At this moment in history, long-distance train travel is somewhere in between nostalgically quaint and futuristically revolutionary. It’s perhaps therefore the perfect time for a relentlessly curious and wonderfully descriptive writer such as Monisha Rajesh to delve into this oxymoronic notion of crossing countries and continents by rail – something that undeniably catches people’s attention, despite (or perhaps because of) the dominance of the global aviation industry.
Rajesh’s 80 trains include the world’s fastest (the ride to Shanghai Pudong International Airport at speeds of 268mph), the world’s highest (the Qinghai railway from Xining to Lhasa, over 5,000 metres above sea level), plus journeys through countries few will ever see in this way, such as the backwaters of North Korea.
Yet her seven-month journey is not really about trains. Rajesh is no anorak, don’t buy the book because you enjoy a locomotive. Instead, she offers us a never-ending series of Theroux-esque, quirky anecdotes from the gritty underbelly of both domestic and international travel. Rajesh takes a contagious delight in the lives of the people around her. While she is very happy introducing herself to strangers and collecting their life stories, she’s not afraid to openly and unashamedly eavesdrop, in doing so collecting some of the juicier train-based gossip. These techniques make the book remarkably engaging, especially considering how ordinary the overall narrative is.
‘The richest flavour of train travel lay in the joints and hinges that held countries together... where cultures swirled together, currencies doubled up and languages overlapped,’ she reflects. ‘Invisible to others, these oases were the preserve of train travellers who were permitted a glimpse as they rolled from one side to the other.’
If you fancy learning about global travel in the relative slow lane, try boarding this carriage and staring out the window – here you can view the world through Rajesh’s eyes, as she takes us on a lazy, time-bending meander in search of authenticity and humanity.
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