On Track: Best Books On Rail Travel

If the idea is only to get from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible, flights are hard to beat. But for those who are not in a tearing hurry to get to wherever they are going, trains have a certain charm that air travel can’t match. Rail travel – especially long-distance rail travel – harks back to a slightly more relaxed, more laid-back time when things moved at a slower pace. Boarding a train, finding your berth, laying out crisp white linen and soft, fluffy pillows, and settling down with a good book (and later, hopefully, a hearty lunch) has its own charm. Especially if the train in question is the Trans-Siberian Express. Or the Orient Express, The Canadian, The Indian Pacific or even India’s own Maharajas’ Express.

Unfortunately, not too many of us will be hopping on to the Trans-Siberian Express anytime soon. However, there are a fair number of excellent books that bring the romance of rail travel right into our living rooms. For embarking on long train journeys without leaving the comfort of your favourite sofa, here’s our list of the best books on rail travel. (The last three books on this list aren’t, admittedly, strictly about travel alone, but we’re sure rail travel enthusiasts and those who simply love trains will like these books, so we’ve included them in the list.)

Around India in 80 Trains, by Monisha Rajesh

‘Taking a page out of Jules Verne’s classic tale, Monisha Rajesh embarked on a 40,000km adventure around India, in 80 trains. Travelling a distance equivalent to the circumference of the Earth, she lifted the veil on a country that had become a stranger to her. As one of the largest civilian employers in the world, featuring luxury trains, toy trains, Mumbai’s infamous commuter trains and even a hospital on wheels, Indian Railways had more than a few stories to tell. On the way, Monisha met a colourful cast of characters with epic stories of their own. But with a self-confessed militant atheist as her photographer, Monisha’s personal journey around a country built on religion was not quite what she bargained for. Around India in 80 Trains is a story of adventure and drama infused with sparkling wit and humour,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Just over four months, 40,000km and at least a thousand cups of treacle-sweet tea later I came to the end of my adventure. In between delays, cancellations, detours and the odd bout of illness, I had witnessed the Golden Temple shimmering at dawn, watched tigers fighting, devoured Karim’s kebabs, touched the temple walls in Thanjavur, collected sand from Kanyakumari, seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight, slurped tea in Assam, spent the night on a houseboat in Alleppey, camped out with camels in the Thar desert, and even watched cataract surgery on a hospital train. These trains had once been a means to an end, but as I stepped off the 80th one, I realised that Indian Railways had become the lead protagonist in my story,’ says the book’s author, speaking to The Guardian. Get a copy. You won’t be disappointed, we promise.

Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure, by Monisha Rajesh

She went around India in 80 trains, but can she go around the world in 80 trains? She could, she did and the result is this book, which you should definitely read. ‘When Monisha Rajesh announced plans to circumnavigate the globe in eighty train journeys, she was met with wide-eyed disbelief. But it wasn’t long before she was carefully plotting a route that would cover 45,000 miles – almost twice the circumference of the earth – coasting along the world’s most remarkable railways; from the cloud-skimming heights of Tibet’s Qinghai railway to silk-sheeted splendour on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Packing up her rucksack – and her fiancé, Jem – Monisha embarks on an unforgettable adventure that will take her from London’s St Pancras station to the vast expanses of Russia and Mongolia, North Korea, Canada, Kazakhstan, and beyond. The ensuing journey is one of constant movement and mayhem, as the pair strike up friendships and swap stories with the hilarious, irksome and ultimately endearing travellers they meet on board, all while taking in some of the earth’s most breathtaking views. From the author of Around India in 80 Trains comes another witty and irreverent look at the world and a celebration of the glory of train travel,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Seven months can take the fizz out of travel unless the traveller appreciates the unique qualities of the rail journey. Rajesh does it with aplomb, packing her multi-layered travelogue with facts and deep reflections. Blessed with an elegant writing style, Rajesh shares her hits and misses of dealing with fellow passengers and the train staff, and the city life the couple is exposed to at some places. From Jules Verne’s historic world travel in 80 days to Monisha Rajesh’s world travel on 80 trains, the nature of travel has changed. Anyone can draw up a schedule, buy tickets and travel around the world. But few can offer insights gleaned from her travels like Rajesh can,’ says the Hindustan Times.

