The next day, we enjoyed a lazy morning sitting around the pool, before Aziz came to the Hotel to say goodbye. He was heading back to Mumbai on one of India’s long-distance snail trains but assured us he would be there when we arrived in Mumbai towards the end of our holiday. In the meantime, Ravi Driver Wallah would convey us to Dehli Safdajung station to board the Palace on Wheels. We shook his hand warmly and wished him well. Then, after reassuring the hotel staff that we would be back in less than a week,
After arriving at the tiny Safdajung station in the middle of suburban Dehli, and saying goodbye for the time being to our loyal driver, we entered the private waiting room on platform one and presented our tickets to the liveried receptionist behind the desk. From that point on, we became, and were treated as, honorary royalty during our time on-board.
For example, every time you check into a five-star hotel in Dehli, you are presented with a hot towel to wipe the sweat and pollution from your brow, and a glass of warm fruit juice. In contrast, every time you board or return to the Palace on Wheels, even if just returning after a day trip, you are offered a hot towel in the train’s designer livery, a glass or two of quality wine, hot or cold drinks of your choice, and a selection of sweets and savouries. You are never allowed to open the train or cabin doors yourself, and in the case of ladies, there is even someone to carry their handbag or parasol for them.
While we waited, we and our fellow travellers were entertained by a group of local folk musicians in traditional dress. The sounds of the Shehnai (a sort of wooden oboe with a double reed at one end and a wooden or metal bell at the other), Tabla (a pair of small drums played with the fingers), and Sitars set the mood.
I say fellow travellers, but although the fourteen-carriage train usually accommodates up to a hundred passengers, on our trip all the Americans, and most of the Europeans, had cancelled due to being scared off by the 9/11 event. As a result, there were only around twenty fare-paying customers, mainly Brits and Aussies. This meant that we received an even more personal service than usual, as the crew competed to earn extra tips, or, more likely, stave of boredom from underutilisation.
In the comfort of the waiting room, we played a three-handed version of the popular card game known as Hearts or Find the Lady. In this game, players must follow suit, and Hearts are always trumps. Players compete to avoid winning any tricks
We play a variation, where a numbered heart is worth ten points, a royal heart is 20 points, the Ace of Hearts is 50 points, and the Queen of Spades is 150 points. A player winning all 13 tricks and the Ace of Spades can halve their own score or double everyone else’s. We call our variation Hunt the C***t and, unknown to him, our objective is to give as many points as possible, especially the Lady, to Mick without quite letting him win all the tricks.
At last, the whistle blew, and the call came “All aboard, All aboard.” As we passed through the door to the platform, attractive ladies in brightly coloured saris, placed garlands around our necks and introduced us to our personal Koolis (Butlers/Carriage attendants). I had two assigned to me, Rajesh and Ariin. It was their job to ensure that I lacked for nothing, day or night. Indeed, one or other of them slept in the corridor outside my carriage door each night. Wouldn’t do to have their Bhagavaan (Lord) wake up at 3:00 am, and not have anyone instantly available to get him a sandwich or, more likely in my case, another beer.
On the Palace on Wheels, all the crew wear traditional uniforms denoting their role. In the case of the Butlers, this is a brilliant orange Achkaan, a long jacket with a gold sash belt, and shiny buttons down the front reaching to below the knees, and white Churidar, which are baggy pyjama like trousers drawn in at the ankles. Yes, pyjamas is, or should that be are, a Hindi word. The whole outfit is capped with a turban-like headdress called a Pagri, representative of the area they come from. The way they are arranged changes every 20 miles or so. In our case, they were all Rajputs, or people from Rajasthan, and so theirs were red and white check.
I had booked the exclusive Super Deluxe suite for myself. This was a whole coach, with a huge bedroom having a giant four-poster bed draped with sheer netting, a sizeable personal salon for resting and dining, and a separate bathroom with shower. It was as good as any five star-suite I have stayed in. It was decorated in the style you would expect a Maharaja to sleep in, with exquisite hardwood carvings, traditional paintings, and furnishings from the time of the British Raj. Ravi and Mick’s cabins weren’t bad either!
As Rajesh led me through the train towards my personal sleeping palace, Ariin followed behind with my luggage. From this, I discerned that Rajesh was the senior member of my personal staff. As we went, he pointed out the fabulously ornate salons and dining rooms. He even introduced me to the Bar Manager, Ajay. Naturally, I paused for a quick beer and a chat. It would have been rude not to.
Finally, we arrived at my suite, which was great as it was the very last carriage, so I would not be disturbed by people walking past, but also bad, as it was the furthest from the bar. Here I had a further surprise, as waiting for me was Nikesh, who was to be my senior personal butler. His job seemed to consist of checking up on Rajesh and Ariin, and shouting at them if he felt their service had disappointed me in any way. I was, therefore, careful to always praise them in his presence, which earned me beaming smiles of gratitude from said Koolis.
After more hot towels, fruit juices and snacks in my private salon, I was ready to unpack, but of course, that was not permitted. What did I think servants were for? At a loss for something to do, I went off to find the bar and was not surprised to discover that Mick and Ravi had beaten me to it. Whilst they raved about how good their cabins were, I smugly sipped my drink. I would hold back on showing them what real luxury looked like, until another time. Ravi was particularly pleased with his cabin and preened when Ash informed him that it was exceedingly rare for an Indian gentleman to be a passenger, as natives were not usually allowed to travel on the train at that time. The last one had been the Prime Minister. Was Ravi, perchance, a secret millionaire?
As twilight fell, the engineer blew the whistle, and we gently pulled out of Dehli Safdajung station. For a while we watched in fascination as packed local commuter trains, heaving with excess passengers on the roofs, and hanging from doors, passed by on the other tracks.
Eventually, a smartly dressed waiter person in a blue Achkaan and a feather in his Pagri, came to the bar to strike a gong, and announce that dinner was served. If it so pleased us, would we kindly make our way to the dining car? Naturally, our butlers turned up at the same time to escort us and make sure that we were comfortably seated.
The dining car was a thing of beauty. I could spend forever describing it, but instead, I will just present you with the 17, yes 17, course menu that we were expected to consume and you will get the picture.
Amritsar Fried Fish
Achari Chicken Tikka
Salad & Chutney
Keema Chop Masala
Jeera & Peas Rice
Buttered Nan Bread
Mango Cheesecake Rasmalai
In the West, we are used to picking one or two dishes for each course on the menu, but on The Palace on Wheels, you were expected to try them all. Fortunately, the portions were of a manageable size.
I only managed a couple of dishes, but Ravi and Mick made a determined effort to try everything. I think it must have been their competitive streaks. Either that or their women didn’t feed them at home. They even asked for seconds of some dishes!
After dinner, we retired to the bar for a few sherberts before bedtime. As I mentioned earlier, there were few passengers on the train for our trip, but we did meet a few like-minded Aussies, with whom we quickly became friends. If you have ever met an Aussie on holiday, you will know that it is almost impossible not to like them. Their free spirit, sense of adventure and down to earth humour are contagious. If I wasn’t British, I would wish to have been born Australian.
Eventually, of course, the evening ended, and with impeccable, almost uncanny timing, our Butlers turned up to escort us back to our cabins. It may have been exhaustion, or more likely, the food and alcohol, but that night, gentled by the rocking of the train, I was blessed by the deepest most pleasant sleep of my life.
Ready or not Rajasthan, the Amigos were coming to get you!