Nicki's travel on the Deccan Odyssey

Staff member: Nicki // Trip date: Oct 2015

 

India has never been on the top of my list of places to go. I have always been a little nervous about travelling to the area, however after experiencing the service on the Deccan Odyssey, enjoying the sites of the Rajasthan Region and travelling like a Maharani (Queen) I know want to go back as soon as I can.



We started out journey arriving in Mumbai. I had opted for the e-visa over going to the embassy and getting the standard visa. In theory e-visas are a great idea, but when the biometrics do not work it's not very practical. If clients have the ability to go in and get a standard visa I would recommend it. On arrival we were transferred to the pre departure hotel in Mumbai, the Ambassador Hotel where we first experienced of the madness that is Indian traffic.



Our train did not depart until 4pm, so we organised a half day tour in Mumbai. Mumbai is not a place I would recommend getting around independently, the signage is difficult to understand and the metro is so extensive it is easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, not to mention the pure size of the city, so if there is an option of a guided tour, take it.



We were dropped off at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus at 4pm and greeted by dancers and performers. Our bags where quickly taken away and we were given our check-in documents (information about what cabin we were in, information about the location of things on the train and the itinerary). Once on board the train I made my way to my carriage, named Abhang. Kunal was there to meet me he was my 24/7 valet who slept on a bed at the end of the carriage. If ever I needed him I just had to call out, or stick my head out of the door.



Kunal showed me around the cabin and gave me information about the proceedings for the end of the day. The cabin had two twin single beds, a small desk, a small cupboard and a bathroom with a shower, toilet, sink and vanity. It was easily enough space for one person, and would fit two comfortably. The space under the beds is large enough to fit a suitcase, which I think is very important. He also showed me the phone in the room which I could use to call him at any time, I could also take it with me during the day and if anything happened I would have an Indian SIM with a full list of on train contacts. After unpacking my bag I popped my head out and Kunal asked me if I would like to do an inspection of the train. He took me down past the bar carriage, the dining carriages, the lounge car and into the Spa Car. All areas could be accessed at any time and Spa bookings just had to be made a little in advance (depending on how busy she was). The spa carriage also has a small gym and a hair salon.



As the train set off for Vadodra we were invited to the bar carriage for some information. Sitting on the lounges the waiters took our drink orders and the food started. Nuts and small portion entrees started coming out and seemed like they wouldn't stop! We could head into the dining carriage at our leisure and after eating enough to fill me I decided it was dinner time. All lunch and dinner menus consisted of a bread basket (freshly baked), entrée (meat and vegetarian options) a vegetarian soup and then the choice of either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian main (different cuisine each night) or from the Indian menu a vegetarian or non-vegetarian option which was unique to the area we were passing through, then desserts. Soft drink and water were all free of charge and the train catered to dietary requirements. We had a gluten free traveller with us and she was very happy with her meal options.

 

Walking back to my cabin Kunal was there to welcome me back, he had cleaned and turned down my room and asked me what time I would like my wakeup call and if I would like tea or coffee with the wakeup call. Feeling pretty special already! In my room I also found an itinerary for the next day, I loved this little touch. The train had a large distance to travel the first night, over 500kms, so it was a bit rocky, but I eventually got used to it.



Day 2; I got up, had a hot shower and got ready to go to breakfast - not that I needed more food. Breakfast was a menu with "a tell us what you want to eat" order system- Fresh Juice, Fruit, Yoghurt, Bread Basket, Toast, Eggs to order, Pancakes or the Indian breakfast option.



As we arrived in Vadodra we were given a short amount of time to freshen up after breakfast and meet in the Pankh car (the conference car), we always got on and off this car. They had the red carpet rolled out and local traditional greetings with performers from the region, this was the same thing every day; there were always dancers, musicians and a welcome gift of a scarf, floral necklace or bracelet. Before we hopped off the train my group were given red badges. As soon as we hopped off, a local man with a red badge found us and introduced himself, he was going to be our guide for the day. We were guided to a small minivan (air-conditioned) and introduced to our driver for the day. The guide was with us at all the sightseeing attractions and the driver stayed with the vehicle, so anytime we didn't want to take our whole bag off the car it was safe in the car with the driver.



Our guide for day one was an archaeologist with perfect English. First stop was the UNESCO world heritage Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, the only complete and unchanged pre-Mughal city in India and the model for later Mosque architecture in India, I am sure I heard 4 times over the trip that the building we were looking at was the idea for the Taj Mahal, but our guide swore this was the place.