Through Siberia by Accident: A Small Slice of Autobiography, by Dervla Murphy

Can anyone go through Siberia by accident?! Not too sure. Maybe you can if you’re the indefatigable Dervla Murphy, whose exploits you might have read about in Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Yes, well, if she can go from Ireland to India by bicycle, maybe she can go through Siberia by accident. ‘Through Siberia by Accident is a book about a journey that didn’t happen – and what happened instead. Dervla Murphy never had any intention of spending three months in the vast territories of Siberia. Instead she had planned to go to Ussuriland, because it appealed to her as a place free from tourism. But by accident, or rather because she had an accident – a painful leg injury – she found herself stymied in Eastern Siberia, a place she knew very little about. Although hardly able to walk, her subsequent experiences, in an unexpected place, and in an incapacitated state, provided many pleasant surprises. Above all she was struck by the extraordinary hospitality, generosity and helpfulness of the Siberians who made this strange phenomenon – a maimed Irish babushka – so welcome in their towns and homes. This book is an extraordinary story of fortitude and resourcefulness as Dervla Murphy finds friendship and culture in a seemingly monotonous, bleak and inhospitable place far from what we know as ‘civilised.’ Through Siberia by Accident is a voyage of Siberian self-discovery,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Eschewing the romanticised Trans-Siberian Express, Murphy uses the BAM railway as her principal transport. Little known outside Russia, the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) was the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken by the Soviet Union. Considered one of Stalin’s white-elephants and costing the lives of many builders, it cut into then virtually unpopulated Eastern Siberia and was only finished in 1990. It now limps across the territory at 20mph. Murphy is drawn to the railway by its slowness and strangeness; she finds that the lives of the residents run to a similarly slow rhythm in what is now a place of economic rather than political exile. Throughout, she shows a refreshing lack of literary artifice. This is travel writing of a bygone, epistolary era,’ says the Independent.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

‘In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux recreates an epic journey he took thirty years ago, a giant loop by train (mostly) through Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, China, Japan, and Siberia. In short, he traverses all of Asia top to bottom, and end to end. In the three decades since he first travelled this route, Asia has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed, China has risen, India booms, Burma slowly smothers, and Vietnam prospers despite the havoc unleashed upon it the last time Theroux passed through. He witnesses all this and so much more in a 25,000 mile journey, travelling as the locals do, by train, car, bus, and foot,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘His odyssey takes him from Eastern Europe, still hungover from communism, through tense but thriving Turkey, into the Caucasus, where Georgia limps back toward feudalism while its neighbour Azerbaijan revels in oil-driven capitalism. As he penetrates deeper into Asia’s heart, his encounters take on an otherworldly cast. The two chapters that follow show us Turkmenistan, a profoundly isolated society at the mercy of an almost comically egotistical dictator, and Uzbekistan, a ruthless authoritarian state. From there, he retraces his steps through India, Mayanmar, China, and Japan, providing his penetrating observations on the changes these countries have undergone,’ it adds.

‘This is Paul Theroux’s contribution to what he calls ‘the literature of revisitation,’ as he recreates the journey he took by train from London to central Asia in 1973 (as recounted in The Great Railway Bazaar). Written in his characteristic aphoristic prose, Ghost Train is an enjoyable read, a meditation on ageing and change. The young Theroux regarded the world as his immutable playground, but this time around he encounters ‘an undependable world that was visibly spoiled.’ Ghost Train has an elegiac tone, as Theroux proves the truth of Heraclitus’s dictum that nothing is permanent but change,’ says The Guardian. Notably, The New York Times isn’t too charitable about the book, so you may also want to read their review before you decide whether or not you want to get on this Ghost Train. If you decide this isn’t for you, you might still want to take a look at Theroux’s other rail travel classics like The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express or even Riding the Iron Rooster.

The Railway to Heaven, by Matthew Woodward

Not as well known as most other books in this list, The Railway to Heaven is still an engaging read. ‘Taking his long-distance train travels to a whole new level, Matthew Woodward embarks on an intrepid journey from his home in the UK to Lhasa in deepest Tibet, for many years closed to visitors. Travelling over 20,000 kilometres on trains across Europe and Asia, he sets out to reach his objective via the little-used Trans-Manchurian route across Siberia to Beijing, and from there to the Qinghai–Tibet railway across the Tibetan Plateau – the highest railway in the world. Unprepared for what he is to experience in Lhasa, he discovers a city in modern-day China, but a place still largely living in the traditions of a truly mythical past. Those that know Woodward’s writing will appreciate his honest and humorous reflections of life on the rails, and his efforts – sometimes successful – to decode cultural misunderstandings. He tells his story with the thoughtfulness and introspection you’d expect of a solo traveller and gives you the detail that makes an incredible journey like this feel possible for you, too,’ says the publisher’s note.

