Trying to plan a first visit to India is an overwhelming experience, a small taste of the way the visit itself will feel. The list of four-star sights is as long as an elephant's trunk. Are the top draws at least clustered in any one part of the country? No. Are parts of India empty or just too poor and miserable to bear, so you can write them off? No. Wherever you go, wonders await. But time and money are always short. What to do?
You might include the lamentably named Palace on Wheels, a week-long train tour of Rajasthan, the attraction-rich province of northwest India. Leaving from and returning to New Delhi, the train visits Jaipur, Jaisalmer, the Sam Sand Dunes, Jodhpur, the Ranthambore National Park and tiger reserve, Chittaurgarh Fort, Udaipur, the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra, of course, for the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort -- the jewels in India's crown of Mughal-era sights. Traveling mostly at night, the train provides safe transport, reasonable comfort, meals, one bottle of mediocre wine, a camel ride, an elephant ride, a boat ride, entrance fees and efficient guided tours of all the sights, for $350 per night per person double.
Travelers on the Palace on Wheels train can watch India roll by from the bar car.
That's not cheap. For my husband and me it would be $4,900. Plus tips. And wine. We debated long and fretfully before signing on for a trip in mid-January, worrying that we would be hermetically sealed in a pod of overstuffed rich American tourists too timid to encounter India on their own.
What helped us decide was the fact that we were going to encounter India on our own anyway. We scheduled the Palace on Wheels as a kind of self-indulgent break halfway through our month-long visit, knowing that by then we would have met some real Indians and would be tired of packing and unpacking and changing lodging almost daily. If hardly economical, the train would at least be an efficient way to check off places on our must-see list.
The train's Web site promises a "week in wonderland," a "royal odyssey" on board "one of the top ten luxury trains in the world," with "gourmet food," air conditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting and private baths. "Roll back the pages of time for one glorious week," it says. "Recapture the pomp and pageantry of a royal past in royal style."
Well, sort of. The train is adequate, not fabulous, and the food is more gourmand than gourmet. But the tour was all we had hoped. Like any tour, however, the close-order drill is bearable only if the program jibes with what you want to do, if the pace suits you and if your travelmates are compatible. One fellow passenger, denied an independent foray, growled that we were Prisoners on Wheels. We disagreed. We never felt rushed or bored, and the people we got to know were all seasoned travelers and a broader mix than we had expected -- expatriate Indians, Americans, South Africans, Russians. Nobody was poor, but nobody was timid or stuffy, either. We were lucky.
On a cold, gray winter afternoon, the train's welcome banner at the suburban Delhi Cantonment Station was half-detached, and the waiting area was a damp, rather seedy tent with collapsing chairs and piles of luggage. Pretty sari-clad girls welcomed us briskly with fresh chrysanthemum garlands and a daub of red tika powder for our foreheads, and the turbaned greeter found us on his list. "Bharatpur Four," he said.
Pardon? The train's 14 cars are named after former states of the Rajput empire, and each car has four compartments that can hold up to three people each. That's a maximum load of 104 travelers, and my heart sank. What a mob we would be, flooding every stop! I was not cheered when the train pulled in -- a nondescript yellowish modern diesel, not the steam-billowing antique I had envisioned.
When it began this run in 1982 as a joint project of the Ministry of Railways and the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corp., the Palace on Wheels did use steam engines, along with the original cars of the maharajahs. That meant luxe period furnishings, but also no links between cars as well as shared baths and brass-railed "porches" at the ends where passengers could ride outdoors in lieu of air conditioning. "We used to have to stop the train for meals to let everyone walk up to the dining car," recalled a train official later. "The villagers used to namaste the train [bow slightly with hands in the prayer position] as it passed, thinking the maharajah was still in charge."
When the steam engines wore out in 1985, they were retired to the Delhi National Rail Museum, and upgrades since then added more compartments, air conditioning, a second dining car and a lounge car, as well as walkways. Notable passengers over the years have ranged from Mick Jagger and Neil Sedaka to former U.S. ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife. The current model, with private baths for every cabin, dates from 1995.