After the mosque we went back to the train for lunch, then to the Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum. Originally constructed as a school for the royal children, it now houses famous Indian and European painting, sculptures and traditional artefacts. The Indians used semi-precious and precious stone dust as paint - the paintings last for hundreds of years, down to the smallest detail, completely different to the oil paintings I have seen in Europe. Rajasthan is the home on the Great Kings of India, before independence this area was ruled by many Maharaja's and Raj's (Great Kings and Kings) nowadays these Kings have no power, however they do have lot of palaces which are either open to the public as museums or have been leased out to hotel companies and are luxury accommodation. Over the next couple of days we visited a lot of the palaces of Rajasthan. After the art tour we enjoyed High Tea at Laxmi Vilas Palace with local dancers and while we were there the Maharaja and his family came down and joined us, it was the first time I have met a king, even if he doesn't currently have power. We got a good work out joining in on the dance with the local performers.



Back to the train for dinner and to set off to Udaipur.



We arrived into Udaipur, the city of lakes, and by now I had got into a routine. Wake up call from Kunal, greeted by everyone on the way to breakfast. Rajeev and Sunil there to serve me my breakfast and get ready to get off the train and be greeted by the locals in their traditional way and by a new guide with a red badge. We visited the Udaipur City Palace for most of the morning, took a boat ride around the man-made lake, past the lake palace (now a Taj branded hotel) and stopped off at pleasure palace for a drink before heading back to the train for lunch. After lunch we took a walking tour through the old city of Udaipur with our guide and sampled the Masala Chai Tea, local spices, and fed (made an offering to) the local elephant before visiting a textile shop who make throws and covers for some big European design house. I am now the owner of a Baby Yak Hair (no harm to animals) Hermes throw which is sold for $4000 in Europe, total cost $150.



Back to the train to get refreshed for dinner, we met in the bar, got served snacks, then to the dining car for dinner.



Day 4 we arrived into Jodhpur. This morning we had a bit of free time and a couple of optional activities. I chose to stay on board and relax for the morning. Sleep in, go to the gym and have a long shower before the craziness of the afternoon. Kunal came to my door at 9am to check on me, as I had not come out of my room, nice to know someone was looking after me. Some of the other passengers enjoyed a tour through a local town and the others did some shopping in the local village.



If we ever wanted to go for a walk off the train we could ask either one of the butlers or a security guard to come with us, not that there was any issues but it is always good to be cautious.



After lunch on the train we met our red badge man and took a little walk through the local market. All of the farmers bring their produce to sell, so it can get a little crazy. We got back in van at the other end and drove up to the Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur is known as the blue city and from the top of the fort you can see why. The colour of the houses were originally used to distinguish the difference in the caste systems; if your house was blue you had a lot of money but these days anyone who can afford it paints their house blue to show they can. The blue painted houses spread as far as the eye can see. We had our guide take us for a visit around the palaces inside the fort and then we were directed to one of the viewing points where dinner was set up for us. Watching the sun set from the highest point in Jodhpur, while enjoying Indian hospitality, performers and food, this was one of my favourite things from the trip. Once the sun had set we made our way back to the train for an after dinner drink. While alcohol is not really accepted everywhere in India, it is ok on the train, as long as the blinds are closed. Bed-time, as we made our way to Agra.



Day 5, I was a bit excited waking up knowing today was the day I would see the Taj Mahal. I think most people know the story of the Taj but not everyone has seen photos of the building surrounding it. While the main building is White Marble the other buildings are built out of sandstone, being there to see the whole picture is something which can never be fully captured in a photo. At the gates of the Taj our red badge man spoke with a local photographer who followed us around taking photos. As I have visited places like Disneyland I know these photos can be pricy but once he told us it would be 100 rupees per photo ($2.50) I was fine to get some photos taken with a decent camera. We had an introduction around the place and then given free time to explore the Taj.
One of the good things about being a tourist in Indian is there are two lines at each monument, one for the locals and one for the tourist. The local fee is a bit cheaper but the tourist go straight to the front of the line. There is nothing better than skipping a queue! I told the photographer I would like a photo on Princess Di's chair and he took me straight over there for a quick snap, again skipping the line.



After the Taj we got back on the bus and headed to a city hotel for buffet lunch, as the train was a fair distance from the Taj Mahal and traffic is very busy. While on the bus the guide gave us the photos which the photographer had already printed, we just had to pick which ones we wanted and give him back the ones we didn't and money for the ones we did. So easy and now I have something to give to Nanna. After lunch we visited the Baby Taj and Agra Fort. Then we went to a shop to admire the local design skill. Passed down from father to son the art of Pietra Dura (marble inlay), tiny pieces of stone ground to create patterns and then inlayed in marble. The price you pay for the item includes shipping as this is subsidised by the Indian government to help local trades continue from generation to generation. Back to the train for dinner.



