We spoke to Monisha Rajesh, who won National Consumer Feature of the Year in the 2020 Travel Media Awards, for her Guardian article ‘The godfather of trains’. if you feel inspired, entry is now open for the 2021 Awards.
What does it mean to you to win this award?
It was a joy to win the award, particularly as I was shortlisted alongside four exceptional writers whose work I admire. Given what the last year has done to most of us and our industry, it shone some light on the future and reminded me that people will always want to travel and enjoy travel writing. So let’s hope we can all get out there again and find more stories.
In the feature, after four weeks of travelling you arrive in Moscow to board the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing, and you say “It was here the journey truly began…”. What is it about that particular train — and journey — that differentiated it from the TGVs, AVEs etc you’d travelled on through Europe?
Ease, cleanliness and efficiency don’t lend themselves to interesting copy. While travelling around Europe there were no delays, no cancellations, no issues that arose – with the exception of being charged 109 Euros at a laundrette in Milan to wash a handful of T-shirts and pants. The trains were mostly sleek and quiet with little to no conversation on board, and travelled at such high speeds that it was impossible to watch the scenery without feeling sick. Boarding the Trans-Mongolian felt different. It was old, slightly musty-smelling, and the dining car thumped with Europop from dawn until dusk. Over four nights and days it’s impossible not to turn that kind of journey into a mobile camping trip with everyone chipping in food, drink, blankets, tea and travel stories. It’s exactly the kind of energy you need for a good feature.
What do you think is the best way to engage fellow travellers in conversation?
Offering food and drink is usually a winner. Even if they decline it, you’ve broken the ice and some kind of chat will ensue. Having said that, I bought a Magnum ice cream for our companion while travelling through Siberia and he thanked me but left it melting on the table in a clear rejection of friendship. It was excruciating watching it melt over four hours, and even when it was nothing but a puddle he still didn’t put it in the bin. Then there’s asking for help or advice, no matter how banal. For the most part people are glad to help strangers on board. Even if they don’t speak the same language they’ll usually find someone who does. And lastly, you can just point out of the window and ask what’s going past. Invariably someone will know the landscape or be familiar with the surroundings and get a conversation going.
Are you tired of train travel or do you have more journeys in mind?
I could never tire of train travel any more than I could tire of people and places and conversation. I’ve just signed a deal for my third book which will follow night trains around the world, and after this horrific period in lockdown, I can’t think of anything I want to do more.
Which destination you’ve been to would you most like to return to?
Japan. I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks there on my first visit, but I still didn’t feel like I’d scratched beneath the surface. It’s a country that’s usually positioned as ‘alien’ and ‘exotic’ and ‘otherworldly’ among a number of tropes and stereotypes that focus on cat cafes and robots and the Shibuya crossing. But it’s only ‘exotic’ to anyone who doesn’t live there. I found it rich in culture and history and extraordinarily beautiful, and would love to visit Hokkaido next time as I didn’t manage on my first trip.
ENTRY IS NOW OPEN FOR THE TRAVEL MEDIA AWARDS 2021
If you’d like to enter your work for this year’s Travel Media Awards, it’s straightforward and quick — visit our website to see a full list of categories and more information on how to enter.