Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh – Review
By Gail Schuster
I am a big fan of rail travel, especially when everything goes smoothly; the freedom of being able to move about, being able to read, work, chat and people watch. However, I have only ever taken the train in Europe and, although I have travelled further afield, I have never used the rail services. So, I sat outside to read Around the World in 80 Trains in the beautiful spring sunshine, ready to be a sunbed explorer, something thrust on me by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rajesh and her boyfriend Jem set out from London to travel around the world visiting many diverse places, including France, Italy and other European countries, Russia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Canada, the USA, North Korea and Kazakhstan. Along the way Rajesh describes the interesting encounters she has with the people they meet.
One character I particularly enjoyed reading about was Sir Harold Atcherley, a 97-year-old former Japanese prisoner of war she had met in London before leaving to go on her adventure. Sir Harold was one of 7,000 men from F Force sent to build the Burma-Thai railway in April 1943. By December the same year more than 3,000 of them were dead, 3,000 hospitalised and only just over 100 were still deemed fit for work.
Rajesh and her fiancé trace Sir Harold’s journey in the book. He comes across as a remarkable character who many years later, invited a remorseful Mikio Kinoshita, an engineer with the Japanese Imperial Army to London. Additionally, the encounter with Toshiko Yamasaki, the daughter of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the only victim to have survived being at ground zero of both atomic bombs is also thought provoking.
There are many interesting little snippets in the book, like the fact that two streetcars still run in Japan, having survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, or the Quinghai line from Xining to Lhasa, the highest in the world, reaching 5,072m above sea level. Though railway facts are not this book’s main tenet.
This is a travelogue which is full of insightful observations and rich descriptions of people, places, trains and food. One of the delights of rail travel, or perhaps not for some people, is being able to interact with people around you. I loved the story of the Tibetan nun on the journey to Turfan. It seems to be that no matter where in the world Rajesh and her boyfriend explored, people were willing to share their stories, knowledge, food and their company with few exceptions. Some of the descriptions of food made my mouth water and put our somewhat overpriced sandwiches to shame.
At one point Rajesh writes, “But now, I had a greater sense of place than ever before, bearing witness to the truth that the world was small, close and connected.” To me, lying on my sunbed in the garden having travelled Around the world in 80 trains with them, this strikes a chord, although this book was written well before the pandemic. My world has shrunk to more or less our house and garden, but if I look at my phone or switch on the news, I can see the awful effects of the pandemic across the world affecting all of us, wherever we live.
‘Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure’ by Monisha Rajesh is published by Bloomsbury,
£9.99 paperback, £9.58 ebook