You might also want to consider Woodward’s other books on his adventures with rail travel: Trans-Siberian Adventures: Life on and off the rails from the U.K. to Asia, and A Bridge Even Further: From the UK to Singapore By Train. All three are also available as Kindle editions, for those who think reading on screens is acceptable.

Halt Station India, by Rajendra B. Akelkar

Akelkar is a Mumbai-based journalist who’s deeply passionate and knowledgeable about the railways. His book Halt Station India was nominated as the best Non-Fiction Book at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2015 and Atta Galatta Literary Awards. ‘Halt Station India chronicles the dramatic rise of India’s original rail network, the arrival of the first train, and the subsequent emergence of a pioneering electric line – all in the port city of Bombay. Trains that once provoked awe and fear – they were viewed as fire chariots, smoke-spewing demons – have today become a nation’s life blood. Taking a walk along India’s first rail lines, the author stumbles upon fragments of the past – a clock at Victoria Terminus that offers a rare view of a city; a cannon near Masjid Bunder Station that is worshipped as a god; a watchtower overlooking Sion Station, believed to have housed a witch. Each pit-stop comes with stories of desire and war, ambition and death – by Dockyard Road Station, for instance, author Laurence Sterne’s beloved, Eliza Draper, followed a sailor into the sea; or close to Parel Station, the wife of India’s governor general, Lord Canning found a garden rich in tropical vegetation; this, she replicated at Barrackpore. Drawing from journals, biographies, newspapers and railway archives – and with nostalgic, first-time accounts of those who travelled by India’s earliest trains – the book captures the economic and social revolutions spurred by the country’s first train line. In this, Halt Station India is not just about the railways – it is the story of the growth of India’s business capital and a rare study of a nation,’ says the publisher’s note. An utterly brilliant read, one of the best, most interesting books in this list.

Train to Darjeeling, by Sanjoy Mookerjee

‘Sanjoy, though his life journey, has captured the changes that took place in the railways. The romance of the railways takes centre stage in this book that dwells on a variety of things connected with the railways, spanning from railway cutlets, railways telegrams, heritage rest houses, Rajdhani trains, emergence of air-conditioned coaches and amongst others the railway stations that in earlier days were indeed the heart of the town they were located in. Sanjoy writes from the heart. Reading this book is indeed a pleasure,’ says Ashwani Lohani, former Chairman, Railway Board. Mookerjee is a true railway enthusiast and his love and passion for the railways, combined with his simple but effective – and entertaining – writing style, make Train to Darjeeling a must-read.

India Junction: A Window to the Nation, by Various (Anthology)

‘The Indian Railways provides us with a practical, convenient mode of transport, but its contribution of Indian life goes much beyond that. The Railways is the lifeline of the nation and, in many ways, its development has been deeply intertwined with the destiny of India. India Junction, featuring in-depth, analytical essays that are rich in history, delectable travel pieces and some truly amazing and rate photo features, celebrates the changes the Railways has brought about in our lives and examines how the Railways itself has transformed over time. The Great Indian Railways takes us to 1853, the year train travel began in India, and analyses how it strengthened British rule. Railway Filmy Chakkar recounts how Mahatma Gandhi, who was first opposed to the Railways, went on to effectively use it in the freedom struggle. The travelogues, too, are delightfully evocative and bring to vivid life the sights and sounds of train travel in India, some contemporary, others long consigned to memory. When the Train Came to Deyra Dhoon remembers the furore caused by an engine chugging into a sleepy little town for the first time, On Board the Bombay Express recreates the tangy, savoury smells that are released into the carriage and the keen appetites that they awaken when women crack open the tiffin boxes which they have brought from home. Featuring award-winning, renowned authors, including Mark Tully, Ruskin Bond, Gillian Wright, Ian J. Kerr, Jerry Pinto, Omair Ahmed, Kartik Iyengar, Shobha Narayan, Sandipan Deb and Sharmila Kantha, Indian Junction will interest readers of all hues: students of history, travel buffs and everyone who loves a good railway yarn,’ says the publisher’s note. Not all stories in the book are equally interesting, of course, but most of them are an enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

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Allahabad Apple astrology audiobooks aviation Banaras Banking best-of lists Bombay book marketing Calcutta corporate culture design food Formula 1 interviews Iranian Japan journalism journalists libraries literary agents Lucknow Madras memoirs memories motoring Mumbai music my life with books non-fiction Persian photojournalism Prayagraj publishers publishing retail science-fiction technology travel trends typography Urdu Varanasi wishlists

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