At the beginning of their adventure, Rajesh and her fiancé [now husband] Jem are disappointed by European trains devoid of any semblance of romance or personality. So, they venture far and wide, experiencing some of the most notable trains and railway routes in existence. Just one of these is the fastest train in the world, a magnetic levitation train they take to Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
Early in the book, Rajesh meets a pair of Aleksandrs on the trans-Siberian railway, whom she amusingly distinguishes as Aleksandr I and Aleksandr II. These are the first of many eccentric strangers she encounters on the trip, the latter trying to deduce through several questions whether she’s a spy.
The places to which she travels are similarly outlandish. Despite horror stories of tourists being imprisoned in North Korea, she goes on a 10-day train tour from Pyongyang to lesser-known cities including Hamhung and Chongjin. This was an opportunity to discover if tourists really were shown Potemkin villages of the kind portrayed in western media. While offering insight into obscure cultures such as North Korea’s, Rajesh never bowdlerises what controversial views are prevalent in them. She recounts, for instance, one man’s argument on double standards in western foreign policy.
And she states views of her own. On the “gaotie” high-speed train that runs between Beijing and Shanghai, she passes China’s “ghost cities”. These massive urban developments have been constructed to improve infrastructure in remote areas and provide alternative homes for those struggling to live in the country’s overpopulated megacities. Rajesh explains that western media often basks in the fact these developments have remained largely uninhabited, yet fails to mention the Chinese government’s aim to populate them by 2030.
Throughout the book, its prose comes to life with all the caprice with which the journey conjured up surprises and anti-climaxes. To Rajesh’s surprise, she struggles to find ‘anything ancient’ in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. She ruminates on the fact globalisation and modernisation are gifts to local populations yet frustrate tourists hoping to find places as figuratively removed from their homes as they are literally.
Through stunning turns of phrase, the writer vividly evokes sights like the Great Wall of China. And those moments that inspired profound interpretations of the world around her are so well conveyed that the book is as moving as the journey itself.
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By Nicholas Ross. Nick is a traveller, writer and lover of literature