Day 6 we arrived in Sawai Madhopur and had an early morning wake up. Today we were off the Ranthambore National park to try to spot some tigers. Tigers are not tracked and there are no radios in the park so it is not as easy as Africa to spot the big cats, however we were very lucky, after an hour a male was walking through long grass to go to the nearby waterhole for a drink. He very nicely stopped and posed so everyone had enough time to take photos. We also hung out and shared our morning tea with monkeys, saw a range of deer and antelope and a wide range of native birds. Because the drive was early morning we had a bit of time back on the train to relax before lunch. After lunch we went on a tour of a local village and experienced the sustainability of the farmers in this area. Nothing is wasted, everyone lives in harmony and the people appreciate the land and all it produces. We met a farmer who grows a range of tree fruit and he made us some Masala Chai on his small fire.


From the village we were drove to Sawai Madhopur Lodge for afternoon tea. This was originally a hunting lodge and the place where The Duke of Edinburgh shot 3 tigers while he was holidaying with Queen Elizabeth many years ago. The tigers are now protected and the lodge helps with conservation of the tigers and to help the local villagers who have been moved to help the national park expand. A local magician left all of us questioning his tricks and after we had eaten enough we headed back to the train for dinner.



The distance to our next location was only 120kms so we had arrived by 9pm. I was convinced by one of the girls to join the staff as they headed out to a local bar. Had an amazing night relaxing with the people who had been waiting on us hand and foot for the past 6 days and visited a bar on the 15th floor of a hotel in Jaipur, the best view of the city at night.



Not going anywhere for the night meant I slept really well, although not very long. Day 6 we were exploring the Pink City. The buildings are not painted pink because of money but to welcome the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria in 1876 as pink denotes the colour of hospitality. Every street facing building must have the façade painted, the colour is more of terracotta then a pink but it is very effective. Up until today most places we went felt very local, this was the first place I felt like I was in a tourist destination. Shops selling all amount of souvenirs and people approaching you on the street, this is where it was great to have our red badge man as he was able to communicate with the locals. As he said "Yes means Yes and No also means Yes".



Morning sightseeing was at the Amber Fort. Our bus was not allowed up the small and narrow roads to the fort, because we were travelling in style there was a small Jeep to transfer into. I felt a little sorry for those navigating up the steep and windy roads to the fort, but that's all part of the train. After the Amber Fort we went to City Palace of Jaipur and then for lunch at a city hotel.



The afternoon was time for optional activities - either shopping, time to visit the spa or relax on the train. We had spoken with the train manager about a game of cricket and he had arranged a bat and ball and we played on the side of the train. All of the staff came out and played with us until the sun went down and it was time for dinner. I got back to my room and there was a sari waiting for me, the surprise from Deccan Odyssey was a Bollywood themed night, half an hour later the beautician from the train was there to help me put my sari on then I headed to the bar where it had been transformed into a little disco, complete with strobe lights. We quickly learnt how to dance Bollywood style and the staff brought out a cake for one traveller who was celebrating his 50th birthday on board with his family, also free champagne!



A late dinner and a final trip back to my room for the trip to Delhi. Our arrival time was changed due to restrictions from Indian Railways, so our 8am arrival was not a 6am arrival. Kunal helped me pack my bag before getting to bed and ending my journey the next day.



Day 8, we arrived into Delhi after breakfast and said a final sad goodbye to the staff on the train and other guest. My trip had only 17 on board so we made good friends with the other guests and also the staff. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone. Transfers from the station are included with the fee of the train. We had only 12 hours in Delhi so had booked a hotel to refresh and relax for the morning and then a tour for the afternoon. Again Delhi, like Mumbai is spread far so I would suggest if time is limited to organise a half day tour, the tour also dropped us off at the airport for our flight that night.

 

Overall I had the most amazing time in India. I was in the 40% of Australian travellers who do not get sick; I think this was due to the high quality of food on board. I have seen the best Rajasthan has to offer and managed to save time by travelling at night on the train. I cannot wait to go back. A little warning if you are like me - tall, blonde and pale, be prepared to take photos EVERYWHERE you go with the locals. You always have to be camera ready. Now back in Australia I have lost my Maharani status, I have to organise my own alarm, prepare meals myself and no one in Australia mistakes me for a celebrity. It was good while it lasted... or until next time.

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