An adventure of going around the world in 80 trains

Railroad journal Monisha Rajesh looks out into the incredible landscape of Tibet; tourists on the Great Wall of China; and the book  

After travelling around India in 80 trains, the rhythm got to Monisha Rajesh and she embarked on an ambitious journey around the world. The mammoth train journey took Monisha to Lhasa, Shanghai, Hanoi, on the Amtrak in the US and the bullet trains of Japan among others. The result is the eminently-readable, Around the World in 80 Trains.

Talking of the benefits of planning, the London-based Monisha writes over email, “It depends on the kind of person you are. If you are someone who needs the security of punctuality, then you probably shouldn’t be travelling at all. In theory you can plan a journey, but the reality is that it is never in your control. The best parts of my journey came from staying flexible: some mornings I’d arrive in a city and find wonderful book shops, old quarters and fabulous restaurants to explore that I’d forget about my onward train and stay an extra few days, invariably meeting a cast of characters who would add to the stories I was gathering. That said, I did plan the largest segments of my journey in advance, for example the Trans-Mongolian across Russia, Mongolia and China,6 and The Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, but I filled in the blanks with whichever train took my fancy on the day.”

An adventure of going around the world in 80 trains

Insisting that she never reads travel books on a journey, Monisha says, “The last thing I want to do when I’m arriving somewhere is to read another writer’s thoughts, emotions and conclusions about a country and then find myself projecting them or struggling to form my own. Long-distance train travel presents the perfect opportunity to get stuck into classics or books I’ve piled up for months.”

Music is also not on Monisha’s list of travel must-haves. “Having earphones is a hindrance to my favourite pastime — eavesdropping on conversations. If I can’t hear the sound of the wheels thumping along the tracks or the horn blaring as we draw into a new station, or most importantly the shouts from hawkers peddling hot fried noodles and iced Nescafe, I can’t get my bearings or feel like I’m a part of the journey.”

Going solo

Preferring to think of it as travelling by herself rather than travelling alone, Monisha says, “My company has always been enough to enjoy where I am and I thrive on the freedom of being able to do whatever I want. Solo travellers are more inclined to make an effort to meet people and form friendships. However, travelling with friends or with your partner, as I did, doesn’t have to hinder you. Given the nature of the journey I was undertaking, it would have been a waste to do it alone. I had just got engaged and was about to do a round-the-world journey, the kind that most people spend their whole lives working towards for retirement. It seemed insane to go on my own and leave my fiancé behind rather than share those experiences with him. It was the best decision we made.”

In her book, Monisha speaks of travel as an escape. “Along my travels, I’ve often come across travellers who are on the road to escape something. Travel offers an instant remedy to life’s ailments.”

An adventure of going around the world in 80 trains

Monisha explores the theme of Western travellers in search of the ‘authentic’ in the book. “In Mongolia, I was reprimanded by fellow English tourists for not venturing out to stay with a nomadic family and ride horses on the steppes, when I was just as fascinated by the speed at which Ulaanbaatar is morphing into a modern-day megacity with banks, an IMAX and 11 KFCs — along with a chain of restaurants called Modern Nomads. Neither was more ‘authentic’ than the other, and both were a valid and honest representation of the country. For me, the yearning suggests a selfish desire to satisfy your own need to exoticise a nation rather than accept that the world is moving forward in accordance with people’s needs.”

Comparing Indian trains to those in other countries, the 37-year-old says, “Despite having travelled 45,000 miles around the world by train, I still maintain that Indian Railways has an inimitable heart and soul. In terms of the actual locomotives and carriages, India’s trains are appalling and need a complete overhaul in terms of comfort and safety, but the charm and humanity of Indian trains is impossible to replicate anywhere else.”

Overland routes

The book does not cover South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. “All are areas that I need to devote a proper amount of time to, which was why I didn’t include them on my journey around the world. The intention was to stay overland and I couldn’t have done so if I’d included these areas in my book.”

Memorable moments
  • Scary:We took a train from Moscow deep into the suburbs, to try and find Patriot Park, which was a newly-opened exhibition that Putin had dubbed a military Disneyland. From the moment I boarded I knew it was a bad idea from the stares we got from people who were not thrilled to see us. We were the only brown people, and the farther we drew out of the city the more tense the situation became, and we found ourselves stared at and spat at by tattooed young men in tracksuits and Adidas T-shirts. Once back in Moscow, we read that foreigners, particularly Asians, were strongly advised not to take the suburban trains owing to racist crime on board. I wish I’d read that before we set off.
  • Funniest: Too many to mention!
  • Saddest: During the Second World War, the Japanese used Allied prisoners of war to construct a railway line connecting Thailand and Burma, with one prisoner dying for every sleeper laid. Better known now as the ‘Death Railway’, a small segment of the route is still in service, with trains departing twice a day from Bangkok Thonburi station up to Nam Tok station in Kanchanaburi. Winding through jungled territory, as branches brush and snap in through the open windows, the train clatters across the infamous bridge on the river Kwai, making for a stunning but sombre ride.

On striking a balance between journey and destination, Monisha says, “For me, the beauty of train travel is that it doesn’t interfere with whatever you want to do during the journey. Once you depart, you can catch up on the Sunday supplements, dine on a bottle of Merlot and a bison steak, make friends with a Tibetan nun in the next compartment, or sit in a doorway with the wind in your hair and a cup of tea in your hand. And you will still arrive at your destination. No other form of transport allows you to do that. Of course, I’m always happy to arrive, but the train journey is what defines my experience.”

What are train journeys without food? The description of ekiben, unique to every station in Japan, is delicately delicious. While she is generally not averse to trying anything while travelling, Monisha says, “My favourite meal was in Lhasa at a tiny restaurant hidden behind a curtained doorway that only Tibetans visited. We were served a bowl of deeply spicy yellow yak curry and rice, with a plate of steamed yak momos. It cost barely a few pennies but I still think of it now.”

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 13, 2021 3:12:42 PM |

Next Story