“Taking the train is the best way to cross a desert.”
No, this is not the latest advertising slogan for the Robin Hood LIne, but one of many quotable remarks in Monisha Rahesh’s love letter to train travel.
The title – referencing Jules Verne – is inaccurate though. It might be a 45,000 mile adventure but there is more to the world than Europe, Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Canada and the USA, but that’s enough for anyone living out of a rucksack and with a choice of only five T-shirts. It took Monisha and her fiancé seven months. Not all of which were actually on trains, so we learned a lot about being a tourist in, for example, Tibet and North Korea. Indeed we learn that North Korea does not like being so called as there is only one Korea and in that bit in the north of the country the state gets very angry if you take a photo of one of the zillion Kim statues that does not show their whole body, from foot to the top of his head.
Monisha makes no apologies for being a tourist, but is happiest venturing into the unknown, getting into scrapes such as when on the morning after her arrival in Llasa, inadequately prepared for the altitude, “a glance in the mirror confirmed that I had indeed died overnight”, while her fiancé “lay slumped against the pillows apparently experiencing the early stages of rigor mortis”. Remind me to skip Llasa on my world tour. There are other reasons to avoid Tibet and Monisha does not shy away from political issues there, or indeed in China where she visits the highly controlled province of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghurs.
The book does have elements of the romance of train journeys, but not so much on the bullet trains and not so much on certain other trains where the toilets and corridors stunk and where, in one case for three days solid crossing Russia, people glared at her and her fiancé , another person of colour. This is not a major focus of the book but you will not be surprised that here and there… well, I can remember being on a long distance bus from Prague where the only person asked for papers, at every single border, was the only Black person on board.
But who are these people on the long journeys she undertook? In America, in places, her fellow passengers were those who “had no choice but to board a train at quarter to three in the morning”. In America she encountered the needy, the homophobic, the gossipy, the runaways, the seedy… And the Amish. Though she might just have hit lucky, the three generation Amish family talked to each other, quietly read to their children in their own language, played with them, ate well… while across the aisle a man was into his second can of Coors, ignoring his wife and children, the children loudly complaining that they did not have iPads.
Monisha is an observer of what you can see from trains, those parts of the countries you can never visit but where for a moment as you pass you can glimpse into the lives of those who will likely never even be on a train. She is also an eater. Only on one occasion do her and her chap pass on food. I won’t describe what they turned down, but everywhere else they hoovered up whatever was on offer from street stalls, hole in the wall cafes and traders at obscure railway stations. At some of their mealtimes I was glad to be an armchair traveler.
But there is romance there, and friendships made, and random acts of kindness. On one train a man they meet recommends a hotel at their next stopover and when they get there discover he had rang ahead, booked and paid. They have no idea how to contact him or thank him. Perhaps he will read this book.
Around the World in Eighty Trains was first published in 2019 and took a while to get written – explained by the dedication to Ariel “without whom this book would have been published a year ago.” Early in the book Monisha mourns the decline of long distant sleeper cars in Europe but the good news of this year is that sleepers are making a comeback in Europe. Check out The Man in Seat 61 website to plan your own journey or, given the times, dream…
And maybe pack this book on your next long train journey, or the next weekend in your armchair. It’s worth it.
Arouind the World in 80 Trains is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/around-the-world-in-80-trains-a-45000-mile-adventure/