Fairfax Media recently published my article on our fabulous trip on the train rated the world’s most luxurious. So now here on the blog is the full story on our envy-breeding adventure…
Pretty girls in saris drape garlands of marigolds around our necks. A uniformed police band blares out a brassy, off-key Colonel Bogey. Improbably good-looking young men in turbans form a guard of honour along the red carpet leading to the train.
‘Namaste, sir, madam. Welcome aboard the Maharajas Express.’
This can’t possibly be real India. This is India: The Show.
We’re conducted down the train through the dining cars; plush upholstered chairs and tables laid with elegant cutlery. More turbaned gentlemen spring into action, smiling, holding open doors and pressing back into corners to let us pass.
We reach our ‘junior suite’. Embroidered bedspread on a double bed, writing desk, ensuite, toiletries; it’s a sumptuous mini five-star hotel room. There’s a tentative knock at the door. ‘Sir, my name is Sohan and I will be your valet for the week.’
Yes, it’s Showtime India all right.
With a whistle toot and a jolt the Maharajas Express rolls forward. Real India watches curiously from the local train beside us. Dark faces peer out of crowded doorways and open windows. Nobody returns our polite waves. Real India can see our train but apparently it can only dimly see us through the tinted glass.
The backblocks of Mumbai slide past; shacks of corrugated iron and blue plastic tarpaulins, scrawny dogs and scrawny children picking their way through the garbage spilling out towards the railway line.
In Showtime India, dinner is served. There’s plenty of room in the dining car. The full capacity of the train is 88 and on this trip the passengers are outnumbered by the staff – 52 of them, we learn later.
We’re British, American, Russian, Australian, Dutch and Indian. Given the not inconsiderable price, most guests are older travellers, who prefer to see India comfortably, safely and with minimum hassle. The backpackers are on less salubrious transport.
There’s western food on the menu, but we opt for Indian. It’s superbly presented; all the subtle flavours are there, though in deference to international tastes chef John Stone (he looks more Indian than his name) has gone easy with the chillies. Wine is poured into huge glasses and sloshes gently as the train rocks.
Our Heritage of India journey will last a week, taking us along 3500km of track between Mumbai to Delhi, stopping off at selected sights and towns on the world’s largest rail network. The Maharajas Express proudly claims to be the World’s Number One Luxury Train. Who are we to argue? We’re mightily impressed so far.
Next morning we disembark for our first excursion, to the Ajanta Caves, and Showtime India swings back into action. We’re garlanded again and spots are pressed into our foreheads. A classical Indian dance troupe prances and twirls on the platform.
The event has drawn a crowd. Real India clings to vantage points on the staircase and the railings of the overhead concourse, aiming its phone cameras at the dancers and at us.
The performance over, we’re ushered across to an air-conditioned bus. The caves are a forty-minute drive away.
Through the windows we can see Real India out on the road, riding oxcarts and herding goats, pedalling rusty bicycles and zipping between battered trucks on clattering motorbikes. Real India shops at dusty stalls, sleeps under stunted trees by grazing buffalo and cuts sugarcane.
At the famed Ajanta Caves, Showtime India resumes. Hawkers jostle and whisper urgently, offering souvenir photo books and carved statues of Buddha and Ganesh. Porters with palanquins wait to carry anyone with dicky knees up the steep steps.
The caves themselves are among the world’s great wonders – some over two thousand years old, carved out of solid rock, decorated with remarkably preserved paintings and carvings. A local guide provides an excellent commentary.
It’s hot, but our climate-controlled chariot is waiting and we’re soon speeding back towards the Maharajas Express.
We understand now what sort of tour this will be. We’re to be treated as privileged guests, our passage through India strewn with rose petals, literally. We’ll avoid the crowds, jump the queues, and be smoothly conveyed into cars, jeeps, tuk-tuks and boats. With luck we’ll skip the bedbugs and the stomach bugs. Real India will be on the far side of the double-glazing.
Yes, it will be Showtime, but India can stage a wonderful show. We’re expected to do nothing but sit back and enjoy it. So we do.
In Udaipur we board a boat to glide around Lake Pichola past the gorgeous palaces and snap photos of Real India washing its clothes along the banks.
In Jodhpur we admire the intricate stonework of ancient Mehrangarh Fort, the blue city spread out below the battlements, stick figures on the rooftops like miniatures in a classical Indian painting, before we’re whisked across town for a traditional puppet performance and a meal at a fine restaurant.
At the end of a long hot day in Bikaner we’re driven to the edge of the desert and a caravan of camel carts carries us into the dunes to watch the setting sun. Folk musicians and dancers perform as chefs toss tasty morsels onto the barbecue and waiters circulate trays of drinks.
Some excursions are more adventurous, though even these are carefully stage-managed.
In Deshnoke we have the dubious pleasure of stepping barefoot through the excrement in the Kami Mata temple, famed for its sacred rats. Devotees feed them corn and milk and generally encourage them to crawl all over the place. They say everyone is changed by visiting India. The sight of a dead rat being eagerly devoured by its mates cures me of rodent worship for good.
In Jaipur bagpipes skirl as we file onto the polo field, ready to mount our elephants. Elephant polo must be the world’s clumsiest sport. It’s hard to swing a long polo stick while straddling that wide back, and after losing possession in the midfield, elephants are frustratingly slow to get back in cover defence.
A guided stroll through the bazaars of Jodhpur is more relaxed – no hustling and no hassling – and ends in the Maharani textile store, where Mr Jain puts on a dazzling show. It’s the most impressive salesmanship we’ve ever seen as an array of gorgeous fabrics is tossed in front of us, accompanied by patter about celebrity customers and the prices his wares fetch in Paris. Most of us pull out the plastic, spend far more than we bargained for and go away delighted with our purchases.
Many of the attractions we visit are available to all travellers in India, but the Maharajas Express organisation invariably finds a way to add five-star value.
We don’t just see the Taj Mahal. We’re driven there at dawn, sped past the queues and given a guided tour with ample time to get those all-important photos.
Then in a tent on private lawns looking out on the famous spires, we’re served a champagne breakfast (Moet, naturellement) while a sitar player entertains us and a local mystic tells fortunes. ‘Sir, you should not smoke, also drink less and take care when driving.’ Amazing! However did he divine that?
After the trip I meet Mr Sanjay Jain, Group GM of the government organization that runs the train, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd. ‘What did you enjoy most about the Maharajas Express experience?’ he asks. That’s easy. ‘Your people,’ I say.
The sights have been spectacular, the comfort first class, but what we’ll remember is the kindness and warmth of the staff. This began as a show we were watching and gradually became an audience participation event.
‘Can I help you, sir?’ changed to ‘Do you like dancing, Richard?’ (No, but I’ll make an exception tonight. These people will probably never see me again.)
The guided tours were informative, though it’s hard to retain all those names and dates. More memorable were the incidental discussions as staff members opened up about the caste system, boyfriends, arranged marriage, religion, Bollywood movies, corruption and cricket.
As they did, we came to know them as more than actors in a well-polished show. They are part of Real India, a country that is vast, diverse, exhilarating, exhausting, overwhelming, humbling, unforgettable.
Thank you, Prince, Akanksha, Vijay, Sohan, Janmejay and many others. You have new passengers every week and we’ll already be just a blur, but you made us feel like the special ones, the best group ever, the true maharajas.
Railbookers offers Maharajas Express Heritage of India tours from $7,445 per person. Includes 7 nights accommodation in a deluxe cabin, plus all meals, transfers, excursions, tips and local taxes. See railbookers.com.au or call 1300 550 973
The writer was the guest of Railbookers and travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines.
First published Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age 2014.