The Beauty Of Travelling Slow With Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains
High-speed jets have made long distance travel convenient and quick, but there’s a certain romance in travelling in winding trains for hours on end, right? It’s the ability to be able to experience so much, with just one ticket; the scenery, the hospitality and the company of fellow travellers.
London-based 37-year-old journalist, Monisha Rajesh has been chasing such journeys, not with the intent of seeking an epiphanous or nostalgic revelation, or even some special place, but just to experience the world, as and how it serendipitously manifests. In 2012, she debuted her travel writing skills with Around India in 80 Trains. Last month, she released Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure, a culmination of her circumnavigation of the globe which she undertook last year.
The book is a vicarious experience for readers about what long-distance train travel is today, especially through the many stories Rajesh witnessed and was a part of on the journey. It’s balanced with equal amounts of humour, danger and offers a deep insight about how travel feels like in the digital age, when we’re anyway vicariously being taken along everywhere with a single tap.
We speak to Rajesh about what set her off on her second trail-blazing ride, the people she met on the way and how different long-distance travel is inside and outside India:
What prompted you to take this mammoth journey around the world, after having written your (first) book about train journeys in India?
Around India in 80 Trains was my first book for which I spent four months travelling the length and breadth of the country on Indian Railways. I came away enthralled by the charm and soul of the railways which I was convinced couldn’t be rivalled. But a few years on I started to get itchy feet again and knew that I was destined to have another train adventure. I’d also read a number of articles about how the romance of the railways is dying a slow death owing to the surge of high-speed trains and budget airlines, but I refused to believe that it’s true. So, I set off around the world by train to see what train travel still means to people in different countries and if the beauty of slow travel can survive.
What was the route you took for the journey? Were there any places you were keen on visiting but couldn’t?
I began at London St Pancras and took the Eurostar across to Paris from where I spent a month travelling around Europe. From there I connected to Moscow and took the Trans-Mongolian through Siberia and Mongolia to China, winding down through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore before flying to Japan then to Canada. From Vancouver I took The Canadian train to Toronto then the Maple Leaf train to New York and spent a month travelling around the US with an Amtrak Pass before returning to Vancouver and flying out to Beijing again. This was where the serious part of the journey took place and I spent ten days in North Korea followed by a period in Tibet and then in Xinjiang Province in northwest China. From there I travelled across the border to Kazakhstan then back home through Russia and Europe again. It might seem like a zig-zagging route to some, but it was the only way I could stay overland as much as possible and wind in the specific areas I wanted to visit while treading within the lines of visa restrictions. South America, Africa and Australia were deliberately omitted from the book as those areas don’t have consistent rail networks that allow for non-stop travel.
What kind of planning did this trip entail?
It wasn’t too complicated. I hung a huge world map on my living room wall and then put pins in all the places I wanted to visit along with the dates by which I needed to be there, for example Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the anniversaries of the bombings, and the opening of the world’s first robot hotel; North Korea for a scheduled ten-day train journey around the country; and New Orleans for a food festival – then I just filled in the gaps with connecting trains. It was important to make sure the temperatures I was travelling through weren’t too extreme as I had one rucksack to see me through seven months and couldn’t pack for all eventualities. However coming home through Tibet, Russia and Kazakhstan the temperatures were around -11°C and I had to load up on thermals in Canada and make sure I was equipped.
What were some of the most memorable train journeys and what was it about those trains specifically that appealed to you? Was it the ambience, the comfort, the hospitality or something else altogether?
It’s always the passengers who make or break a journey. Even if you’re on the most luxurious train in the world, terrible companions will make for a terrible trip. Fortunately those people were few and far between. Given the vast distances I travelled, I was also fortunate to come across some of the world’s most spectacular terrain: the blazing blue and yellow Qinghai plateau in Tibet; the Canadian Rockies with their teal-green lakes and black bears; and the rickety Death Railway in Thailand to name a few.
Can you talk about some of the experiences with places and people you had on this trip — both positive and negative — that stuck with you even after you returned home?
I wouldn’t want to give away what happens in the book which centres on these very experiences, but suffice to say there were some wonderful people who I’m still in touch with whom I met everywhere, from North Korea, Kanazawa, Lhasa to Urumqi and Almaty.
The whole book is crammed with these meetings, conversations and run-ins with everyone, from a giggling Tibetan nun and a war veteran from Boston to a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb who took a train to save his life, and a Canadian professor who was travelling by train from Winnipeg to Nice in France. Each one shaped my journey. The upside of social media is that where once I would have lost touch with these people the minute they stepped off the train, I can now chat to them on Facebook and WhatsApp.
How different and/or similar were the journeys taken overseas from those taken within India?
No journey’s ever the same. Even within the same country, they’re all unique depending on the scenery, the passengers, the food, the comfort etc. The state of India’s trains and its tracks is still appalling for a country of its size and stature and it’s an embarrassment that it’s been allowed to slide into such a state at the expense of safety. Even Thailand and Vietnam had far better services compared with Indian trains and it wouldn’t take much to bring them up to an acceptable standard. China was probably the one country that felt similar to travelling in India in terms of the homeliness and noise and clamour on board with people sharing their food, watching loud movies, rocking babies and generally livening up what would otherwise be long and tedious rides.
While on your train journeys, do you ever miss the comfort of home?
After seven months, I certainly had moments where I lay there in the morning in crumpled clothes with a rumbling stomach dreaming of a bacon sandwich and a hot cup of Yorkshire tea – along with my slippers. But train travel, especially overnight sleeper services often feel like a slumber party and you wake up in a cosy berth with an unexpected view at your feet and that immediately draws you back to where you are. However, I often pack my favourite woolly socks, fancy face cream, tea bags and biscuits that make me feel a bit closer in touch with home.
In your journey across India, you weren’t accompanied by your fiancé. What was it like journeying with your fiancé this time around?
Wonderful and I’d recommend it to anyone who ever thinks about taking a break from the tedium of the nine-to-five to travel. You can always find another job but you never know when you’re going to find yourself unable to travel. Along the journey I often came across retirees who had waited their whole lives to travel only to find themselves bereaved or divorced and travelling alone, too ill to enjoy the destinations or worse — so bored by their partners that they sat a few rows away from them. It made us both more adamant that we wouldn’t ever end up like that and we’d travel as much as we could while we had the health and wealth to do so.
People today, at least in India, travel less and less by train, opting for cars and flights instead. Why would you urge them to get back to the slower mode of train travel? What does the train experience offer that other modes of transport do not?
In practical terms trains aren’t always the best way to travel if you have to commute or be somewhere on time and I understand why, in India particularly, people opt for flying instead. But if you’re blessed with a bit of time on your hands trains bring a whole new dimension to travelling. They’re almost a form of meditation and there’s nothing like a long train journey to calm you down and allow you to breathe in the scenery and take stock of your life for a few hours.