‘Around the World in 80 Trains’ review: Rides across borders

Travels across 16 countries on rickety and posh railways

In this age of instant everything — from noodles to videos — trains get bad press. Just say ‘let’s go by train’ and watch the range of disbelieving looks that flit across most faces. Which is why Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains is a thrilling read for every train enthusiast. And this is her second such trip. The first was 80 trains across India. Her love for trains comes through in this lovely sentence: “Trains are rolling libraries of information and all it takes is to reach out to passengers to bind together their tales.”

Accompanied by her fiancé Jeremy, better known as Jem, Rajesh sets off from London with an Eurail pass and, over the next seven months, travels across 45,000 miles and 16 countries on trains that range from rickety bogies ‘held together by rust and hope’ to the posh Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Rajesh’s eye for detail and vivid descriptions give you the feeling of being there with her on her journey. In Russia, they make a slightly dangerous trip to Kubinka before they find a warning that foreigners could be targets of racist attacks.

On the famous Trans-Siberian, they find out that they are the only foreigners on board. In Thailand, they travel on a sector of the Death Railway, the Burma-Thai railway built by the Japanese army using prisoners of war during World War II.

In Canada, they hear about the Highway of Tears. After an attack of shingles when in the U.S., they upgrade to a roomette between Los Angeles and Chicago and find themselves in a space ‘no bigger than a walk-in shower.’ In between all this, they manage some sightseeing and get to stay in places as varied as the trains they take. From a down-in-the-dumps hostel in Thailand to the robot-controlled Henn na Hotel in Japan. The latter experience, in Rajesh’s words, was ‘like an embarrassing party trick that wasn’t going to plan.’

As they turn their sights towards home, Rajesh reflects that, when she began, she wanted to find out what train travel meant to people. Had the bullet trains and flights really killed the romance? What her trip showed was that it had ‘just reincarnated, living on in passengers who would always tell their story to strangers, offer advice, share their food and give up their sides.’ It will die only when our interest in other people has died.

Around the World in 80 Trains; Monisha Rajesh, Bloomsbury, ₹999.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2020 2:14:17 AM |

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