Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
In 2010, Monisha Rajesh left London to travel around India by train. Hooked on the railways, she then traveled across the globe to write her second book, Around The World In 80 Trains. She talks to Meera Dattani about her seven-month voyage.
It’s no small feat traveling some 72,000 kilometers around the world by train—that’s almost twice the circumference of the earth. But that’s what writer Monisha Rajesh decided to do, her appetite whet by her travels around India by train back in 2010.
Leaving London’s St Pancras station with just the essentials, and her fiancé, Jem, she embarked on a seven-month journey that would encompass classic rail routes—such as the Trans-Mongolian—as well as new-fangled locomotives like the Japanese bullet trains.
The result is Around The World In 80 Trains, an ode to train travel and a love letter to the diversity of the world we live in— if only we can slow down enough to appreciate it.
Adventure.com: Was this a long-standing love affair with the railways? Were you a train ‘geek’ as a kid?
Monisha Rajesh: It’s probably blasphemous to admit, but I was never particularly interested in trains until I traveled to India in 2010 to write my first book, Around India in 80 Trains. I didn’t come from a railroading family, nor did I have fond memories of traveling on trains as a kid.
But I knew India’s railways would grant me privileged access to people in a way no other form of transport would. The network covers the length and breadth of the country, worming its way into every nook and cranny. It took me almost everywhere on my bucket list: The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Ranthambore National Park, Taj Mahal, the beaches in Kerala, the forts in Jaisalmer.
Sitting side-by-side with passengers from every walk of life helped me understand the dynamics of India, its class system, its politics, its positives and negatives—I came away enthralled by the idea of traveling by train. And when I went around the world by train, I felt so at home—I hadn’t realized how much India’s railways had seeped into my bones.
How did you plan the trip—did you plan?
I’d hung a world map on my living room wall and pinned all the cities, monuments and events that I wanted to see, from eating prawns al ajillo in Madrid to St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and arriving in Hiroshima for the 70th anniversary of the bombing.
I also had key dates where I needed to be in certain places, for example, a train tour through North Korea in October, so I sewed in the connecting trains. Rail passes made it fairly straightforward: I bought a Eurail pass, Japanese rail pass and Amtrak pass so planning was fairly minimal.
Also, British passports grant far greater access to the world than most of us appreciate. I only had to organize Chinese, Russian and Mongolian visas beforehand—and those were taken care of by Real Russia who booked my Trans-Mongolian journey from Moscow to Beijing.
Which country knocked your perceptions?
Japan. A mistake I made before traveling was watching Lost in Translation and falling prey to Sofia Coppola’s soft-focus exoticized illusion. After two weeks of shooting around the country by Shinkansen, their fleet of high-speed, bottle-nosed beauties, I realized the film was little more than a racist, ignorant portrait of a magnetic, complex and multi-layered nation.
The country is often described as being futuristic and years ahead of everyone, but I disagree: I don’t think any country will ever emulate Japan’s efficiency and simplicity of living.
Everything is designed to make lives easier. For example, toilet doors have harnesses on the back for mothers to place their children, hotdogs are served with one packet containing mustard and ketchup that squeezes out in parallel lines, and train platforms are marked with little blue feet to tell passengers where to board. And Japanese people are incredibly friendly, helpful and amenable.
Did any ‘epic’ journeys disappoint? Any surprising routes?
The Trans-Mongolian Railway was fairly unremarkable. The first four days from Moscow to Irkustk in Siberia dragged by in sweltering heat—if it weren’t for books, playing cards, and fellow passengers, it would’ve been unbearable. The terrain is bleak, white and empty. I’m not surprised most people drink their way through to their destination! The landscape did liven up from Irkutsk to Mongolia and Mongolia to Beijing.
I didn’t expect Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur to be as beautiful a route as it was, with bent palms silhouetted against orange skies, burnt fields smouldering at dusk and paddy fields sparkling in the evening light. The food on board was also some of the best I’d had in seven months.
I’ve not yet been to South America—I’d love to take the Hiram Bingham from Cusco to Machu Picchu. And after traveling the world by train, I can safely say that the UK has one of the worst networks in the world!
How do you persuade more people to travel by train instead of cheap flights?
It depends on your priorities. If you don’t have much time off, I can understand why budget flights would appeal. But if time isn’t pressing, I always encourage people to take trains.
