It’s our last day on the train, and I can’t sleep. India has overloaded my mind and my senses with contrasts: the riches of its palaces and the mud huts of its impoverished desert people, the bleakness of its decrepit streets and the joyful brightness of its women’s saris, the purposeful bustle in the markets and the senseless vagrancy of its sacred cows… Every day, I have experienced debris, noise and stench, and every day, I have seen how the daily life of a seemingly imperturbable people goes on, regardless.
My home during this journey through Rajasthan has been the Palace on Wheels, a tourist train that provides a safe and quiet retreat from the chaos outside. Some evenings, my fellow travelers and I discussed the challenges India faces in bringing 1,21 billion people into the 21-century. And some evenings, we simply pondered what we had seen.
Facts about Rajasthan
Located in northwestern India, Rajasthan is India’s largest state and the poorest. Seventy percent of the land is occupied by the Thar Desert. With 60 million people, it is the most populated arid region in the world.
The north of Rajasthan was the cradle of the Hindu religion, and later of the ruling Rajput caste, until the 14th-century. During British rule (1858-1947), Rajasthan was known as Rajputana, a time referred to as The Raj.
In Your Bucket Because…
- India will blow your mind.
- Traveling on The Palace on Wheels is like a cruise on rails: Your hotel comes with you.
- The itinerary covers more destinations than the typical touristic Gold Triangle does.
- This is an efficient choice of transportation and accommodation to visit Rajasthan’s main destinations.
A Luxury Train for Tourism
The construction of the steam engine train was a joint project of the Indian Railways, the Tourism Department of Rajasthan, and the Government of India. Built in 1982 to replicate trains fit for maharajahs, it replaced the disabled Orient Express.
Our check-in time was 4 pm for departure at 6:30. After feeling catapulted more than driven through the blaring organized chaos of India’s capital, we arrived at the Delhi Cantonment. Established by the British Army during the Raj, this is where most trains to Rajasthan depart.
As would befit 19th-century maharajahs (but a bit of a surprise for modern vagabonds), a banner and musicians welcomed us in a tented lobby with theatrical draperies. Hostesses in colorful saris greeted us traditionally with a fresh flower garland — like the Hawaiian lei – and a dot of red tikka on our forehead.
All formalities done, we mingled with other passengers, all of us impatient to experience this unusual way to travel in a developing country. As we chatted in the luxury of our touristic pod, it felt as if we had become the “Alien caste.”
At the appointed time, we walked across the tracks to the Palace on Wheels: a sandy-yellow train decorated with a bronze painted-garland along the 14 coaches named after Rajput states — each with four cabins and a lounge. A personal attendant in traditional uniform welcomed us at the door of the Jaipur, our lodging for a week.
Settling in to the Palace on Wheels
Shortly after the train started to roll, a hangar with grey and black shapeless forms moving around caught my attention. Shocked, I realized that they were people. Did they leave the harsh countryside for the opportunities of the big city? Were they Untouchables? The lowest of all castes, dalits are subjected to rejection, exploitation and violence even since the abolition of the caste system, and in spite of pressures from human rights organizations. Their identity was not confirmed, but dalits do eke a living clearing human excrement from train tracks.
A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts: time for the photo-souvenir. Our valet attired us in Indian wraps, including an impressive ready-to-wear turban for my husband.
“This is not going to work,” he said in an unequivocal voice as he sat on his narrow bed. I looked around: The floor and storage space were minimal, but the romantic decor of this Bohemian trip was charming. Facilities included air-conditioning and a private bathroom: spacious by comparison, with old but clean shower, washbasin and toilet.
While my husband came to terms with our cramped dwelling, and sweat smudged his red tikka, I unpacked. What did not fit in the closet stayed in the luggage stowed under the bed.
Dining, Socializing and Sightseeing
Our days unfolded with a routine: Each morning we woke up in a different location. Our favorite meal, an English breakfast that was kind to the Western digestive system, was served in our car lounge in the convivial company of three other couples. Among them was the Rajasthan Air Marshall’s and their daughter. For us — travelers interested in his country — the Air Marshall’s knowledge of history was a fantastic privilege. The presence of this honorable guest also bestowed upon us the service of an armed military guard. Each morning, the Air Marshall dismissed him from the lounge, visibly eager to enjoy his personal time.
Then, ready for our day, we stepped on to the railway platform where we were often met by women begging, sometimes with babies or young children in tow. They were waiting for the Palace on Wheels, we were told. Was it their bright saris and their hands matter-of-factly held out that gave them a dignified composure? Yet, we all felt awkward to see them being ordered back, so we could board a comfortable bus. Itineraries to local sites consisted of only one tour per destination, but they were well-planned: Not much time was spent on the bus.
Our tour guides took us to government emporiums where plenty of opportunities satisfied our urge to shop. More fun (although discouraged by our guides) were our tentative efforts to bargain with friendly street vendors hoping to make a sale.
I found that the sights, sounds, colors, and crowds of India can be overwhelming: After we had spent most of the day walking in forts and palaces, and on ramshackle streets with the overwhelming presence of persistent children, we looked forward to retreating to the privacy of our cabins. Dinner was served in the regally appointed dining car, but dining was an unexpected downer.
With two menus to choose from — international and Indian – regardless of preference or sequence — servers queued up to ladle loads of food on our plates. It became comical when the sauce for a bland meat dish appeared at the same time as our dessert. Since meals were laboriously prepared from scratch in the kitchen-car, the lack of know-how in the dining-room was surprising. Could it be that the nonetheless obliging servers did not know how to read? On the positive side, they could make a living serving complicated meals to foreigners. Fortunately, lunches at touristic buffets pleased almost everyone.
We spent our evenings with our fellow travelers in the Jaipur lounge, or in the bar lounge, or simply gazing out the windows. There was often nothing to see but the endless desert, but once, my meditative gaze got jolted: Tanks were replacing camels as if the peaceful desert had been overtaken. My husband reminded me that our next stop, Jaisalmer, was seventy kilometers from the Pakistan border. The military encampment made sense based on the on-going conflict since the partition of Pakistan from India.
Since the train only traveled at night, the view returned to long stretches of desert lit by a luminous moon, interrupted only by an occasional walled family-compound of mud-huts, one or two camels, a buffalo or an ox, and a few goats. Other times, a silhouetted human roamed around. Once in a while, the uncharacteristic sight of a growing crop interrupted the dry monotony of the desert landscape: millet or bulgur wheat are adaptable to the local sandy and saline desert. After a week-long of crisscrossing Rajasthan’s landscape, and on our very last night in the immensity of the Thar Desert, I pondered how far we had come, and wondered about the mysterious lives that my fleeting tracks left behind.
- The seven-night trip included tours of Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranthambore, Udaipur, Agra.
- Vaccinations for yellow fever and hepatitis are requested, as well as malaria medication. Wear protective clothing and shoes.
- The Palace of Wheels has been recently refurbished to match its new luxury sister-train: The Royal Rajasthan on Wheels with a less traveled itinerary. Both trains are fitted with WIFI, digital television, and spa.