Indian nights by train
There is an intriguing cast of characters on a luxury train in Rajasthan
The whisky-wallah poured out our “Red Blazers”. Arthur made the toast. “To the POWs!” We chinked and swallowed, shuddering simultaneously. Arthur then tempted me with a “Black Dog”. Neither of us trusted the ice. And both said a polite but stern “No” to the fish finger canapés. Our eyes watered.
“Indian whisky’s an acquired taste. It’s a real culture shock,” observed Arthur, a semi-retired GP from Northern Island.
We were on a moving palace, making our way through the Rajasthan night, and the top shelf of the train’s bar. The khidmatagars (personal attendants) hovered.
India’s Palace On Wheels has the reputation of being one most luxurious escorted train journeys in the world. It runs every week of the year, apart from May to July, departing from and returning to New Delhi’s Safdarjung station.
The seven-day, quite-a-lot-of-money trip around “man-made marvels and the wonders of nature” is further described in the official guff as “A splendid and enchanting royal journey through the bygone era of the erstwhile Maharajahs.”
Passengers are given a welcoming arrival kit, comprising a garland of wilted marigold petals, six postcards (no stamps), a fetching sandalwood paste dot in mid-forehead and a complimentary turban. As well as an option on a Dutch wife.
The third eye is an Indian custom. The turban is a red handkerchief stapled very cleverly to a brown paper carrier bag which means it will keep its shape even if you fall asleep in it. The Dutch wife is an optional, his or hers, bed bolster.
Travelling through the night in plush berths complete with en suite (“attached”) toilets and “luxury geysers” (showers) , you wake up every morning to a new city and a new scrum of hawkers. Everyone wants to see the legendary Palace on Wheels. Meeting it is a social occasion. Selling worthless things to those on board is a time-honoured custom.
And an old way of making a living
The passengers on the 14-carriage train are called “POWs”. Everyone rolls out the carpets. Especially the owners of the state-run handicraft shops which seem to be an integral part of every day’s sightseeing itinerary. The Palace is further billed as “an extraordinary train for extraordinary people”.
For many passengers the highlight of the tour is the Taj Mahal. For others, it’s the jolting ride in a howdah on top of an elderly, arthritic elephant up to the 16th century pink fort of Jaipur.
Others praise the visit to the Ranthambhore National Park. Or the evening spent under the stars in the Sam sand dunes in the Thar desert of Rajasthan.
My highlight was meeting fellow POWs in the train’s bar. A focal point of world culture. Of the 70 or so on board, I got to know a very serious Indian train buff who informed me India boasts the longest train station name in the world. Venkatanarasimharajuvaripeta. Try saying that after a few. There were a couple of South African sugar cane farmers as well, who had just attended a molasses conference in Delhi. They didn’t sit for long.
There was also a French couple who didn’t like each other very much and showed it by never talking to each other; a pair of sullen Spaniards; a strange and conspicuously single man from God-knows-where who stared at me all the time. And often shook his head. Plus, a couple of honeymooners who introduced themselves as “Punjabi yuppies”. And a Dick van Dyke lookalike from California
Then there were Rex and Sheila, Brits who had gravitated to Zimbabwe. Rex had a pronounced limp which seemed to get progressively better as every day wore on. To the point of disappearing altogether by the evening. I asked him about it as we tiffined (had lunch) together in the bar.
“The explanation is quite simple, old boy.” With a twinkle in his eye, he reached into the pocket of his old hockey shorts and brought out a hipflask.
“Gets me through the distances and sees off the Delhi belly. It’s full in the morning and gets lighter as time goes by. By the end of the day it’s empty and therefore it’s easier to walk. My movements aren’t so restricted.”
But the real highlight was Indian-born Arthur and his New Zealand wife Pam, who confessed – after a few drinks, many laughs and one public convulsion – that she was a former all-New Zealand junior roller skating champion.
There are many things people divulge while wearing a turban and drinking in the scenery, whisky and atmosphere of India.
It’s good for POWs to talk.
Kuoni offers nine nights on the Palace on Wheels, India from £3,295pps for 2013, including economy flights from London Heathrow and transfers in resort. Tel: +44-1306-747008, kuoni.co.uk