By Ravi Valluri
“Trains are wonderful ...to travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches, in fact see life,” wrote the iconic author Agatha Christie.
The Royal Orient is an Indian luxury tourism train which scorches the tracks, traversing the western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, its arid desert neighbour. The sojourn covers tourist attractions of paramount interest in the two states. This train has been fashioned on the lines of the celebrated Palace on Wheels, the country’s premier opulent train. The Royal Orient Express offers the tipper a taste of royal luxury while showcasing myriad facets of Indian culture and heritage.
The train commenced commercial operations in 1994 as a joint venture of the Tourism Corporation of the government of Gujarat and the Indian Railways. The regalia adopted is an azure blue scheme to distinguish it from that of the Palace on Wheels.
Initially there were the proverbial hiccups and the train did not quite fire the imagination of the bag packer with passenger occupancy plummeting from 25 percent in the first year to 15 percent in the next years. However, there was a major rejig in 2007, and soon Lady Luck smiled on the fortunes of the train and it began to generate surpluses.
Royal Orient Express consists of 13 coaches that have been christened after the erstwhile kingdoms of the battle scarred and famous Rajputana.
Guests luxuriate in the astonishing comfort and luxury of the carriages. The cabins were refurbished in a palatial manner, including the provision of spacious baths attached to them. There are multi-cuisine restaurants which provide delectable Rajasthani, Gujarati, other Indian, Chinese and Continental cuisine to tickle the taste buds of the tripper.
The Royal Orient commences its voyage from Delhi Cantonment station, with stoppages at Chittorgarh, Jaipur, Udaipur, Ahmedabad, Mehsana, Junagarh, Veraval, Sasangir, Mandvi, Palitana and Sarkhej.
During the course of the voyage it covers the Qutub Minar, Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi, Chittorgarh Fort and Rani Padmini's Palace in Chittorgarh, Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Lake Palace in Udaipur, the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat and the Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. Every place mentioned is steeped in history and depicts the pluralistic culture of Indian history.
The traveller is enriched with the sublime and tranquil atmosphere pervading Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram; the lofty Qutub Minar of Sultanate period of medieval India, the grandeur of the Red Fort and the valour of Rajputana at both Mewar and Marwar never fail to impress. The lucky ones encounter the canine species gnawing its teeth in all majesty at humans who attempt to capture the moment in a camera.
The journey begins on a Wednesday. As the signals are lowered at fifteen hundred hours the train chugs away. Sightseers are served with tea and dinner on board and stay on the estimable train overnight.
At crack of the dawn this luxury trains weaves its way into the historic town of Chittorgarh. Guests visit the famous Chittorgarh Fort which to date seems to resonate with the bravery of the Rajput Ranas and the sacrificial Jauhar of their womenfolk.
As the magical history slowly sinks and settles into the mindscape of the out-of-towners, the splendorous train circumvents the curves and bends towards Udaipur; the city named after the famous Rana Uday Singh. After lunch, tourists visit the City Palace and a spot of boating in Lake Pichola followed by a visit to Shilpgram - a crafts village- and round off the trip with a visit the Royal Gardens.
As night falls the train leaves for Mehsana in Gujarat.
At Mehsana, the guests are escorted to striking destinations of Mehsana and Ahmedabad. Among them are a visit to the Sun Temple at Modhera, the Rani ki Vav and the Patola weaving centre at Patan.
At Ahmedabad they visit the Adalaj Vav, Sidi Sayyad Mosque, Calico Textile Museum, and last but not least the sublime Gandhi Ashram. At Junagarh the tripper revisits ancient India as they have a glimpse of the Ashokan Rock Edict of the 3rd century B.C. Upon arrival at Veraval, travellers visit the famous Somnath temple that was plundered on several occasions by the Portuguese and Muslim invaders. This famous Jyotirlinga temple which was reconstructed by Sardar Patel is situated on the shores of the Arabian Sea.
From Somnath the train travels to the Gir Forest reserve. Guests depart for a tour of the Gir Lion sanctuary, where one can spot the famous Asiatic Lion. Thereafter tourists are taken to Delwada from where they witness the spectacular, unalloyed beauty of famous Ahmedpur-Mandvi beach, Diu Fort and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
On Sunday the magical train arrives at Palitana where they are escorted to the fabled Jain temples at Shatrunjaya Hills. Subsequently they begin their journey to Sarkhej and visit the Vishalla village.
Overnight as the guests sleep in the luxurious cabins, the plenteous train motors to Jaipur.
It is dawn and the Pink City is still to awake as the train drops anchor the next morning. Tippers are set for a memorable tour of Jaipur. They witness the grandeur of Hawa Mahal, the City Palace and Jantar Mantar. A joyous ride seated on elephants, up to Amber Fort is the icing on the cake.
Travellers are left spellbound by the majesty of the train and the astonishing places they visited as they try to recapitulate it in the amphitheatre of their mind as they chug back home.
At Delhi Cantonment guests are treated to a sumptuous breakfast onboard before they disembark. As they attempt one last time to memorise the feel and touch of the train, tourists cannot but wonder that a journey of lifetime has come to an end.
“Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas we return,” wrote the talismanic author, E. M. Foster.
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