Of course, there are sleek bullet trains with edible food and clean toilets, and there are dirty old rattlers with suspicious characters and cockroaches aboard. Rajesh takes them both, and she is convinced "further that trains would always have a charm that could soften even the grumpiest traveller: a spot of sun warming your cheek while you read; the clickety-clack of wheels as you slept; or the thrill of a smile and a wave from passers-by".


And according to a fellow traveller in North Korea, where more than 5000 Westerners now visit each year through privately run tour companies: "You can’t beat train travel. You know there’s a real beauty to it. You can fly, you can drive, but nothing can show you the bowels of a city like standing at a train window."

This was Victor, and you meet all sorts on trains. Victor is from Vancouver, in his late 60s with slicked-back strands of hair and looking like a dark-haired version of Robert Redford. Rajesh 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".

She takes her task seriously, as she should, but not too seriously, which is good for the reader. Tackling a traditional but disquieting meal of daunting ingredients in Japan, Rajesh offers: "To my mind, there is no point in leaving home if the intention is to take home with you. To recoil from anything new and unnerving is to do a disservice to your hosts, but more so to yourself. Being willing to try another person’s way of living is the first step towards developing a spirit of empathy. But I couldn’t pretend to feel something I couldn’t, and sometimes I had to concede defeat and accept the truth that there are times when only a fat cheeseburger will fill the void."

Rajesh, a British journalist, was the author of "Around India in 80 Trains" in 2012, in which she avoided a number of scrapes. She swore never to take on anything so ambitious again, but little did she know that the railways had followed her home to London – their dust in her hair, their rhythm in her bones, their charm infused in her blood, as she explains it.


Exactly five years to the day since she stepped off the Charminar Express in Chennai, India, now she found herself at St Pancras station in London to board the Eurostar for Paris, the start of a seven-month journey that would take her and her fiancé some 45,000 miles – 72,000 kilometres – almost twice the circumference of the Earth. They would travel around Europe and in an arc across the vast expanses of Russia, Mongolia and China. Then there would be Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan. Also North Korea and Tibet, Canada and America, plus Kazakhstan and the plush splendour of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express back to Britain.

On the way there would be an encounter with a geisha, some German Baptist Brethren mistaken for Amish, the "Death Railway" of World War Two, holy Lourdes with its commemorative souvenirs and fluorescent Virgin Marys, the Singapore-in-infancy that is Ulan Bator in Mongolia, the Dickensian smog and grind of Beijing, a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima, the world’s first robot hotel in Japan and altitude sickness along the cloud-skimming heights of Tibet's Qinghai railway.


There would be ice-cold trains, steaming hot trains and sunsets, the latter "an experience, a few moments of movement and impermanence that by their very nature were impossible to catch and to contain – much like train journeys – yet it didn’t stop people from trying, their iPhones pressed up against the glass".

Rajesh has the personal insight to face moral questions and dilemmas. Was it inhumane to kill citizens indiscriminately in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though this saved the lives of others by ending Japanese involvement in the war? Red flags are raised in her conscience as she questions her complicity in being in North Korea and Tibet, where visitors must be accompanied by approved guides.

Is it right to visit North Korea and thus top up the coffers of a dictator accused of human rights violations, famine and gulags? Should she travel the Qinghai railway from Xining in China to Lhasa in Tibet? This opened in 2006 after being considered a feat of engineering impossibility, the highest railway in the world passing through earthquake zones and with more than 300 miles of elevated track built on permafrost. But it was received with dismay by most Tibetans, who saw it as nothing more than a means by which Han Chinese – the largest ethnic group in mainland China – could pour into their occupied country.

Is the romance of rail travel dying? Well, says Rajesh, "No matter how many journeys I took, or how awful the train, each one brought an element of surprise or wonder, usually to be found in the least expected places and people." And "Being on the road frees you from the burden of the everyday. Witnessing others’ hardships and poverty puts first-world problems into perspective, slapping you out of misery and self-pity."

Stil, remember the experience may pall "If you haven’t passed a solid stool in six days and select your daily wardrobe based on what smells least".

Nonetheless, sometimes while reading Rajesh’s entetaining book we do want to follow in her rail tracks. And "Around the World in 80 Trains" is so enjoyable it makes us want to go back and read her "Around India in 80 Trains", which we missed. Armchair travel, or being there and doing it?

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