Travel writer Monisha Rajesh spent months travelling the world by train for her latest book – and after finishing it, Andrew Martin felt almost as if he'd taken the journey with her.
On the face of it, Monisha Rajesh’s debut, Around India In 80 Trains, chronicled an epic journey, but everything’s relative. For that book, she travelled 25,000 miles over three months. For her follow-up, Around the World in 80 Trains, she has spent seven months travelling 45,000 miles – the equivalent of going almost twice around the globe, her circumnavigation having been rather zig-zagging.
She brings an astringent eye to bear upon the world. Her anecdotes don’t necessarily end happily. Leaving Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian, she and her fiancée, Jem, find themselves sharing a compartment with a silent Russian.
He ‘sat by the window staring at beech trees for four hours’; in an effort to reach out, the couple buys him a Magnum ice cream, which he accepts and lays on the table in front of him. He then ignores it and it begins to melt in the 40˚heat, ‘a silent, but clear, rejection of friendship’.
Later, in a New York hotel lobby (about a quarter of the action takes place away from trains, while waiting for connections), Jem approaches Robert De Niro in a spirit of fandom. ‘Hey man, I’m off duty!’ the actor snaps.
I enjoyed these jaundiced observations, but the book is also shot through with compassion. On a Japanese high-speed train, a guard removes his hat and bows deeply, before checking the tickets along the carriage. As he departs, he bows deeply again. ‘No one looked up,’ Miss Rajesh writes, ‘and I felt bad for him.’
She and Jem are more often the recipients of kindness than cold shoulders. On the Toronto Union train to New York, they are unable to buy food because they have no ready cash. A six-year-old girl, sharing a sumptuous picnic with her family at a nearby seat, eyes Jem and shrewdly observes, ‘Mommy, that man wants some chicken.’ (He does eventually take some, albeit rather guiltily).
The author believes that trains promote civility, possessing a ‘charm that can soften even the grumpiest traveller…a spot of sun warming your cheek while you read; the clackety-clack of wheels as you slept; or the thrill of a smile and a wave from passers-by.’
She regards the passing landscape as acutely as she does her fellow passengers. The train from Ulaanbaatar snakes around rock faces as it approaches Beijing, boring into tunnels ‘round and black like surprised mouths swallowing us whole’.
Finally returning through Kent to London (where she lives), Miss Rajesh observes ‘wonky wooden stiles, impossibly narrow lanes, and dried leaves coated with frost’, instinctively knowing that the crisp air would ‘smell faintly of bonfires’.
When I say that I felt almost physically tired at the end of this book, I mean it as a compliment, a testament to its vivid evocations.
Being something of a foodie (in a Malaysian dining car, she watches the sky turn sepia while polishing off red curry and sweetly sticky rice), Miss Rajesh would probably enjoy Food on the Move, which is dedicated to railway cuisine.
The editor, Sharon Hudgins, is a Texan food and travel writer and the daughter of a fireman on steam locomotives. The family was not wealthy and, in her introduction, she recalls how, as a child, she considered it a treat to purchase from a white-coated train steward a sandwich and a bottle of Coca-Cola, although the sandwich comprised a ‘thin slice of ham and a limp leaf of lettuce inserted between two pieces of very sparsely buttered Wonder Bread’.
She and her contributors supply many arresting historical details. Much of the food for the Flying Scotsman was pre-prepared in underground kitchens at King’s Cross. In 1887, the cheapest of the five Champagnes on the Orient Express was called ‘Sleeping Car Sparkling’.
The accounts are thorough and come right up to date. Every opportunity for eating on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is described, ranging from flagging down a hawker of tiffin dishes full of steaming dumplings to dining in hotels at the start and end points: the Cindrella [sic] at Siliguri and the Windamere [sic again] at Darjeeling.
The book is lavishly illustrated, and recipes are supplied. I cooked Poulets Pochés Parmentier, as offered on the Simplon Orient Express in 1924. It was surprisingly simple, as railway food tends to be, but just exotic enough (incorporating plenty of nutmeg and heavily peppered potato) for me to imagine consuming it off fine china with the Alps rolling past the window.
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