Riding the Rails through Rajasthan on the Palace on Wheels
Considering a trip to India on the Palace on Wheels? In this article I will share what it’s really like to travel by train through India, while showcasing many of the experiences and sights during this week-long journey through Rajasthan.
Riding the rails through India on the Palace of Wheels offers a glimpse into a country rich in history, architectural sites, vibrant colors, flavorful cuisine and heartfelt people.
All….aboard! With all the hoopla of a circus coronation, passengers on the Palace on Wheels can expect to be greeted at nearly each stop by a colorful cast of performers; from local musicians with its members donning brilliant costumes, to vibrantly painted elephants, both real, and sculptured, from thousands of local flowers.
A week-long journey on the Palace on Wheels showcases India’s most prestigious palaces and places of interest. The adventure takes passengers well past the rocky rails, into a world like non-other. The train travels at night so that during the day, passengers can go on side excursions to see the stunning sights and partake in some of the exploits that await.
The adventure starts in New Delhi and travels across Rajasthan, through an area known as the Golden Triangle (Northern part of India). The grand finale is a stop to see one of the most well known sights in the entire world…the Taj Mahal. The journey ends back where it started a week later in New Delhi.
Once aboard, passengers are introduced to their porters, who are at your beckon call for the week—then you’re shown to your accommodations. At first glance, the cabin look nice enough, but after deeper inspection you can tell the train is well past its prime. The term “luxury” is used a bit loosely when it comes to the Palace on Wheels. What I discovered while in India is that Indians have a different view of luxury than Westerners. The train was upgraded at one point, but the modifications lacked any sort of skilled craftsmanship or quality materials. Some of the issues I encountered included: Inconsistent air conditioning, less than luxurious beds, sheets and pillows. Maintenance issues, such as tile coming off of the walls in the bathroom. There were other items as well, but I think you get the point.
During the evening hours when the train does most of its traveling is when passengers rest up for the next days’ activities. Unfortunately, the abundance of shaking (often violent), squeaks, rattles and banging doors and other objects within the room can make it a bit difficult to get a good nights rest. I realize this is train travel, but I know from experience that newer trains have better suspension to minimize some of the issues described. NOTE: I was informed that the Palace on Wheels would be completely overhauled during the summer of 2018, so perhaps many of the items I mentioned will be rectified.
Most morning and evening meals where provided on the train, and while the food was good, it was a bit repetitive and not quite as gourmet as I would have expected. I will say, the service on board the Palace on Wheels was outstanding. Our porters and the wait staff were fantastic, always willing to go the extra mile for us. Everyone was extremely nice and accommodating.
Getting past the downsides of riding this train, there is a whole lot to love about the Palace on Wheels journey. The travel around Rajasthan takes passengers to some of the best sites in all of India, and the side excursions are fantastic! Even the places we visited for lunch were exceptional. I should also mention the ground crew/handlers (making sure you get everywhere you need to go) are also splendid—managing all the different personalities and needs of the passengers with professionalism. It’s endearing how you end up bonding with crew, and passengers alike, over the week—they almost seem like family by the end of the trip.
First stop on the Palace on Wheels was to Jaipur
Our first stop on the Palace of Wheels was to Jaipur and it was a long day filled with some fascinating places. Here were some of the Highlights:
- Birla Temple – Built in pure white marble, the Birla Temple is unlike the traditional ancient Hindu temples, it is built with a modern approach. Inside the shrine are beautifully sculpted idols of Gods and Goddesses, as well as delicate carvings of Hindu symbols on the walls of this fascinating temple.
- Albert Hall Museum is one of the oldest museums in the state of Jaipur. There are many rich pieces of art among its walls, but what I really enjoyed was wandering through the architecture. Albert Hall is a place where photographers could easily spend hours.
- Amer Fort was built with red and white sandstone and still stands as a grand example of ancient Indian architecture. It is known for its blend of Rajput and Hindu style and mixture of Hindu and Muslim style of ornamentation. The carvings on the ceiling and the walls are extraordinary features of this fort. There are also a series of gates, each has a unique structure and architectural element to admire.
- Hawa Mahal (aka, Palace of Winds or Pink Palace) – We only had a moment to see this marvelous structure, but it was so worth the stop. The palace’s distinctive rosy color comes from the natural sandstone from which it is built, giving Jaipur its nickname, “The Pink City.” There are a whopping 953 windows covering the lace-like facade of the Palace of the Winds, which were designed to allow the ladies of the royal court to watch the drama of the streets unobserved.
- The Jantar Mantar monument in Jaipur is a collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments built in 1734 by Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II. The instruments allow the observation of astronomical positions with the naked eye. The monument showcases architectural innovations, as well as the coming together of ideas from different religious and social beliefs in 18th-century India.
Jaipur City Palace is a complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings, which is located right in the center of the Old City. The architecture is a fusion of Indian, Mughal, Rajput and even European styles—you can see the grandeur of the fusion in every nook and corner of the palace. The red and pink sandstone adds a special beauty to the palace. The decorated gateways add elegance and magnificence to the structure.
Ranthambore National Park
The next day we woke up really early to go on safari at the Ranthambore National Park. We boarded a series of safari vehicles that took us around the park. Right off the bat we saw a beautiful Bengal Tiger (not a common sight we were told). We also saw loads of monkeys, deer and a slew of different types of fowl.
