Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: Ghost Train To The Eastern Star

In his new book, Paul Theroux revisits a trip he took more than 30 years ago.
In his new book, Paul Theroux revisits a trip he took more than 30 years ago.
Book Jacket

Early one evening I took the overnight train from Ashgabat to the eastern city of Mary. When I found that the sleeper ticket cost $4, I became anxious: this was the price of six melons at the bazaar, and a ticket so cheap boded ill for a long journey. I guessed that the train would be dirty and crowded, a mass of people traveling in the light of a few 25-watt bulbs, and it gave me no satisfaction to be right.

I sat in my four-berth compartment with a soldier in his dark uniform, a student of about 22 or so and a chin-bearded old man in traditional Turkmen dress – a cylindrical black lambskin hat, a long brown cloak over a smock, one of those national costumes that seem eternal and all-purpose and comfortable everywhere, in all seasons. He saw me and began to speak to the student.

"Salaam. Dayf al-Rahman," he said.

"Welcome. You are a guest of Allah, the Merciful One."

"Please thank him for me."

The man spoke again.

"He has a question for you," the student said. "Will you answer?"

I heard the whistle blow: the train slowly left Ashgabat Station, and within minutes we were in the desert. The old man was monologuing to the student.

"He says that some years ago, an astronaut went to the moon," the student said. "He was from America. When he got to the moon, he heard a strange noise. It was an azan – the call to prayer, usually heard from a muezzin chanting from a mosque. The astronaut recorded it. When he came back to earth, the scientists in America analyzed it, and they came to think that it was the voice of the Prophet Muhammad."

"On the moon?"

"Yes. On the moon."

But the old man was still speaking, his chin beard swinging.

"Furthermore, he says that because of this, the astronaut became a Muslim and began praying five times a day."

The old man was facing me, as though defying me to mock the story.

"I haven't heard this story."

"He says he believes it."

"What does he think about it?"

When this question was translated, the student said, "For him, it's good news."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Paul Theroux