Your holiday begins from the moment you board rather than when you land. Your carbon footprint is reduced, and you take as much as you want and pack as many liquids as you like! And often, budget flights aren’t as cheap as they appear with added costs—delays and cancelations are also far more common when flying.
In your book, you talk about the ‘train family’. Why do trains especially foster this sense of community?
On a plane, there’s a distinct feeling of needing to get from A-B—flights are a relatively solitary process whereby you’re belted into your seat, given a tray and expected to watch movies, read books or sleep until arrival. You’re parachuted out of one city and into another, with no sense of space, movement or distance.
Trains are a communal experience. You sit in a compartment in such close confines that you’re all forced to talk, share food and stories, or marvel at the landscape. Train windows offer you a slideshow of images as you slip from one city to the next, all the while forming a close-knit relationship with those around you.
How challenging was it to write up seven months of memories?
I’m loyal to the idea of non-fiction being non-fiction. I’ll never pad out conversations or add color to characters where there was none.
During seven months of my travels, I recorded around 40 conversations on my iPhone which I transcribed at home and used translators to verify. I don’t usually make notes while talking to people as it’s distracting for them and invariably, they clam up if they’re being documented. But I do make quick notes about the color of their eyes, the smell of lavender coming in through the window—those elements bring a story to life and allow readers to feel like they were traveling with you.
Gathering photos definitely helps to recreate tiny elements that your memory forgets: The intensity of a Tibetan blue sky, the prices on a hostel menu, the pattern of bedding. While I carried a diary, I rarely wrote in it as I was too occupied by what was around me—I didn’t want to waste time writing when I could be looking out of windows, talking to people and eavesdropping.
I’d usually wait for a lull in the journey and jot down all I could remember. When it came to writing the book, I had a collection of notes, photos, receipts, videos and diary entries that helped me form a jigsaw in my head. I also have a near-photographic memory—invaluable for a travel writer!
At one stage, you write, “We’re the only brown people on board.” How aware of this are you when traveling?
Living in London, one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, it’s not something I usually think about but traveling, I did notice regularly how certain cities are very white and lacking in non-white tourists.
I read very little travel writing as it’s dominated by white writers—I find it lacks nuance when viewed through the same prism and there’s an inescapable urge to exoticize “the other”, a trap brown and black writers don’t usually fall into—often because when we travel, we are “the other”, sticking out like sore thumbs through Moscow’s suburbs, or in rural China or in a bar in Eastern Europe.
White writers are sometimes blissfully unaware of how often they’re able to blend in while traveling. And if they’re outsiders, they’re often placed on pedestals. Brown and black travelers are rarely afforded this privilege and I think that makes for far more interesting reading.
In North Korea, did you ever feel frustrated at not being able to ask more?
No. I never felt the urge to put the guides into awkward situations by asking uncomfortable questions. We were briefed that bringing up politics would be unwise as no-one really knows how much the guides are aware of. Some could be completely unaware of the severity of the situation around them, but others might be aware and frustrated that they can’t talk about it or fight back. It would have been bad manners to probe and put them into danger with other guides listening.
I was content to have general chats with our North Korean guides. Usually this was about what kind of history they were taught at Kim Il Sung University, the kind of music they downloaded, where they wanted to holiday—all far more revealing than interrogating them.
You write, “The less I carried, the less I worried.” Why is it so liberating to have so little?
It boils down to one simple fact: The less I carried, the less my back hurt! We only ever use what we have and I never needed more than four or five tops over seven months. I didn’t need to impress anyone, I rarely went anywhere fancy, and if I did, I had one pretty cotton dress that was packed into a Ziploc bag to keep it dry and clean.
I wore it with a cardigan and a pair of foldable ballet pumps and it served me perfectly well in nice restaurants or hotels. My make-up bag consisted of concealer for dark circles after bad nights on trains, and blusher to make me look more awake!
How did you transition from this adventure to London life?
When I do short trips, I’m always sad to be coming home, but after seven months on the rails, I was ready to return home. Everyone has their limit and for me, living out of one bag, not sleeping in a stationary bed and eating meals on the go had taken its toll. I was looking forward to my creature comforts: Pyjamas, a crisp bacon roll and a cup of tea.
But I think it was more that I’d had my fill. I’d traveled across Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Canada, USA, Tibet, North Korea and Kazakhstan, and my brain and body was struggling to process everything I’d seen and done. It was a dream adventure and I came home fully satisfied.
You can read more about Monisha Rajesh’s railway adventures in her latest book, Around the World in 80 Trains.