Late that morning we headed back to the train for lunch and a short journey to Chittorgarh where we headed to the Chittorgarh Fort, the largest in all of India—it houses four palace complexes, nineteen main temples, four memorial sites and twenty functional water features. Chittorgarh Fort was one of my favorite places in India, it would take days, if not weeks to explore everything there is to see.
Palace on Wheels to Udaipur
The next morning we arrived into the Udaipur City Railway station where local entertainment greeted us as we made our way to the buses. A special excursion was planned just for us at the Ambrai Restaurant. An outdoor concert venue was set up for a private performance by a couple of world-class musicians playing instruments I had never seen before. It was an incredible setting and an outstanding performance.
We then went to the Brahma Arts and Textile studio where we saw local artists creating incredible works of art, painting details that required just a single hair from a brush. I was so impressed that I actually bought several paintings.
We then took a tour of the City Palace Museum. Within the compound we had lunch at Fateh Prakash Palace, a stupendous experience with delicious local food and tremendous views of Fatehsagar Lake.
The final excursion of the day was a boat tour around Fatehsagar Lake with a stop at the Jag Mandir Island Palace Hotel, a place that exudes serenity. Here we savored the courtyard views while enjoying tea and snacks.
Palace on Wheels to Jaisalmer
The next day we arrived at the Jaisalmer Railway Station and headed to Gadisar Lake, a peaceful place to spend the morning. This lake had a calm and soothing effect on me. There are many fascinating things to see just a short walk from Gadisar Lake, and the first place we went to was Patwon Ki Haveli, a community with a high concentration of Haveli’s, which are very ornate townhouses made of a soft stone with intricate designs carved throughout. We then went to Fort Jaisalmer, however it is was very chaotic and was probably one of my least favorite places on the Palace of Wheels tour.
Palace on Wheels to Jodhpur
Jodhpur was our next stop. As we disembarked the Palace on Wheels we were greeted by a huge marching band, which really energized us for the day ahead. Our first stop was to the Mehrangarh Fort, an impressive sight when you see the rising and impregnable looking walls that are built within a rocky hill that itself stands several hundred feet above Jodhpur’s skyline. I thought Mehrangarh was one of the most magnificent forts I saw in India.
Near the Mehrangarh Fort is Jaswant Thanda, which looks almost like a mini Taj Mahal. We only had a moment to see it and it was too bad as it was a place I would have loved to had more time to explore.
A few of the passengers (myself included) split off from the main group and hired some rickshaw drivers to take us into the Blue City, which rests below the Mehrangarh Fort. This was a remarkable experience to go inside the bowels of the city. We were graciously greeted by many who lived in the community. We even stopped to speak with three older women dressed in colorful outfits sitting outside who decided to sing us a native song. It was an awesome and immersive experience.
Our rickshaw drivers then whisked us off to Ajit Bhawan, a beautiful resort property where we had a fantastic lunch. The last stop of the day was to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, one of the world’s largest private residences…an impressive place to wonder and take in the grander.
Last stop on Palace on Wheels was to Agra
This was our last full day of the Palace on Wheels journey. We arrived into the Agra Cantonment Railway Station after having breakfast onboard the train. We headed to the Agra Fort which is often overshadowed by the Taj Mahal, but worth walking through to see the palatial red-sandstone and marble fortress. As I wandered through courtyard after courtyard my amazement grew at the sheer size of the grounds.
We then went to Clarks Shiraz Hotel where we had another fantastic meal. The food and atmosphere was just splendid. This restaurant is located on the top floor of the hotel where there is an outside deck, which allows you to get a glimpse of the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t looking very good, it was overcast with poor visibility. I was pretty disappointed to say the least, as our next stop with the the crown jewel of India.
After lunch we headed to the Taj Mahal and it seemed in just a short period of time, the weather started to clear. After getting through security we made our way toward the entrance. Once I passed through the ginormous gates, I stopped in my tracks at the beauty before me. The Taj Mahal is really something to behold. The word “breathtaking” is often over used, but this was one of those situations where your breath is indeed taken from you for a moment as you marvel at one of the world’s most spectacular architectural achievements.
After a lovely day in Agra we were back aboard the Palace of Wheels for our final dinner service. In the wee hours of the morning we came rolling into the Delhi train station where we would soon disembark and say our goodbyes.
A bit more about the Palace on Wheels
There is very little common space to mingle or entertain oneself abroad the Palace on Wheels, with few nooks and crannies to explore. The 30-car train is made up of mostly sleeper cars (three rooms per car), two dining cars, the kitchen and a spa car, in addition to the engine and two generator cars to power the on-board amenities. I was really surprised there was not one all-window observation car and/or open-air car in which to take in the views, and, just have more common space for passengers.
While traveling by train sounds like a romantic notion, and it is, the reality is that after the first couple of days it begins to wear on you a bit. That said, the Palace of Wheels is a fantastic way to see a portion of India with many of the country’s highlights concentrated in this Golden Triangle. The coordination, service, activities, etc. are stupendous. India is a country with a long and fascinating history that has left behind some treasures for the world to admire centuries later.
If you’ve ever been on the Palace on Wheels journey through Rajasthan, please leave a comment below and share your experience. If you have any questions about taking this trip, leave a comment and I will be happy to try and answer it.
For more Palace on Wheels information on prices, travel dates and more, visit: https://www.thepalaceonwheels.com/aboutus.html. Click the following link to read about my favorite 5 Sights not to miss in Rajasthan, India. Click the following link to see more of my photos from India.