Travel-writing can sometimes seem like a genre stuck in the past. Writers are forever setting out in the “footsteps” of more illustrious predecessors, or embarking on journeys focussed on the history of person, place or thing. According to some scholarly critiques, this tendency is symptomatic of travel-writing’s fundamental “belatedness”.
It is, the argument goes, a genre ill at ease in the modern, globalised, postcolonial world; the figure of the travel-writer is fundamentally anachronistic. As far as critical scholars are concerned, it is in its attempts to overcome this belatedness that travel writing is sometimes guilty of echoing – unconsciously or otherwise – a colonial attitude. There is the endless quest for the “authentic” and “unchanged” in an effort to fix the places described in an exotic past; or alternatively, there is a melancholy nostalgia and a frantic hunt for the last traces of “tradition” before the shopping malls take over.
What makes Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains so refreshing, then, is the total absence of such elements. In this book, nomad-themed Mongolian restaurants are more likely to catch the author’s attention than actual Mongolian nomads – though there is none of the faintly grating archness of previous travel writers, most notably Pico Iyer, who have deliberately set out in search of such symptoms of globalisation. Rajesh simply takes whatever comes as she makes her merry way around the world.
This is travel-writing entirely at home in the 21st century, penned by a travel writer entirely comfortable in her own skin, and unashamedly enthused by the thrill of setting out to meet new people and to see new places.
Rajesh, a British journalist, published her debut, the similarly titled Around India in 80 Trains, in 2012. In that book she rode the rails of the subcontinent in the uneasy company of a Norwegian photographer. This time she is rather more happily accompanied by her fiancé, Jem.
Although the book is billed as a global odyssey, it gives the great bulk of its attention to Asia. Rajesh and Jem travel out out via the Trans-Mongolian Express, wend their way down through China to Southeast Asia, hop across to Japan, then make a detour to Canada and the USA, before flying back across the Pacific to ride the rails in North Korea, and to cover more of China, finally heading home via Central Asia. A genuine enthusiasm for train travel shines through at all stages. “No other mode of transport combined my two favourite pastimes,” Rajesh writes: “travelling the world and lying in bed.”
There is no contrived theme to the book, beyond train travel itself; no mission to document the history of railways or the states of the various nations through which Rajesh passes.
Insights and information – on the palm oil industry in Malaysia, the history of the Canadian railroad, the social consequences of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – generally come from chance-met fellow passengers, though Rajesh’s background in journalism has clearly given her a sharp ear for dialogue and a fine eye for the details that make up a compelling character sketch. Train travel, she writes, provides “a front-row seat to unedited, unscripted footage of other people’s lives.”
There’s plenty of humour, much of which comes from Jem’s role as something of an ingénue foil to Rajesh’s seasoned globetrotter. His previous travel experience, she explains, has been limited to luxury holidays in Caribbean resorts. He starts out considering a new pair of deck shoes the only equipment required for a round-the-world trip – though he rapidly embraces the backpacking lifestyle.
Around the World in 80 Trains also features an impressive honesty about the realities of the digital era, seldom encountered in a genre that sometimes seems to suggest that a compass and sextant are still the main aids to world travel. Rajesh uses translation apps on her mobile phone, reads eBooks and watches Netflix aboard sleeper trains, Facetimes her mother for medical advice, and connects with a Tibetan Buddhist nun on WeChat.
This is a warm book, dense with positive human encounters, but it has its moments of acidity – particularly when Rajesh encounters the hostility to “modernity” and the craving for “authenticity” that typify a certain traveller demographic – and a certain mode of travel writing.
And while she is admirably self-reflexive, pondering the potential denigration of the term “middle of nowhere” and catching herself slipping unthinkingly towards a “saviour complex” in Tibet, Rajesh reserves a particular ire for the travel writing model of the “Old Harrovian striding along with messy hair and malaria”.
Of course, Rajesh and her fiancé hail from the same comfortable, educated, English middle-class background that has produced generation upon generation of travel writers – though with one important distinction: she is the daughter of doctors from India who moved to the UK in the 1970s; while Jem is half-Malaysian. Seeking to explain their singling out for attention by guards on a Russian train, Rajesh points out in a nervous whisper that “We’re the only brown people on board.”
Later, unnerved in a creepy Canadian motel, she notes that “We’re literally the only brown people for miles” – a nice inversion of the old “first white person they’d ever seen” cliché, which might give complacent readers pause for thought.
The strongest and most interesting chapters of the book are those covering the contrasting duo of North Korea and North America. The latter is particularly dense with memorable pen-portraits:
In just under a month I had met shopkeepers, chefs, NGO workers, pedicab drivers, predators, retirees, runaways, railroaders, the terminally ill, musicians, truck drivers and teachers, each one leaving a tiny but definite mark.
In the North Korea section, meanwhile, though never claiming any status above that of tourist (she is obliged to travel as part of an organised rail tour), Rajesh provides a sober, convincing and non-judgemental glimpse of the country.
Inevitably, as a train-riding travel writer, Monisha Rajesh is travelling in the footsteps of others, even if she has no anxious obsession with the past.
More than four decades ago Paul Theroux set out on the pan-Asian train journey that produced The Great Railway Bazaar, a book frequently credited with kick-starting the travel writing boom of the 1980s. In the career that followed, Theroux rode the rails in South America, China, Africa and Britain, producing books which, while always highly readable, have at times plainly displayed travel writing’s least attractive traits: the unchecked privilege; the sweeping generalisations; the echoes of a colonial attitude; and the ill-humored judgementalism. But if Paul Theroux was the future of travel writing in 1975, he clearly represents its past today. The present belongs to writers like Monisha Rajesh, unbothered by belatedness and comfortable with all that is contemporary.
During her visit to Mongolia, Rajesh is berated by an “adventure traveller” for her failure to tick off the essential “authentic” experience of horse-riding on the steppe. But she remains convinced of the equal worth of her own experience of modern Ulan Bator:
In a year, even in six months, neither truth would be valid; here, in the city, hotels would multiply, bars would open, business would thrive, pollution would choke, and the population would explode. Meanwhile, on the steppe, climate change would dominate, temperatures would rise, grass would dry up, livestock would die, and herders would migrate to the city. If we ever returned, this Mongolia would no longer exist, and another one would be waiting.
There’s a clear and convincing inference here: there will always be places for travel-writing to go, so long as it faces forward, rather than back.
Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure, Monisha Rajesh, Bloomsbury.
This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.