These are some thoughts written while we were on the Golden Chariot luxury, or tourist, train in April 2008. I have edited them a little.
The train is brand new and it was only the second run of the train. The train starts every week on Monday in Bangalore, but we skipped the first 3 days and joined it in Mysore on Wednesday evening. It does a round trip through Karnataka to Goa and then back to Bangalore on Sunday. We got off the train in Goa.
Wednesday afternoon 3:52 PM
I am sitting on my bed in my room in the Golden Chariot, and the train is moving slowly. Out of the window I am looking at the tracks at the back of Mysore station. There are loud shuddering, shaking noises from under the train: why? I can see the backs of houses next to the tracks: some middle class, some poorer families. Now we've changed direction and we are moving backwards (or forwards?). Families are waving at us. Mostly women and small children. With big smiles on their faces.
We arrived in Mysore by normal express train from Bangalore. It took a while to find the Golden Chariot because they had moved it to some back platforms for the daytime, while the passengers went out on a tour by bus. They've just moved it back into the main station now: so I have closed my curtain.
We had 5 (!) very efficient porters carrying 2 weeks-worth of luggage for us. It was quite some distance to the train. The luxuries of India!
Although all the other passengers were out for the day when we arrived (and still are), they immediately offered us lunch on the train.
The rooms are tight for space but have a nice feel to them. Subdued colours. Comfortable, clean, all new, and nearly but not quite luxurious. Some "wood" carving that might be plastic.
We have two rooms: a double and a triple.
The double room: a firm double bed with just enough floor space around the bed for 2 small bedside tables and a small table that folds out of the wall at the foot of the bed. A small but pleasant shower/toilet room. A small wardrobe with a couple of shelves. Our suitcases fit easily under the bed: fortunately because there is not another inch of space to put them in.
The triple room: 2 single beds and a folding bed half way up the wall.
Each room has a flat screen TV on the wall. The air conditioning is, as I had read, too cold. I think they have turned it off completely now.
Wednesday evening 10:28 PM
In my room again, evening.
Our smallest child is a hit. The waiters and other staff are bowled over by her understanding Tamil and Kannada. And she revels in all the attention. She's having the time of her life. It's typical here in India that men, in particular love (and really know how to amuse) small children. Or perhaps it's not men in particular, but men so much more than in men Europe.
The train is very comfortable but they haven't quite "got it". It's quite good enough to be enjoyable, but I am not sure if they will ever quite smooth off the rough edges. They are trying really hard. There is real enthusiasm to get it right.
The air conditioning is thunderously loud. And icily cold. They can't turn it down, only off. We never sleep at home with AC. So we asked them to turn it off for the night. But someone else must have asked for it on because they've just turned it on again.
The ceiling panel covering the AC in my room fell down this afternoon. It's quite substantial so I am glad none of us were underneath it at that moment. But they came to fix it with quite un-Indian speed and efficiency. The bathroom door latch is broken so it neither stays open or closed.
The windows are already dirty in the edges. Some of them have leaks between the double glazing so they are full of condensation and you can't see out (in the dining room): a pity. There is paint on the windows - that's so typically Indian. It doesn't seem to occur to painters here that if you paint a wall the paint should not be on the window / skirting board / light switches as well.
The dining room on the train:
One evening on the train:
Note the crowds at the window of the second photo.
But the staff on the train are endlessly helpful and enthusiastic, and really lovely with the children.
Also there is a little touch of magic about it all, perhaps because it is all so new. And also from the incongruity of (not quite but nearly) five star luxury on a train.
Thursday morning 6:39 AM
Early morning, still in my pyjamas, sitting on the end of my bed, watching the world out of my window. Cool! Unfortunately I can't quite lie in bed and look out of the window.
Pleasant countryside: green, and more prosperous looking than around Bangalore. Farmyards have smart looking cars. I'm trying to take photos but they're not very good.
Outside the window: yukka plants, people standing outside to watch the train: it's still novel, a brick making building - like you see around Bangalore, fields ploughed by oxen.
The train stayed Wednesday night in Mysore then travelled from 6am - 8am to Hassan.
Near Hassan we saw 2 temples, both from the Hoysam era. Good local guide.
Completed in 1121.
Wonderful carved details. Very good condition. Inside is a figure of a dancer, at the top of the left pillar below: if I understood it correctly, she was a real historical person. Dancing was very important in the temples: there was a space in the middle of temple for dancing, which you can see below.
