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Book review: Around The World In 80 Trains

Around The World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh. Bloomsbury Books.

Straight off the bat, let me say it: This book is such a delightful,  easy read.

I read Rajesh`s debut Around India in 80 Trains some years ago, and quite enjoyed it but this one I positively relished. It combines strands of a love for train travel with those of an old-fashioned travelogue,  and the result is a neat interesting meld.

The author and her fiancé Jem get on and off the 80 trains of the book`s title  in places as diverse as Paris/Toulouse/Valencia/Barcelona/Riga/Moscow/Irkutsk in Siberia/Ulaanbataar in Mongolia/ Butterworth (yes really!) in Thailand/Kanchanaburi/Hiroshima/Kyoto/Beijing/Hanoi/NY/New Orleans/Pyongang/Almaty/Lhasa and a score of other towns small and big, and tell us about the trains, the people met on the trains, even as she gives us a potted history of the places we are seeing through her eyes.

The style is wry, direct and Rajesh tries not to give us a biased account of anything, be it  a relook at the devastation wrought by the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; what`s happening to  Uighur Muslims in Turfan; the state of the First Nations indigenous peoples of Canada; the tight Chinese grip on Tibet; life in North Korea.

They take the Shinkansen trains in Japan, the bullet trains in China, the Trans-Siberian in Russia, The Canadian, connecting Toronto to Vancouver with its amazing views, the Amtrak in the US, and finish off in style,  riding the Venice- Simplon Orient Express back home.

The running motif is always the sheer enjoyment to be found in train travel: a spot of sun warming your cheek while you read, the clackety- clack of wheels as you slept, the thrill of a wave from a passer-by, flaming sunsets framed in the glass windows.

Rajesh boards each train and sits back, waiting for a new story to begin. Which is a wonderful way to travel, imo.

Apart from sheer enjoyment, these are the things I learned from the book:

  • How That bridge is not over the River Kwai at all!
  • What happens when a train hits a skunk. Or a skunk hits a train.
  • Canada`s Highway of Tears, where female hitchhikers go missing and are never found again.
  • Where the homeless in Manhattan crash out. Hint: it`s very near the train and subway stations.
  • Why Chinese guards do fire patrol duty in the Potala Palace.
  • How to behave when you run into Robert De Niro in one of his hotel lobbies.
  • How all women in bonnets and ankle length skirts and all men with pudding bowl haircuts are not all Amish.
  • Why Canadians don’t take trains.
  • How saying someplace is `the middle of nowhere` is most patronising, disdainful and plain wrong, besides.
  • How to recognise a train evangelist when you come across one.
  • How you aren’t to place your cups or glasses on top of a newspaper image of Kim Jong Un in North Korea.
  • What happens if you walk through North Korean monuments with your arms folded akimbo.
  • What eventually happened to the small group of farmers who had stumbled upon the terracotta warriors of Xi`an on their land.
Around The World In 80 Trainsbook reviewiconic trainsMonisha Rajeshtrain traveltravelogue

Sheila Kumar • September 30, 2020


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