Trainspotting (Palace on Wheels)

Trainspotting (Palace on Wheels)

India's luxury train the Palace on Wheels, has a bar that's open all day, every day, and whiskies that bill themselves as 'Horsepower for real men.' Kevin Pilley had a ticket to ride.

Bars | 04 Aug 1999 | Issue 5 | By Kevin Pilley

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Arthur sucked on his pipe. We both watched the smoke circle over the bar top and rise up towards the mirrored ceiling. ‘We have two things in common, you and I,’ he said after a meditative silence. I raised my eyebrows. ‘Whisky and sarcasm,’ announced my fellow barfly, pushing over the Glenfiddich bottle and inviting me to have another hit. We were both on holiday and pushing the boat out. Even if it was on a train.The Palace on Wheels is India’s most expensive all-inclusive holiday. It costs £2000 ($3,200), starts and finishes at Delhi, and visits Jaipur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Agra in a week-long journey. All meals are provided as well as a complimentary Rajasthani turban which all embarking passengers receive along with a garland of wilted marigold flowers, a welcoming sandalwood paste red dot in the middle of their forehead, some stationery, six postcards and the chance to touch a very gaunt elephant. Guests also get provided with a Dutch wife to sleep with. This is a bed bolster.Obeying the Palace’s dress code out of respect for our hosts (the train is run by the Indian government), we were both sitting up at the bar wearing our fetching red easy-to-wear turbans. ‘Where’s your wife?’ I asked my new friend. “My Pam?’ Arthur replied, gazing down the carriage. ‘Probably choosing what teeth to wear for dinner.’Arthur is a semi-retired doctor. He works three times a week in general practice in New Zealand. The rest of the time he plays golf and enjoys whisky. He discovered it as a medical student. His second name is Singh. His father emigrated to the North Island 40 years ago. Arthur was born in India and still speaks Hindi fluently. He clicked his fingers. ‘Whisky walla. Black Dog. No ice.’ He looked at me in a doctorly way. ‘Shocking for collywobbles.’The Palace on Wheels is billed as ‘an extraordinary train for extraordinary people’. The advertising bumf promises ‘A week in wonderland reliving the princely age of travel’. Its 14 coaches are named after former royal Rajput states. The berths all have en suite loos, or ‘geysers’ as they are called on board. Everything is organised for you, and everywhere you go there are signs saying ‘PoWs. This way’.One of the luxuries is having your own room attendant at your beck and call all day. The bar and restaurant has a kitchen brigade of five, and nine waiters all dressed in traditional Rajasthani dress. ‘The whisky here really makes your toes curl up,’ observed Arthur, looking down at our whisky bearer’s ethnic slippers.‘The weather doesn’t lend itself to making great whisky. But the blends are adequate and it’s a very popular drink in India.’Fully carpeted, the bar has three sofas and an abundance of silk and chintz. Décor is traditional, with Indian patterned fabric and stiff carved fumed oak chairs. The tables are topped with marquetry. The curtain drops are gold-braided. The atmosphere is a mellow and congenial one. The windows are covered in dust, and the ceiling stained with nicotine. It is like drinking inside a whisky bottle.After a long day’s sightseeing the train’s bar is a refuge from the heat and the beggars. It aids recovery from the culture shock. ‘After the elephant ride up to the Pink Fort of Jaipur in that sun, I thought the Glenfiddich was a mirage,’ said Arthur. ‘Whisky drunk in moderation with some sights of India has taught me to be mellow. It has taught me that there is no point in being particular. That won’t get you anywhere. You take life as it comes. You accept what it offers.’The PoW bar is cosmopolitan. One night was spent in the company of a group of dour South African sugar cane farmers, made dourer by their love of molasses and a theoretical rather than practical love of rum. Predictably, they thought whisky deserved no praise. Another was spent with some honeymooning puppies (Punjabi yuppies). Other regulars were two couples from Hertfordshire, a flabby Frenchman with his large-breasted partner, another flabby Frenchman with his small-breasted partner, a wide-eyed Californian who didn’t seem to be able to blink because of her tinted contact lenses, a corpulent Canadian with her corpulent husband, and Rex and Sheila, a charming and gregarious pair of British ex-pats now living near the Zimbabwean border.Rex had a pronounced limp which seemed to get progressively better as the day wore on, to the point of disappearing altogether by the evening. I asked him about it as we tiffined. ‘A lot of people have asked me that. The explanation is quite simple.’ With a twinkle in his eye he reached into the pocked of his shorts and brought out a hipflask. ‘Gets me through the distances and sees off the Delhi belly. It’s full in the
morning and gets lighter as time goes by. By the end of the day it’s empty, and therefore it’s easier to walk. My movements aren’t so restricted.’The bar on board the Palace on Wheels is always well stocked with likeable people and interesting characters as well as likeable and interesting whisky. Prices aren’t too bad, £1.50 ($2.40) being about average. (Delhi Golf Club is the place to go for cheap whisky. A double costs 30p [50 cents] there.) The train travels through the night, and the day is spent sightseeing with meals at places like the Lake Palace in Udaipur and the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. Once you have had your fill of forts, museums, government-run jewellery outlets and government-run carpet shops, you can also stop off and visit the local off-licences, which are called ‘English Wine Shops’. These are holes in the wall crammed with whisky.The major brands are Bagpiper, Gold Riband, Aristocrat Supreme Select, Gilbey’s Vatted Malt Solitaire, Director’s Special, Gold Crest, McDowell’s Diplomat Premium Malt and Red Knight. Most of the distilleries are in Bombay, Delhi and Madras. The train manager recommended Carew’s Old Gold and Red Blazer, which states on its label that it is ‘Horsepower for Real Men’.‘Some Indian whisky is an acquired taste. Some makes you look like you have a purulent ulcer,’ observed Arthur, holding out a glass. I swallowed with a shudder. ‘It makes you look as you you’re playing blow football against someone suffering from a bad dose of halitosis,’ commented Max, slapping my back and helping the coughing fit subside. ‘Take an old whisky drinker’s advice. Judge but don’t condemn. Be broadminded. Take an aesthetic rather than scientific interest in the stuff. In India most whiskies taste of sunblock and anti-malaria tablets for the first week, anyway.’We were on our way into the Thar Desert, and the collective mood was expansive. Max stared thoughtfully at the landscape. ‘You know that India has the longest rain station name in the world? Srivenkatanarasimharajuwaripeta. Try saying that after a few.’The broad gauge rattled under our seats. Arthur sniffed. ‘I don’t know anything about railways. I have never been a trainspotter. I don’t know one end of a train from the other. But I do know a great deal about the middle of trains. Some people are into engines and rolling stock. My passion is for Pullmans.’ We drank to that, Max, Arthur and I. For several hundred miles.
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