Three cheers, then, for Monisha Rajesh, who is a rare rising star of the genre. Rajesh is a young British-Asian woman whose previous book, Around India In 80 Trains, garnered a lot of praise and, having read this one, I can see why.
She has a simple and easy style, she sees everything and listens to everyone, she’s funny when she wants to be and serious when she needs to be, and she keeps the whole thing barrelling along like a wonderful dinner party conversation. In short, she never bores.
Two of her most powerful passages are from Thailand and Japan: the first on the Burma-Siam Railway – better known now as “the Death Railway” because it was built by prisoners of war and Asian labourers for the Japanese – and the second on Hiroshima, a few of whose residents survived the immediate after-effects of the atom bomb of August 1945 by fleeing on trains. In each case, she arrives well-briefed.... Rajesh’s prose occasionally lacks polish; a sentence veers into brochurese (“this journey oozed energy”) or completely off the rails (“Booked up by a travel agent for more than 200 days the following year, it was no wonder that a naughty smile…”). But then there are a few rattles on all the best trains.
For Rajesh, the romance of train travel does indeed live on, “in the passengers who would always tell their story to strangers, offer advice, share their food, and give up their seats”. Unexpected acts of kindness and generosity of spirit create a unique sense of community, “like we are a train family”, as one traveller tells her in Thailand.
She glimpses an enthralling swirl of cultures and landscapes on a journey filled with memorable brief encounters: “Trains are rolling libraries of information, and all it takes is to reach out to passengers to bind together their tales.”
She is constantly amazed by the generosity of strangers who share their food, book and pay for hotels, offer advice and give up their seats, and her descriptions of this random set of fellow travellers from across the globe are chief among the things that make this delightful book memorable... Rajesh, though, is not only blessed with an elegant style, but is witty and ever ready for a bit of self-deprecation, being only too aware that she is a tourist temporarily invading other people’s lives and that hasty conclusions may well be simplistic.
What makes the book is her wit, astute observations and willingness to try everything. Endearingly jumpy — would she be arrested by North Koreans, murdered by terrorists, or kidnapped by dodgy taxi drivers in the Moscow suburbs? — and able to mock her former earnest wish to traipse through a temple or two or visit a museum whenever she was abroad, she insisted that “to recoil from anything new and unnerving is to do a disservice to your hosts, but more so to yourself”. However, that doesn’t stop the sharp one-liner: “Kim Il-sung rules from the grave. North Korea is a necrocracy.” And, of the freezing but nouveau riche new capital of Kazakhstan: “Astana was a futuristic vision of Dubai once climate change had taken hold.”