Around it about 40 pillars, all different, made of soap stone. The initial carving is turned on a lathe. Soap stone is very soft when first mined, then turns hard. When exposed to the sun it turns gray, so the outsides of the temples are pale gray. But inside, away from sunlight, it turns black and looks like brass. With the detail of the carving it hardly looks like stone, more like wood.
Below is a detail of the dancer.
We asked how long it would take to carve one of figures of the dancers. The guide thought the sculptors might have completed only 3 or 4 of these in lifetime. If the sculptor made any mistake he would have to discard the whole piece and start again.
On the outside of the temple, there are many figures and gods. Around the bottom of the temple are rows of friezes. Starting from the bottom, going up, the friezes often have: elephants - for strength, lions - for courage, horses - for speed, then swans; above, the figures of gods and myths.
Built (started?) in 1117, so similar date to the last one.
This temple was not so good quality inside as the previous one, but interesting outside. Also interesting was that some parts are not finished so you can see the process of creating the sculptures: first rough carving and then more detailed. You can see that in the picture below.
The operations manager of the train (the "big boss") is hanging around on the bus, smoking in the internet room, or watching the bus leave. In his t-shirt stretched over his fat belly and shell suit trousers.
Gomateshwara Statue at Shravanabelagola
This 10th century granite statue of a Jain saint is in pristine condition: to me it looks almost modern.
The train travelled overnight to Hassan, to visit Hampi, a massive site with the best ruins in Karnataka. It was a capital of south India from 1336 to 1565: so later than the previous temples.
Stunning landscape strewn with enormous golden boulders. Ruined palaces, temples, baths. Aqueduct. I've read of it being compared to Rome: it does remind me a little of the Forum in Rome. But an enormously larger site.
The main tour guide is a pleasant person. But he has a problem getting everyone on the bus on time. But needs to relax a bit, and use rather more subtle persuasion. One of the other guests said it was like being on a second grade school trip; and the tours feel rushed.
Each day 1 or 2 different local guides join the group. Rather boring, over-long talks on the bus, that I couldn't hear properly anyway. Seemed to be mostly lists of names and dates. The guides were good when we got to the sites though, really knew their stuff.
There are many travel writers on the train with us, because it is only the second run. They each hope to make several articles from the whole journey. Also a photographer from AFP press agency: always carrying 3 large cameras, he looks the part. And camouflage trousers with lots of pockets. Also a couple of travel agents: one from Bangalore, and one from South Africa but of Indian origin (several generations back). Interesting talking to them all.
And a film crew (photographer and interviewer) filming the train and the guests on it: yes, we were interviewed too.
Saturday 8:43 AM
On the bus. I'm annoyed. I asked for specific fruit for the children, to take with us: we'll be out on the bus all day today. Small children can't go all day on 2 meals - hungry children will be impossible for hours on a bus. I double checked they could give us exactly what I'd asked for: yes, no problem. At the last minute, so I can't do anything about it, they give us: melon (too messy, I'd specifically said not) and figs (which they won't eat). Nothing else. [I did get some better stuff at the first place we stopped, so it was all OK.]
We had a lovely surprise when we got off the train this morning. A local family greeted us with a "Welcome to Gadag" speech. Our daughter, who was the first off the train, was given a bunch of flowers by the little daughter. They'd driven specially in to town to give us the flowers: I saw them leaving by car later. Very touching.
The service on the Golden Chariot is definitely Indian rather than five star: the staff really want to help and are very kind. But if they don't know something (how long will we be on the bus?) or you want something they don't have (apples for the children) - rather than say don't know or don't have it, they will give you any answer (one hour on the bus when it was two!) or get you something else (melons instead of apples).
This morning the train was again moving from 6am to 8am. The train starting to move woke me up. So I watched the countryside out of the window again. And we had breakfast moving. Great. All the guests on the train seem to agree: that more time should be spent on the train.
Fields of sunflowers. Like Germany.
Aihole and Pattadakal
Very early temples, earlier than Hampi or the first temples we saw. Parts are 7th century. Yellow sandstone. More eroded: sandstone wears more than the soapstone? But the lingam inside is made of granite, so that it would not wear from water offerings. Several temples at the same site: apparently they were experimenting with styles, so it is a very important site: temples in south and north Indian styles.
This is a series of four cave temples carved into the hillside. Very, very early: 6th century. It's a steep walk up and rather nerve-racking to do with small children. The top one is Jain, and would originally have been walled off from all the others because the Jain "monks" there would have been naked.
So, the train has much room for improvement, and I am not sure whether it will live up to passengers' expectations, particularly for anyone not used to India, considering the very high price of it. But us, children included, we loved it and I want to do it again! More likely though, I think we'll try one of the other "luxury" trains in India.