Paul Theroux, the American travel writer, began the madness. In 1979 he wrote that masterpiece, The Old Patagonian Express, that took readers from North America across the equator into the deep south of the continent. He bested himself a few years later with The Great Railway Bazaar and, finally, in the 1980s coaxed communist China to improve her railway system with Riding the Iron Rooster.
Any railway buff reading those three delightful works would have thought the last word on great railway journeys around the world had been delivered. But more was to come.
Reading Monisha Rajesh’s recent Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile Adventure, I discovered a kindred soul. She loathes air travel and laments that so many believe the age of railway journeys is a thing of the past. It is not. She notes — and so rightly — the disdain loaded in phrases such as ‘the middle of nowhere’ and ‘lost tribes’. Even ‘nowhere’ has hamlets sprinkled across it and lost tribes are well established in their respective niches, only outsiders are unaware of them.
A delightful travelogue not only captures the essence of long-distance train travel but imbues the reader with the writer’s enthusiasm for the rolling steel wheel
However, Theroux, appalled by co-travellers who gave up shaving, would not have approved of Rajesh who, a few days into her journey, gave up brushing her hair and changing.
And since we are drawing parallels, I once wrote that if I encountered Theroux on a train, I would not just change carriages, I would get on another train, preferably one going in the opposite direction. Theroux eavesdropped and wrote, among other things, of travellers’ bowel problems. Invited into a home in China, he quickly rifled through the host’s cupboard when the person had gone to fetch him something. He can be brutal in his reflection on people he meets on the way. Rajesh also eavesdrops (and who doesn’t on the train?) but she is a great deal more charitable.
The book is a delight loaded with picturesque similes. Who would have thought to describe a team of cockroaches gathered around a drain as “a family in mourning,” and palm trees, bent by prevailing winds, “crossed at the waist like hastily scribbled kisses”? For Rajesh, a waterfall is “silk cascading down the mountainside”, stairs become “a row of fallen dominos” and the Great Wall of China is “a dragon’s tail pulled across the peaks.” Wonderful imagery!
For the better part of a year, Rajesh and her fiancé, having departed their home in London, tooled through central Europe to Russia, Mongolia and China. Three decades before her, Theroux — in mid-winter, on a hard seat in an unheated carriage (back then, it was the only kind available to commoners) swaddled in all his arctic clothing — turned the pages of his book with his nose. Rajesh finds the Chinese railway to be an altogether new world. In 2018, she travels in air-conditioned comfort on plush berths with dine-in facility.
Our intrepid travellers, having taken in Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Canada and the United States, were much distressed by the flight across the Pacific Ocean and back to Asia to continue the trek. Rajesh tells us that China might yet outdo the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France by building an undersea train across the Bering Strait. If the Chinese can lay a line across a 5,000-metre high pass to connect Lhasa in Tibet with China, they can certainly connect the Asia and North America by rail.
Rajesh’s narrative makes people come alive. Even in North Korea (‘natives’ refuse to call themselves North Korean, referring to their country as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK), with all its repression, she finds people laughing and waving from across the tracks. However, Korea is in fierce competition with Pakistan to see which country makes its railway fold first. And not just that: Koreans also have the same stringent ‘no photography’ rule as us.
If Rajesh’s narrative has delightful similes, there is also no dearth of comic moments. Japan is the place where robots act as the hotel concierge and little bedside dolls in the room supposedly take orders. It is another thing that the doll seems capable of responding only to native Japanese speakers. Japan is also the place where ticket examiners bow on entering and leaving the carriage. And to think that the Japanese perpetrated the savagery they did in China and Southeast Asia just 80 years ago during the Second World War.
Having travelled 80 trains around India for an earlier book, Rajesh is the inveterate train rider who values the slow pace and ground level of trains that cut the disconnect of air travel. She delights in “the spot of sun warming [the] cheek while [one] read; the clackety-clack of the wheels as [one] slept; or the thrill of a smile and a wave from passers-by.” It is also in trains where the traveller can begin a conversation with complete strangers who linger as friends on social media.
Of all the countries the 80 trains take her through, Rajesh finds North Korea most unnerving. The threat of the Big Brother State is never far from the traveller’s mind as everything is cleverly orchestrated by a set of guides who speak good English. It turns out that these women and men are the children of diplomats who had spent time in the West. Rajesh wonders how, knowing the repression of their home country, these families simply did not defect when their tenure ended. She soon enough learns that a family proceeding on a foreign posting leaves one child behind as security for their return. It is heartening to know that medieval court practices continue to thrive in DPRK.
Lounging in soft-seat luxury as a train sweeps across great expanses of the earth, our writer captures the essence of long-distance rail journey: “going places, while also going nowhere.” Her enthusiasm for the rolling steel wheel on the rail is contagious and so often does the reader want to chuck everything and do something as insane as the making of this utterly readable book.
If I would give Paul Theroux a wide berth, I wouldn’t mind being in the same carriage as Monisha Rajesh, who quickly establishes herself as a hard-core feminist with the sharpness of the journalist that she is. However, if that ever happens the rule would have to be: “No Condescending Remarks on Womanhood.” One slip and there would be flared nostrils.
The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel
Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile
By Monisha Rajesh
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 26th, 2019