Shuffling to the foot of my berth, I drew back the curtain and winced as the Canadian sunshine blazed into the compartment. Deep in the heart of Rockies territory, the train curled around the edge of a teal-green lake, its silver carriages tailing behind like a line of Dualit toasters from the 1950s. Veins of snow glistened on the mountaintops from where conifers marched down to the water’s edge, wisps of cloud reflected in its stillness. Tall trembling aspen quivered at the edge of the track, the leaves shaking little thousands of tiny bells. Sitting back with a morning cup of tea between my palms, I reflected on how far I had come.
Three months earlier I had departed from London St Pancras on a mission: to travel around the world in 80 trains. Dismayed by the notion that the romance of the railways is dying a slow death, I set out to prove that slow travel will always have a place in our hearts. As a people we’ve become obsessed with speed, checking our watches, glancing at the clock, running for the Tube, inventing bullet trains, faster internet and instant coffee, yet where is the extra time we’re saving? And what are we doing with it? If speed is improving our lives, then why do the days feel busier, longer and harder, our minds overburdened and tired? Since I’d left London, I had travelled by rail across Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan, the slowness and gentleness of the journeys shaking down my thoughts and swaying me into a state of calm. Leaving my job, my home and my possessions had quietened the noise in my head.
I have never enjoyed travelling by air, a cramped, clinical affair causing bad tempers and bad breath, swollen feet and static in my hair. Wedged in between strangers, knocking elbows and knees, I feel disconnected and isolated, the world nothing more than a lit-up grid below the clouds. By air the feeling of being in-between is constant, but by rail there are always villages, towns, seas and stations emerging like stepping stones between destinations. Besides, no other mode of transport combines my two favourite pastimes: travelling the world and lying in bed. Propped up with pillows, holding a cup of tea, I can lean against the window and watch as villages, towns, cities, states and countries sweep past, safe in the knowledge that I’m going places, while also going nowhere. And if I stop to chat to my companions, play a game of poker, read some Hemingway or dine on freshly fried pad thai and Milo, it doesn’t make us late and the world keeps whipping by.
Trains take the traveller deep into the underbelly of a city, peeling away its layers, and revealing all its secrets: there’s no hiding from the curious stare of a passenger at the window watching a mother comb her child’s hair, the student bathing beneath a blossom tree, the heron perched on a buffalo’s back. Over the next four months as I rode the rails through America, North Korea, Tibet and Kazakhstan, I realised that there were no real beginnings or endings, borders or boundaries. From my blanketed berth, I saw the source of the Yangtze river glistening at night like a silver thread winding through the Tibetan plateau, waved at cyclists in the fields in North Korea, watched storms rage down the mountains in Kazakhstan. Lakes expanded into seas, mountains rose then receded, deserts emerged then vanished. But above all, it was the people who could make or break a journey. I shared food, stories and advice with everyone from professors, shop assistants, retirees and runaways, to honeymooners, farmers, nuns and monks.
When I first set off, my trains’ trajectories across such vast swathes of the world had plagued me with a feeling of displacement, and a state of being in between. But as I rode home to London, 80 trains, 23 countries and 45,000 miles later, I had a greater sense of place than ever before, bearing witness to the truth that the world is small and closely connected. As much as I’d developed a taste for falling asleep in one country and waking up in the next, the richest flavour of train travel lay in the joints and hinges that held countries together: it was deep inside, buried into the bone marrow of these no-man’s-lands, where cultures swirled together, currencies doubled up and languages overlapped. Invisible to others, these oases were the preserve of train travellers alone who were permitted a glimpse as they rolled from one side to the other.
Monisha Rajesh is an author and journalist. Her book Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile Adventure was published by Bloomsbury on 24th January 2019, £20.
Three journeys to experience yourself
Travel the entire length of the country on The Reunification Express from Hanoi to Saigon. In just over 30 hours the train cuts through cities, skimming coasts, and inching up jungle-thick hillsides while you curl up in a cosy berth with bowls of pho and cups of hot tea.
Board The Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto. From Vancouver’s mountain backdrop to the skyscrapers of Toronto – this journey links two contrasting cities and allows you to sample Canada’s many different landscapes.
During the Second World War the Japanese used Allied prisoners of war to construct a railway line connecting Thailand and Burma, with one prisoner dying for every sleeper laid. For a sombre but beautiful ride, take the “Death Railway” from Bangkok’s Thonburi station up to Nam Tok, clacking across the infamous bridge on the river Kwai as monsoon-heavy branches brush through the open windows and blossoms sag by the tracks.