This month we are speaking to Monisha Rajesh, a journalist, author and train travel aficionado, who is currently writing her fourth book about train travel.
The first, Around India in 80 trains, was published in 2012, then it was followed by Around the World in 80 trains, then Epic train journeys. Her current project and book is all about sleeper trains.
We start by asking Monisha about her latest adventure.
Having two small kids means I can’t go away for months any more, so two weeks feels like a long stint for me now. I took the train from London to Venice, then the sleeper from Venice to Rome with my five-year-old daughter, then the sleeper from Rome to Palermo. Then we spent a week traveling around Sicily by train. The trains in Sicily are amazing: they’re on time, clean, air-conditioned and spacious, with extraordinary views.
The sleeper from Rome to Palermo has a lot of history and legend behind it, because the entire train is put onto the ferry to cross the strait of Messina. That was one of the main motivations for choosing this journey. It was about 6am that we were woken by shunting, and all the carriages were decoupling. It was amazing to see the carriages down below in the middle of the ferry as we crossed the strait.
The journey from Messina to Palermo was stunning. The weather was gorgeous and it was along the coast so we sat there in the cabin looking out of the window. Trains are very child-friendly in Italy, which is the best part of travelling with kids, and the staff brought lots of things for my daughter to keep her entertained in the morning.
The journey from Palermo to Catania was through almond groves and vineyards, with sheep, cows and all sorts. Then from Catania it was a funicular train to the foothills of Mt Etna which was such a gorgeous journey. The train had been invented to hep farmers access the land and it’s now used by schoolchildren. It goes through orange and lemon groves and the fruit bumps against the window as you pass.
Does finding these quirky, unusual trains inform your travels? Do you have any bucket list trains?
I’ve fortunately done a lot of my bucket list already. One place I haven’t gone to is Australia. There’s a part of me that’s reluctant to fly to Australia just to take the train – I can’t reconcile flying almost 24 hrs just to do the train travel. It’s the same with South America – there are a few trains there that I would love to do, but I’m not sure I would want to do it.
There’s a lot to explore closer to home, and there are so many stories to find close by that I don’t feel like I need to do that long-haul travel to find those stories any more.
Lot of people think it would be a nightmare going by train with kids. Can you give us a few tips for travelling with children?
When you’re travelling with kids, it’s worth paying that little bit extra to make sure you have everything you need. It just takes away the stress.
Some countries are very child-friendly, for example Sweden, Norway and Finland, and Italy. France isn’t really.
The timings of the trains you take is important. The sleeper in Italy left at 11pm so I was a bit worried that it was too late for my 5-year-old. I asked at the hotel we were staying in if there was anywhere we could be, and they had a really nice lounge area away from other people, so she had a two hour nap on the sofa there before we had to leave for our sleeper train. Then of course she was wide awake on the train because she was so taken with everything!
One of the difficulties with sleeper trains and kids is that you arrive early in the morning, and it’s a bit difficult if you can’t check into a hotel straight away, so I have started looking at hotels that let you check in early. For example in Rome, the hotel allowed us to check in any time from 5am, so we could have breakfast, and they gave us a little room where we could shower while we waited for our room to be ready.
Make sure you check if there’s a dining car, and bring snacks and things if you need to.
What is it about rail travel that you love so much?
Obviously climate change is a massive issue and it’s something I’m really conscious of. Since I did my first book in 2010, things have changed so drastically. I think there are few reasons why we need to fly any more. I’ve discussed this a lot on travel panels about the pay off of discovering a country and learning about other cultures vs these massive carbon footprints.
At the same time I just love train travel! My whole adventure is there from the second I’ve got on the train in a way I don’t get in an airport. I find the whole process of flying very stressful. You have so much freedom on a train: you can change your seat whenever you want to, get up and wander around, and you are free all the time to do what you want to do.
You have such an awareness of where you are all the time: there’s a huge sense of space, landscape, and geopolitics. So many times I’ve crossed a border and thought, now I understand why there’s a conflict here. You don’t get that on a plane. It’s fascinating to watch how everything is connected.
What was the prompt for your first book, Around India in 80 trains? Had you always loved trains?
I had no interest in trains before going to India! The reason for going was because I lived in India for two years when I was 9, but I didn’t have a chance to travel round and see it, so this was my chance to see India again and to get to grips with how I feel about the country. The train was a cheap and efficient way to get around. The network stretches from the tops of mountains to the tea estates, to the southernmost tip of India where the three oceans meet, and everything in between. The Indrail pass was £350 for 90 days, and included sleeper trains and food. It was a no brainer!
Within about a week of being on the trains I felt so at home. Every time I got off in a city and spent a few days there, when I got back on the train I felt like I’d come home, and that’s what it was like for four months. I probably spent more time on trains than I did off them. I completely fell in love with them. I suppose that’s why I ended up doing the round-the-world trip because something was just ignited in me by these trains.
When will your sleeper train book be ready for us to read? And what comes next after that?
It takes me about 11 months to write each book, then about a year in the edit, so I haven’t really looked beyond that. I vowed after the India trip not to do another train book, and this is now my fourth! So who knows what will happen next.
Do you have any final tips for people who might want to explore a bit more by train but don’t know where to start?
Seat 61 is a really great website. Everything on there is so up to date and really well detailed.
The main thing is, don’t be scared! Don’t worry about sharing compartments with people you don’t know. For me that’s the most fun part about being on the train. But if that’s not for you, you can have a single-sex compartment or a private compartment. There are loads of options and everything for every price range.
And plan in advance – give yourself about three months.
Find out more about Monisha Rajesh at monisharajesh.com, or @monisha_rajesh on social media.