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Fallacy on Wheels?!?


The Palace on Wheels fails by a fair shot to live up to the glory of aristocracy; TSI investigates...
TSI | Issue Dated: March 16, 2008
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Fallacy on Wheels?!? It’s good; it’s quaint; it’s a must-have experience; but, er, it’s no way a ‘Palace’ on wheels! That’s the story in short for the critics. But then, there’s of course more to it than meets the ‘I’. And to clarify this paradox, was the very reason that I undertook this journey on the nation’s top ranked luxury train, the Palace on Wheels.

But first, its resplendent background surely deserves a decent hearing. The ‘Palace’ was launched on January 26, 1982, as one of the world’s topmost ostentatiously epicurean heritage trains for tourists visiting Rajasthan. The train’s coaches were owned by the former rulers of the erstwhile princely states of Gujarat, Rajputana, and by the Nizam of Hyderabad and Viceroy of British India.

Perhaps as an ode to history, each of the 14 coaches of the Palace, adorned with pricy Rajasthani décor, are (alphabetically) named after various formerly princely states – Alwar, Bharatpur, Bikaner, Bundi, Dholpur, Dungarpur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jhalawar, Jodhpur, Kishangarh, Kota, Sirohi and Udaipur. With a maximum capacity of 104 ‘royal’ tourists (generally super-rich, paying $560 per day), the eight-day sequential tour of the Palace encompasses the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur, Jaisalmer, ‘Sun City’ Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur (Ranthambore National Park), Chittaurgarh, ‘Venice of the East’ Udaipur, Bharatpur (Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary), Fatehpur Sikri, and undoubtedly the coupe de grace, the Taj Mahal in Agra. To the organiser’s credit, the travel concept is quite simplified, with the train travelling overnight between cities, and the tourists disembarking at each destination after breakfast, taken on luxury coaches to various places of interest around the city, and returning in the late evening.

When I entered the spanking clean Safdurjung Station in New Delhi, the sight of the train – I must confess – was awe inspiring, if not upping my expectations of the coming days. The accompanying “traditional welcome” (as suggestively mentioned in the tour itinerary) was a clear combination of underpaid Rajasthani musicians and dancers overacting in the hope of being gifted some tourist dollars. Collecting my boarding pass, I was escorted by a smart Khidmatgar (personal attendant) Mohan Solanki to my cabin. Around four hours after the train journey began, I hit the Palace running, and continued for the next few days... Fallacy on Wheels?!? All the tourists inside the train are generally foreigners straddling 50; reason enough for me to be a trifle surprised when I saw some Indian looking travellers. They turned out to be NRIs turned Spanish citizens (who had moved to Spain since Noah’s Ark became extinct, or some period close to that). My questions were simple, and almost all of them related to what it was like for them to be on the Palace on Wheels. Expecting encomiums, the opening feedback from one of the group members, Ramesh Shamdasani (58), the President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Spain, came as a shocker, “If this is supposed to be a ‘Palace’ on wheels, then this is deception. The train is definitely not modern, leave alone royal! And even the room sizes are too small!” A lady named Manju Kamal from the group spoke out loudly, “Look at even the common lounge in each coach; there’s no space to seat more than three to four people. Five star facilities?!? No way!” Pradeep Bohra (Manager on the Palace on Wheels) and S.

S. Shekhawat (Senior Manager) – who were worriedly overhearing the rapidly disintegrating conversation – did comment that these were only initial comments, and that I should perhaps spend more time with ‘foreigners’! The timing of their statement couldn’t have been better, when I ran into logistics expert Clement Cattell and wife Deanna from New Zealand, who were categorical, “This train is a like an old lady whose makeup is cracked. Signs of elegance, yes, and of age too...” though they accepted that the service was excellent and the travel schedule, refulgently structured.

Dinners (and lunches) are an amazing time to get people to speak, especially after they’re already a few pegs down (and you aren’t). The two restaurants (Maharaja and Maharani) are deservedly well designed, though with ridiculously small seating space per table. The restaurants are supposed to give you a fulsome patriciate choice between Continental, Chinese, Indian and Rajasthani cuisines. The problem is, they don’t! Like in a hostel’s mess, you get what is offered. Period! Alice, alas, there’s no ŕ la carte in this wonderland. And if you miss lunch/dinner, by even five minutes, there’s no food you’ll be served! Period again! This is not to take away the fact that the food quality and services offered by the two restaurants is world-class and spectacularly noblesse. Yes, you do have a choice of premium liquor. But strangely, despite the extortionate ticket price, not one drink is on the house! Fallacy on Wheels?!? The authorities claim (on print) that “TV, VCDs, DVDs, Conference-on-Board facilities are available.” Though I could find one TV in each compartment (not each cabin, mind you), neither did even one of those TVs function throughout the trip, nor could I find even one officially provided VCD or DVD. And Conference-on-Board facilities?! Oh please... There is none! Fellow travelers Art Hunter (former Canadian astronaut) and his wife Maggi, who’ve done other luxury train tours across India, loved the unbelievable service within the train, but commented ruefully, “We’re a little disappointed. The Deccan Odyssey facilities are definitely better; with a spa, library, business center, swankier bar etc,” comments mirrored by their friend Dr A. Molozzi (inventor of the first Canadian satellite).

Mornings are expectably cold during the months the Palace on Wheels tour is organised, necessitating a hot water bath. Ergo, it was the first morning inside the train when I realised that it’s not just that the size of the attached bathroom is small (you can’t stand or sit with your arms upright or by your sides inside the royal receptor of nature’s calls), but also that the hot water runs out within 90 seconds (I timed it three days in succession), with another 15 minutes wait for the water to become hot again! And here I was just one! What about a family of four? Hmm, is that why almost all portraits of Kings on the train had this foreboding cold look? Before I could ruminate on that, clearly freshly ‘bathed’ lawyer Lukas and Nicola from Germany caught me during the tour to ensure I had their cold comments, “This is a run down train; surely middle-class by European standards!”

Ironically, the last time this train won an award of fame was the renowned PATA Gold award in 1987, almost 21 years ago. It wouldn’t be a wonder if the train never wins another such award, unless the authorities work urgently towards repairing the train’s evidently non-pristine condition... It was time for me to leave; and just as I was about to step off the last destination, co-passenger Susanna McMahom, the world famous author of the global best-seller, The Portable Therapist, whispered sympathetically to me, “Perhaps you could write a nice thing that the tour is well structured!”

Standing nearby, a sniggering Roger Birkett from Dorset, England couldn’t help his repartee, “And that this is more an aristocratic Prisoners of War train, than Palace on Wheels.” Maybe it was destiny that the note I was left holding when I left the train was the initial welcome message provided by the management, “Kindly bear with us in unavoidable circumstances.” Ironic... unavoidably ironic...
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017