much of eastern Europe (although that's certainly getting on the tourist list these days), and the backwaters of Russia, and the suburbs of Seoul and Osaka, and the far-flung backpackers-only corners of Tunisia.Theroux compares his experience of not-quite-post-war Vietnam with a more recent trip and gave me a new understanding of the pretty city of Hue (pictured above).

Basically his article is great food for thought on why you travel (for pure relaxation? Then don't go to uncool places; for enlightenment: then try the unusual corners of the globe), and the notion of how places make their mark on the tourist map. There are not many places in the world I wouldn't consider visiting at some stage (although the list is longer while I have a small child). But I'm interested to know what others think - what countries or regions would you *not* visit these days? Let me know in the comments.


  1. That will teach me to write an epic reply...pretty much lost it all...

    So, currently reading 'Ghost Train to the Eastern Star' (Theroux) and loving it...and find myself wondering about the 'istans' and the Georgia's of Eastern Europe. The turkmenistan direction I would love to visit for the carpets...along with Iran for the same reason, but Theroux's description of that neck of the woods has turned me off somewhat.

    I like culturally rich...not bleak. Those far eastern central asian countries all sound so bloody bleak, and the travel sounds stressfull, like you could end up being hijacked or kidnapped.

    Other than that, so long as I can:
    a- sit on my bags and not have to be squashed into a shitty narrow seat with no leg room, or
    b- upgrade to first class or to a sleeper or the dining car
    I will take any train anywhere.

    And looking forward to that 6 week eastern europe train trip we have pencilled in for the 'future'..

  2. Glad you rewrote your comment Andrea! Yes I really loved Ghost Train to the Eastern Star too, and I'd had high expectations for it after loving the Iron Rooster one for so long. Hmm, you make a good point about some of the 'stans sounding a bit bleak. I've got a good friend from Kazakhstan which (I'm guessing from what I've heard) is one of the less bleak ones but she's still never very encouraging about going there.

    And ditto on the sleeper - if I can lie down, I will ride a train for the rest of my life! Love it.

  3. First, love your blog.

    Second, the only places I like to go are the uncool places. I have a hard time falling in love with the places that I'm supposed to fall in love with. Big cities, romantic beaches... they don't do it for me. I mean, it's nice to relax in the sun or explore somewhere new but they're never on my list of places to go.

    I've fallen in love with the Middle East. Cairo is by far my favorite city. There's nothing like it. It's chaotic, dirty, and real. Desert towns like Wadi Rum in Jordan follow pretty close.

  4. Thanks for the compliment!

    Good on you for loving uncool places. As much of a romantic as I am, I think I've never chosen a destination based on a romantic beach (perhaps I've got enough of them here in Australia to not need to travel to one, for a start).

    The Middle East is an area I haven't seen much of. I had a short trip to Egypt but definitely want to go back. And my Mum adored Jordan, and since she went (without me!) I've been dying to go.

  5. PS, your blog is great with gorgeous and insightful writing so everyone should go read it (!!!

  6. You must be sick of the beautiful, Australian beaches. Ha. I'm just jealous.

    And if you have the chance to get to Jordan -- camp out with a group of Bedouins for a few nights. They're the most interesting people. And there's nothin like sleepin out in the desert.

    And thank you, glad you like my blog. It's quite the compliment coming from an accomplished blogger!

  7. Sounds like a great tip, did a short day out with Bedouins in Tunisia and that was already fascinating but to get a bit more involved would be great. I do really hope to get to Jordan one day!

  8. Followed a link here from Vagabondish, and like your writing as much here as I do there!

    The only two things I can think of that stop me from considering a place are fears for my safety (i.e. as an American, I'm not heading to Afghanistan anytime soon) or if people consistently tell me they had terrible experiences with the locals (Vietnam being the only one that immediately comes to mind). Otherwise, I'm game. I may not STAY very long if I get there and don't find it entertaining, but you never know until you get there right?

    Also as an aside, to both you and Andrea, don't write off the Stans! I made it to that area last year, and Uzbekistan is one of my favorite places that I've ever traveled!

  9. Thanks so much for the lovely compliment, Stephen!

    And I'll do you a deal - I won't write off the Stans if you don't write off Vietnam. I met beautiful locals there, and know plenty of people who loved their time there.


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