Bar/fly: India's Palace on Wheels

By Kevin Pilley

The "Palace on Wheels" is an extravagant week you won't forget, writes Kevin Pilley.

The passengers of the 14-carriage 'Palace on Wheels' are called 'POWs'. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
The passengers of the 14-carriage 'Palace on Wheels' are called 'POWs'. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

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 canapes.

Our eyes watered.

"Indian whisky's an acquired taste. It's a real culture shock," observed Arthur, a "semi-retired" Kiwi GP. And stubbornly not Art or Arty.

We were on a moving palace and making our way through the Rajasthan night and the top shelf of the train's bar. The "khidmatgars" or personal attendants hovered.

India's "Palace on Wheels" has the reputation of being one of the most luxurious "escorted" train journeys of the world. It runs throughout the year but takes a break from May to July. The journey departs from and returns to New Delhi's Safdarjung station.

The seven-day, quite-a-lot-of-money, "week in wonderland" 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, body-length pillow used as a 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 a respectable way of making a living.

The passengers of the 14-carriage "Palace on Wheels" are called "POWs". Everyone rolls out the carpets. Especially the owners of the state-run handicraft shops that seem an integral part of every day's sightseeing itinerary. The Palace is further billed as "an extraordinary train for extraordinary people".

For many passengers around "The Golden Triangle" the highlight of the tour is the Taj Mahal. For others, it's the jolting ride in a howdah on an elderly, arthritic elephant to the 16th-century "Pink Fort" of Jaipur.

But not back. The piles can't handle it.

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. Watching local ladies undulate their midriffs and show off their bangles.

My highlight was meeting fellow POWs in the train's bar, a focal point of world culture.

Of the 70 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 was a couple of South African sugarcane farmers who had just attended a molasses conference in Delhi.

A French couple onboard didn't like each other very much and showed it by never talking to each other. We also had a pair of sullen Spaniards and 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 honeymooning "Puppies" who introduced themselves as "Punjabi yuppies". And a Dick van Dyke look-a-like from California.

And Rex and Sheila, Brits who had gravitated to Zimbabwe. Rex had a pronounced limp that seemed to get progressively better as each day wore on, to the point of disappearing altogether by the evening.

I asked him about it as we lunched in the bar.

"The explanation is quite simple, old boy."

With a twinkle in his eye, he reached into the pocket of his 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 Kiwi wife Pam, who confessed - after a few drinks, many laughs and one public convulsion - that she was a former 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.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland, via Hong Kong, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

- NZ Herald

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