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Travelling the world off the beaten track

  • Monisha Rajesh’s new book is about her adventure of travelling the world on 80 trains
  • She brings a fresh dimension to travel writing, which has mostly been dominated by white male writers

Monisha Rajesh sees herself as a guide pulling readers along.
Monisha Rajesh sees herself as a guide pulling readers along. (Marc Sethi)

Until recently, travel writing was perhaps the whitest possible form of literature. Travelling for pleasure, after all, was the privilege of white men, rich men, or rich white men. Readers lapped up the tales of Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia, Eric Newby in the Hindu Kush, and Paul Theroux on Indian trains. All wonderful writers, but helped along by publishers who believed readers only wanted intrepid white male travellers in the mould of David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton.

Then came Pico Iyer, the gentle global soul. Soon people wanted to read about the travels—and travails—of brown and black people.

Monisha Rajesh’s Around The World In 80 Trains is a fun account of her travels across 45,000 miles on 80 trains, but also a thoughtful exploration of what it means to travel as a brown woman. “Often books by privileged white men would place themselves at the heart of the narrative and that’s something I can’t abide. Travel writing shouldn’t be about the narrator; I see myself as a guide pulling along a reader and allowing them to deduce what they will from the picture I paint," says Rajesh, in an email interview. “A single woman will walk into a crowded dining room and feel eyes on her in a way that a middle-aged man wouldn’t; a black man will be watched in Moscow’s suburbs in a very different way from a white man."

Who: Rajesh, a journalist, born in the UK to Indian parents, both doctors, first travelled across India on trains for three months in 2010. The experience became a book: Around India In 80 Trains. “I was tired of reading white writers’ books about India that focused on the negative, or swung the other way and exoticized India as a land of spices and saris. Bored by the obsession with cows, colour, chaos and the various ‘assaults on the senses’, and ‘cities of contrasts’, I knew I would be able to see past all of that and get under the skin of the country," she says.

Five years later, when the travel bug bit again, she planned a seven-month trip on the world’s most iconic train journeys, from the Orient Express to the “Death Railway" used to transport Japan’s prisoners between Thailand and Myanmar.

This time, she was accompanied by her fiancé Jem. Jem is half-Malaysian, half-Scottish, brought up in Surrey, and his trips until then had consisted mostly of holidays in Antigua. Jem wanders around in pink swim shorts on the Trans-Mongolian, “isn’t used to bags that weren’t on wheels" and, at one point, gets yelled at by Robert De Niro in his Tribeca hotel. In short, he is the endearing Passepartout to Rajesh’s seasoned Phileas Fogg, the main characters of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days.

What: Around The World In 80 Trains is not a guidebook. You might not, for instance, want to follow Rajesh on her midnight train from Riga to Moscow, where she and Jem are woken by sniffer dogs in the middle of the night. “We were the only people they checked," whispers Jem. “We are the only brown people on board," Rajesh whispers back. Later, they almost cause a fight by offering to buy some Russian friends drinks. Apparently, that implied their guests were too poor to buy their own drinks.

Rajesh ferrets out the most intriguing travellers, including those from the past. In Japan, she finds a survivor of Hiroshima, who escaped the city on the first train north. “Everyone was trying to get on this train, but the weak were trampled. People with bones poking out were clinging to the roof. I remember a woman with a triangular shard of glass in her back like a shark’s fin." In the UK, she meets Sir Harold Atcherley, a former Japanese prisoner of war. He toiled for 18 hours a day building the “Death Railway", whose construction is believed to have taken a toll of one death per sleeper laid on the tracks.

In the US, the home of car culture, she is warned that the only people who take trains are “jakeys (slang for homeless people) and fuck-ups." Fuck-ups abound, but she also meets a host of fascinating people, including Steven, a 6ft, 3 inches Texan libertarian in favour of gun control who “identifies as Ophelia".

Asked about her favourite train journey, Rajesh picks the scenic Qinghai-Tibet railway—the highest train journey in the world—which took her from Shanghai to Lhasa in just over 56 hours.

Why: Read this if you want a fresh look at aspects of travel you have never considered. “Authentic travel," for instance, was beloved of travel writers of yore, but Rajesh thinks Tibetan monks should be just as free to wear New Balance sneakers and use iPhones as the rest of us. Travelling on super-modern Chinese trains, she writes: “It was abhorrent to some that Chinese people might like the odd Frappuccino and some hot wings. While I could have ridden on trains with chickens and farmers who would make for a great Steve McCurry Instagram post, I preferred the new trains and their soft mattresses. I liked riding alongside families watching soaps on their phones, and chatting to students in English. One was no less China than the other, and both had their own stories to tell. ‘Modernised’ was a dirty word for everyone but the inhabitants of that city for whom modernisation meant employment, prosperity and greater peace of mind."

Rajesh believes travellers should be open-minded. “The constant search for authentic experiences is crazy, given the kind of globalized world we live in. You are still experiencing a country, eating with young people in Ulanabaatar’s food franchise Modern Nomads," she says.

Around The World In 80 Trains—A 45,000 Mile Adventure: By Monisha Rajesh, Bloomsbury Publishing, 336 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
Around The World In 80 Trains—A 45,000 Mile Adventure: By Monisha Rajesh, Bloomsbury Publishing, 336 pages, 599

Sometimes, however, she falls into the trap of expecting the picturesque and ancient. She is told off in Almaty by a local Kazakh, who laughs: “What did you think? That Almaty was like Borat’s TV show, with one goat and a cart?"

The slowness of train travel is both calming and meditative. “The aim of my book was to determine whether or not long-distance train travel will survive. It absolutely will. Comfort and saving time is fine for the middle classes and the wealthy, but there are so many people for whom that is a luxury never to be realized. Clattering old carriages will always have commuters cramming on board in far-flung townships with little or no access to highways and airports. Or families travelling for days because it’s the only way they can afford to visit each other en masse," says Rajesh.

The end of the journey comes with a twist while Rajesh is on the iconic Orient Express. She realizes she has miscounted and there are only 79. Rajesh is broken-hearted until—wonder of wonders—she is told they are to be transferred to another train. She squeaks home by the skin of her teeth.

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

She tweets at @kavitharao

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