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October 2021

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Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone who loves to travel, who loves trains, or who is interested in different perspectives on travel.

In a nutshell:
Author Rajesh and her fiance Jem take off on a 7 month trek across Europe, North America, and Asia.

Worth quoting:
“On my travels, it had become apparent that development and modernity posed a direct threat to the enjoyment of many travellers, disgruntled that the world should adapt and progress at the expense of their own pursuit of the exotic…Granted, most of us don’t travel 5,000 miles for Starbucks and KFC, but it was abhorrent to some that Chinese people might like the odd Frappuccino and some hot wings.”

“One of the greatest mistakes a traveller can make, is to believe a journey can be controlled.”

Why I chose it:
While on holiday I spotted this and it looked interesting, especially as we have mostly traveled by train lately as we’ve kept our exploration to within the UK during this part of the pandemic.

Review:
What a delightful book, and one that is a great reminder why I love to wander bookstores without a specific book in mind. I’d not heard of Rajesh before (she has a previous book – about her train travel in India), and am not sure I would have come across this book any other way, but I’m so glad I did.

Rajesh decides to take seven months and travel on 80 trains across Europe, Asia, and North America, visiting multiple countries and cities, spending countless hours on packed and empty overnight trains, and getting to know — as much as one can in a few hours — some of the different cultures she encounters. The book starts out with time spent in Europe on a EuRail pass, but most of the interesting travelling happens after they leave and move on to Russia, taking the Trans-Mongolia railway. From there they visit so many places that I didn’t even know one could go, including North Korea and Tibet. And in places like that, the focus is definitely on the cities they visit, but much of the book is focused on their time and experiences on the trains.

I also appreciate how Rajesh explores her own experiences of travel as a woman of color, as well as her observations of other travellers and tourists. I include that quote above because I thought her perspective on ‘modernization’ was interesting – this idea that people from other parts of the world want to see some version of the exotic that must fit into their preconceived notions, and are disappointed when that doesn’t come to fruition. I also loved that she didn’t talk about her visits to places where people likely lead more challenging lives than she from the perspective of making her appreciate what she has. It’s about her but not about her – she’s observing and learning, not using others on a sort of Eat Pray Love Pilgrimage.

I’ve taken a few trains for travel purposes, including within the UK, but one of my fondest memories was the overnight train from Paris to Munich that my now-husband and I took in the first year of our relationship. It was such a fun and weird adventure, and one that I’d love to replicate. I love the idea of combining transit and hotel into one to allow one to see more on their limited time off. Also, as someone who does love to travel but also cares about the environment, train travel is generally a better option than flights. I don’t think I’d want to take seven months and retrace Rajesh’s journey, but I think parts of it could be really interesting.

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