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.
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.
It looks older. "It's not as nice as the Blue Train," sniffed an Indian cardiologist now living near Pittsburgh, referring to South Africa's luxury train. His wife went further. "It's actually a bit tacky," she said.
We surveyed our Bharatpur Four cabin, a typical one: 1920s-style moldings and light fixtures (wobbly, broken or peeling); two single beds on either side with a fold-down bed available above; a 12-inch closet that was filled by (and too short for) two coats; an end table with three small storage shelves; and a small, lockable safe. No chairs, desk or space for suitcases. Our reading lights were tiny bare bulbs, but that was better than no reading lights at all, as in some compartments. The linens were nice, the beds firm and the bathroom adequate, if tiny -- but luxury this was not. The track below was visible through the shower drain, and as for the toilet flushings, well, let's not think about that.
"It's as tight as being in a sailboat, only it's not as well-designed," said my husband as we banged elbows. Still, our turbaned porters, Rajesh and Raibari, were beyond good -- charming, solicitous and efficient in settling us in, fixing broken bits, showing us around and describing the services. We managed to unpack, and we got used to the space. And later, dinner as we chugged westward was a cascade of dishes, both Indian and continental.
Maharajah for a Day
We awoke in Jaipur, the "Pink City," founded in 1727, and after breakfast (alas, instant coffee) in our car's "saloon," we were welcomed at the buses by elephants and more garlands and tika spots. Divided into manageable loads of 25 or so each, we zipped around the city in staggered timing so that our "green" group arrived at a palace as the "yellow" group was leaving, and the "blue" group pulled up as we pulled out. The mob scene I had feared never materialized.
Traffic was terrifying, as in all of India. "We shall all cross the street together," the guide warned -- or die separately, he might have added. Snake charmers milked us of rupees to allow photographs. At the Amber Fort gate, we boarded elephants, two by two, and jostled in a pachydermic traffic jam up a long slope into the main courtyard. Marveling at the elaborate decorations in the City Palace Museum, where the former royal family still lives, we glimpsed the maharajah himself, looking like an unassuming portly businessman trying to pass unnoticed through a courtyard.
We lunched buffet-style under chandeliers in the grand old Rambagh Taj Palace Hotel, then visited the Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century garden of huge sandstone sundials and other astronomical devices used in that horoscope-mad era to pinpoint times of births and schedule important occasions. After a shopping stop for jewelry, we had dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer, again about 20 varied dishes. But all liquor was extra. That seemed chintzy for $350 a day.
Rather to our surprise, the day's efficiency marked the whole week, a pleasant contrast to most everything else in India. But after running virtually the same trip nearly every Wednesday since 1982, September through April, the train's staff of 70 should have the logistics covered like a pashmina shawl, and they do. Arrivals, departures and all events, including shopping and mealtimes, occurred as scheduled on the glossy brochure.
After a very rough night, rocking and rolling on a roadbed torn up by either the shifting desert sands or troop trains carrying the thousands of soldiers, trucks, tanks and missiles we saw here, near the Pakistan border, we reached Jaisalmer. Rajesh and Raibari had stuffed newspaper into the cracks around the doors to keep out at least some of the dust of the huge Amber City and its Golden Fort of yellow sandstone. The ramparts fluttered with the laundry of many people, and the lovely narrow streets were narrowed further by camels, hogs, cows and dogs, as well as Internet cafe signs and every kind of tourist doodad. There were beautiful havelis, stone-carved houses; a mysterious Jain temple of wide-eyed statues; and ranks of writers-for-hire with ancient typewriters waiting to help the illiterate, for a fee.
Later, in the Sam Sand Dunes of the Desert National Park, we boarded camels for a half-hour ride over the dunes and into the sunset. My beast's stirrups were too short, forcing my rear into the saddle back, and the urchin leading us insisted on galloping, so I was raw and sore. Why did no one else have this problem? The subsequent dress-up evening at a hotel for a dance and music event was less fun than it otherwise might have been.
On to the Taj
We had a much smoother night en route to Jodhpur, the "Blue City," painted to help cool the 120-degree summers. Mehrangarh Fort featured a wall of what we were told were 17th-century handprints of women who killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner. At a rug-making operation, I survived a high-pressure sales pitch on lovely carpets. Others didn't, and I was weakening.
In Ranthambore, we awoke at 5:30 and were bundled into open-air bus-style trucks and wrapped in blankets for a cold, three-hour fogbound and very jouncy search for tigers. Painful! A former maharajah's hunting estate is now home to 40 tigers, all very well hidden while we careened through their beautiful forest. "We saw two yesterday right here . . . three right there . . . ," the guide insisted. Ah well. Onward to the Chittaurgarh Fort, supposedly the largest in Asia, where we climbed a nine-story tower for a spectacular view and fractured conversations with some local teenagers.
We had a long drive on the bus to Udaipur, the "Lake City," where we lunched at the fabled Taj Lake Palace in the middle of Lake Pichola; it was the best food of the trip. And we got the boat ride; last year tourists had to walk out to it because a weak monsoon left the palace high and dry. Now we waved off the garland-and-tika girls, very blase, and sat through the shopkeepers' razzle-dazzle sales pitches. Our group was buying, however, and the bus resounded with show and tell.
The next morning we had another early start, this time to shiver in a bicycle rickshaw ride through a Bharatpur bird sanctuary, another former royal hunting preserve. We saw flocks of owls, ducks, spoonbills, cranes, egrets and partridges as well as jackals and the moose-like sambars, but most of the 350-plus resident species were napping in the scenery. Then it was on to the underrated Fatehpur Sikri, built in 1570 and abandoned in 1585, a red sandstone palace fort of latticework and hushed beauty.
At Agra and the Taj Mahal, I was prepared to be disappointed after all the hype. I was not. It is spectacular and utterly lovely. As Mary McCarthy said about Venice, it is futile to think one will have an original thought about something so thoroughly criticized already, so it's best not to try. We wandered at will for a couple of glorious hours. Later, the visiting president of Nepal shut down Agra's fabled Red Fort to lower-caste visitors, so we couldn't get in.
On our final day, back in New Delhi, we said goodbye to Rajesh and Raibari and dashed off the train into the pouring rain. They smiled and waved goodbye, but it was no day off for them: The Palace on Wheels would get a bath and an airing, and another load of tourists would board in a few hours.
Joanne Omang is a novelist and former Washington Post foreign correspondent.