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India's famed Palace on Wheels luxury train tour
Explore Exotic India By Rail

by Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

Laundry day in Jaisalmer.

India conjures up images of iridescent peacocks strutting across Mughal gardens, grand palaces shimmering with bejeweled walls and imposing forts encompassing whole cities within their walls on steep hilltops. On the other hand there is the dirt, the crowds, dubious accommodation, unreliable transport and the Indian equivalent of Montezuma's revenge, the infamous Delhi-belly. What to do if the lure of India's treasures becomes irresistible, but all the bad aspects put you off? Take a train - not just any old train, but the Palace on Wheels!

Fourteen carriages, each with four en-suite rooms and two attendants, two restaurant cars, one small gym and beauty-salon and a bar lounge car; each carriage decorated individually with luscious fabrics and named after a different Rajput state - the train no longer deserved to be called a train, but truly is a palace on wheels.

Historically, the Palace on Wheels was indeed made up of carriages that had once belonged to different Maharajas, but over the years those became so worn, that they have since been replaced with modern carriages refurbished to look like the originals.

Departing every Wednesday, between September and April, from India's capital Delhi, the train tours the province of Rajasthan, taking tourists from all over the world around one of India's most romantic provinces, letting you enjoy all the important historical sights in comfort. Traveling mainly overnight, each morning waking up at a new destination with new and exiting places to discover.

Covering a lot of ground, the trip gives you a delicious taster of what there is to see, but does not let you go into anything in depth. The week is, honestly, as exhausting as it is exhilarating, but there is no doubt that Palace on Wheels provides you with a fantastic way of seeing a lot of India in a reasonably short period of time.

So, what is on the itinerary?

Day 1 is filled simply with boarding and settling into your compartment, checking out all the facilities on board and enjoying your first meal on wheels. The meals consist of a variety of dishes, mainly Indian but with toned-down spiciness to please all tongues. Alcoholic beverages are available, but are not complimentary. You will find that most passengers dress for dinner, something you will learn to really appreciate after your first day's sight-seeing, when you long for that shower and getting changed into something a little more civilized.

After a night on the rails - personally, I slept like a baby in a rocking cradle, but some passengers took a couple of nights before they slept through the constant chug-chugging and rocking - you wake in Jaipur, the Pink City.

Jaipur, the Palace of Winds.

Jaipur - the name alone spells Mughal splendor and lush treasures of Maharajas past. Here is the famous Palace of the Winds, which is no more - but also no less - than a façade; the City Palace; an incredible garden full of enormous astrological instruments, and the breathtaking fort at Amber, to which you ascend on elephants.

Lunch is served at the Rambah Palace, now a hotel but once the last official residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Get "A Princess Remembers" by the ex-Maharani, Gayatri Devi who used to live in the palace - it is a must-read for your journey.

Next day, Jaisalmer, the Golden City, beckons with its sandcastle-like walled city. The stunning 'Havelis', former merchant houses, have such intricately carved facades, that it is absolutely unbelievable that the carvings are made from sandstone rather than wood.

Lunch is offered on the train before a venture out into the desert north of Jaisalmer. Large sand dunes, just 80 km from the Pakistani border, have recently become a major attraction due to the camel rides available there. If this is too touristy for you, just sit, have a coffee and watch the camels in the sunset, swaying up and down the dunes, with desperate tourists clinging on for dear life.

Another day, day 4, another city named after its colorful houses: Jodhpur, the Blue City. Famed for being the birthplace of the jodhpur riding breeches, the city has yet another towering fort. This one accessible by a steep climb that gives you stunning views over the city and an insight into the splendor that was a Maharaja's life, as part of the fort has been turned into a museum.
Lunch is at the Umaid Bharan Palace, part of which has again been turned into a hotel, but the top floors of which are still home to the current Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Ranthambhor National Park
at Dusk

Day 5 starts early, very early, too early if it wasn't for the fact that its Tiger Safari morning. Wrapped in blankets, you get bundled into some open-topped jeeps to visit the Ranthambhor National Park, which offers delights such as mist over the hills, a slow sun-rise, monkeys, parrots, crocodiles and, for us - a paw print of a passing tiger, but not the actual kitty itself.

After the early start there is time to take in the offerings of the beauty salon car, and after a massage and lunch you will be ready for the next stop, Chittaurgargh.

Temples, a fascinating Victory column and gardens with incredible views distract from the fact that Chittaurgargh is famous for being conquered relentlessly throughout history, and that upon the deaths of the men-folk the women of the city committed 'jauhar', burning themselves to death to escape the attentions of the conquerors.

Udaipur, the Palace in the Lake.

Udaipur and its famous Palace in the Lake, are the main attractions of day 6, the last but one day of your trip. Watch the James Bond movie 'Octopussy' before your trip, it helps when you join the discussions as to what was filmed where! Before setting off on the boat across the lake to the palace to enjoy what I thought was the best food of the trip, you will get a chance to visit a local art school to watch local artist and their students perform miracles on silk.

Last, but absolutely not least, there is the Taj Mahal: yet again Day 7 starts way too early - but as for watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, what can I say? The most romantic and elegant building in the world, tinted pink from the rising sun, the mist settling behind the big dome over the river, it is a truly awe-inspiring sight. Something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

In the afternoon, the last trip takes you to the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, worthwhile, but after the Taj Mahal a little bland, so that a lot of people decided to while away their last afternoon in the comfort of their cabin on the train.

The next morning the Palace on Wheels arrives back in Delhi, and you will find that you can barely remember where you have been. A dream-like trance will settle over you for the next few days before slowly all the images, colors, smells and impressions will fall into place and leave you incredulous at how much you have managed to see in such a short period of time. Then you will start making plans for the return to your favorite places of the journey in the not too distant future.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Palace on Wheels website

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