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Monisha Rajesh

fm4 adventurous

FM4 Adventurous: A Moveable Feast

Thrusting people together in confined compartments, as wild landscapes pass by, train travel is the perfect way to explore the globe, says Monisha Rajesh.

By Chris Cummins

“Around the World in 80 Trains” , Monisha Rajesh’s love letter to the joys of train travel, feels to me like a very timely adventure book. For months now, the hashtag “#flightshame”, an internationalisation of the powerful Swedish movement “ #flygskam”, has been highlighting the barely environmentally- justifiable practice of flying for pleasure. As this main summer season approaches, many of us have been sitting in front of our computers, the mouse cursor hovering over a cheap flight deal, thinking of the enigmatic stare of a Swedish teenager and asking ourselves: “What would Greta say?”

But I find guilt generally disempowering, and being shamed is certainly demotivating. So instead, let’s celebrate the alternative. There’s the more positive Swedish hashtag “ #tagskryt”, or “train-bragging”, which celebrates the boisterous, spontaneous joys of rail travel.

Here’s my suggestion: this summer, ride on a train, enjoy it, feel good about it, and tell everyone about it!

That’s what Monisha Rajesh did for her delightful new travel book, Around the World in 80 Trains which is at times irreverent and at times deeply thought-provoking.

It’s about a form of travel that she says suits her perfectly: “No other mode of transport combined my two favourite pastimes: travelling the world and lying in bed.”

Monisha setting off

Monisha Rajesh

As well as being environmentally destructive, Monisha points out that flying is a tetchy, nerve-wracking affair that is almost exclusively about the pragmatic task of getting to the destination.

We associate it with fraught queuing, whilst worrying about whether our hand-luggage is too heavy, then seeing those bags roll off on the wrong conveyor belt in security. Oh, not again! We’ve forgotten about that little bottle of shampoo that we stole from a hotel…..

A train journey, on the other hand, is part of adventure itself. “It’s just what a train journey allows you to do while you’re actually travelling,” says Monisha. She recalls meeting a Canadian passenger on the long journey from Vancouver to Toronto who, ripping a Coors beer out of a six-pack, announces that his holiday is beginning right there and then.

The Joy of Surprise Encounter

Particularly on longer journeys, it’s the sharing of food and the swapping of stories that make the drawing-room drama of a train compartment as compelling as the landscape that rushes past on the other side of the train windows. Monisha says she enjoys stepping into a carriage ahead of a long trip: “I love that anticipation of who is going to come through that door to change your story. It could be anybody.”

A nun on the train

Monisha Rajesh

Not all the encounters are pleasant, of course. In “Around the World in 80 Trains”, Monisha meets a drunken but frighteningly inquisitive Russian freight-train engineer on the Trans-Mongolian Express, and a pompous snake-oil salesman on a train to Bangkok. But there are fond moments of wonder, as she watches a retiree from Borneo take his first ever train journey:

”Watching Joe take pleasure in the unremarkable way the bunks pulled down, or the lights switched off, I was reminded of why my passion for train travel deepened each time I boarded a train. No matter how many journeys I took, or how awful the train, each one brought an element of surprise or wonder, usually to be found in the least expected of people or places.”

Perhaps the key joy of train travel is that it is fast enough to allow you to cross the world, but slow enough to see how different countries and cultures merge into each other. It takes around 14 hours to fly from London to Ho Chi Minh City, for example, and, after this short interlude in an air-conditioned tube, the culture shock when you land can be disorientating. You’re not ready for the heat, the speed and colour of South-East Asian life.

The Gradation of Our Common Humanity

On a train, however, the transition is gradual, and the distinct boundaries begin to merge, like the colours of a rainbow. It starts with the food: “The dumplings that I had in western Russia were very similar to the ones we had in Mongolia, but the meat was slightly different as we travelled east.

And over a period of about two weeks of travelling I would see blond blue-eyed people turn to blond, brown-eyed people and then they would become brown-haired, brown-eyed people. Then you arrive in China and you see people’s facial features are so different, but you don’t feel the sudden change because you have watched all the gradations.”

But however slowly you get there, some cultures still have the ability to shock. At a travel agency in Beijing, Monisha and her fiancée Jem buy a trip around the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea.

“I was really keen to go and visit North Korea,” explains Monisha, “mainly because it’s really difficult nowadays to find somewhere in the world that hasn’t been explored,and that hasn’t had numerous writers pass through and pass judgement.”

In Pyongyang

Monisha Rajesh

So North Korea felt fairly fresh hunting ground for a writer with a keen eye and open mind, but at the end of the trip it remained an enigma. Monisha’s small group of Westerners was accompanied by an unfailingly polite team of guides, or minders, and the locals didn’t seem that interested anyway, barely glancing at the inquisitive outsiders.

“It was an unsettling experience,” says the London-based travel writer. “In most countries you can look at things and have an understanding of what you are seeing, and talk to people and gauge the situation, but there, in North Korea, we just couldn’t."

The group were travelling in a segregated passenger train which, at one point, overtook a freight train. A simple gesture of human friendliness from the North Koreans in the driver’s cabin of the freight train sent the group into raptures.

Monisha writes: “The engine eventually ran alongside us and the three staff gave us a thumbs-up as the sunlight streamed through the window, warming the men’s faces. They were no more than an arm’s reach away and we all jumped up and stood at the glass like children, that glass representing so much that I wished we could break it. Eventually they drifted further and further back until we lost them and we took our seats in silence.”

A Grateful Nun

North Korea remains immune to the power of travel to break down barriers, but Monisha was luckier elsewhere. A Tibetan nun in Xinjiang province was giddy with excitement when she saw Monisha, born in Britain to Indian parents. Believing Monisha to be from India herself, the nun desperately wanted to thank her, because India gave refuge to the Dalai Lama. Because Monisha had just passed through Lhasa, the holy city of the Tibetans, she was able to show the excited nun recent photographs of the heritage sights that, because of government travel restrictions, the nun herself had never seen and probably never would see. Then, in one of those wonderful surprise moments that travel throws up, the nun whipped a smartphone from her robes and added Monisha on ‘WeChat’ - the Chinese version of WhatsApp.

Encounters Tinged with Racism and Sexism

Whilst her South Asian skin-tone made her a star on this one particular Chinese train, in suburban Russia “where we were the only brown people for miles around” Monisha was subjected to hostile spitting and icy stares- and both during this journey, and a journey she made alone for her previous book “Around India In 80 Trains”, she experienced the familiar unwanted advances- at times disgustingly lecherous,at other times acutely threatening - that are a hazard known to most female travellers.

“The onus is still often still placed on women either to cover up or to go home early, to avoid eye-contact and to sit in a corner with a book,” she tells me. “It is so incredibly disappointing that in some many places that is still the way you have to behave.”

Given this experience, she says it is not surprising that most of the most famous travel books have been written by white men- iconic authors like Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Colin Thubron, who have been given a greater freedom to roam and explore, unhindered by prejudice.

“Only a handful of women have done this, and no women of colour. I think people have this idea that you just have to roll up in a country and you will be well received. They don’t understand that it is not always like that for people of colour. I wanted to bring those different perspectives to people.”

„Little did I know the Railways had followed me home - their dust in my hair, their rythm in my bones, their charm infused in my blood.“