We were playing India train trivia and I was taking a back seat. The two contestants in the quiz were Rex, a sugar cane farmer from South Africa, and Arthur, a GP from New Zealand.
"What has the longest platform in the world?" asked Arthur.
"Kharagpur in West Bengal, 833 metres," answered Rex, who had a question of his own. "What Indian railway station has the shortest name?" Arthur thought for a while and then said: "Ib in Orissa."
"How many bridges and tunnels are there on the Kalka to Simla rail line?" asked Rex, still hopeful of catching out his opponent. Arthur sucked on his pipe. We both watched the smoke circle over the bartop and rise up towards the mirrored ceiling. "Eight hundred and sixty nine bridges and 103 tunnels," he said and then, looking out through the windows of the carriage, inquired: "Where are we?"
Rex looked out of the pantry car and sighed: "Where else? - still in the middle of the ruddy desert of Thar." We were bound for Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and on the famous Palace on Wheels (or PoW) which leaves weekly from Delhi Cantonment station for a grand tour of India's Golden Triangle, taking in Jaipur, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Agra. The trip lasts a week, and costs about pounds 200 a day.
Rex and Arthur had done the Fairy Queen, the oldest working steam train in the world. Built in 1855, it is housed in the National Rail Museum in Delhi and runs for two days to Alwar. They had also done The Royal Orient through Gujurat, as well as the Shivalik Deluxe to Barog and the Shivalik Palace tourist coach to the famous Simla hill station. They were also very familiar with the toy train narrow gauge routes from Mettupalayam to Ooty (Udagamandalam) and from New Jalpaiguri up to Darjeeling. They had seen VT or Chhatrapati Terminus as well as Lucknow's Charbagh. The Palace on Wheels would give them the full set.
The Palace on Wheels made its first journey on 26 January 1962. Today's train, inaugurated in 1991, has 14 carriages with two dining cars, carpeted and air-conditioned throughout. The coaches are all named after former Rajput states: Kotah, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Alwar, Sirohi, Kishangarh, Bundi, Dungarpur, Bharatpur, Dholpur and Jhalawar. En-suite facilities include a geyser or, as we more familiarly know it, a shower.
On my journey there were 74 staff on board, including a driver by the name of Mahinder Singh, who has been driving for four years. "Her top speed is 65km per hour," he told me. "She covers 2,500km with 108 people on board, she is a very reliable lady and keeps good time. Except when there is a cow on the line. Then we have to wait. I once waited four hours for two cows to decide to let us through."
On 16 April 1853, three steam locomotives - Sultan, Sindh and Sahib - hauled 14 carriages from Bombay to Thane. A total of 400 guests paid 400 rupees 65 paise each for the 75-minute journey. It was the inauguration of the largest railway system under a single management in the world. Indian Railways now runs 14,000 trains a day carrying 11 million passengers between 7,056 stations across 62,915km of track. It is also one of the country's biggest employers with 1.6 million staff.
"The Palace is real comfort," Rex told me over a glass of Red Blazer whisky (the label read "Real Horsepower for Real Men"). "In the old days, on the Bengal, Bihar and Central India lines, some coaches used to be cooled by filling ice between the lead-zinc-lined double walls."
Rex calls it a double heritage tour through India's history and the history of India's trains. India is a train-spotter's paradise. Even today the engineering feats continue, with the recent opening of the 760km Konkan line connecting Bombay to Kerala in the south. Indian Railways also has the tallest bridge in the Indian sub-continent near Ratnagiri. Railways have been the driving force behind the progress of India.
All meals are provided although mercifully there were only three on board during my journey, since the kitchen was hardly five-star. The "gala" first-night dinner consisted of fish finger and tartar sauce dips followed by spaghetti bolognaise. All passengers received a complimentary ready- to-wear turban as well as a garland of wilted marigolds. Guests were also provided with a Dutch wife to sleep with - a bed bolster.
The Palace on Wheels is billed as "an extraordinary train for extraordinary people". The advertising promised "a week in wonderland reliving the princely age of travel". I couldn't entirely vouch for the princely experience. On the second day, responding to complaints about the train's grubbiness and the fact that the windows were opaque within five minutes of leaving Delhi, the train manager told me: "You can't expect the train to be Swiss train. This is India. It is not Switzerland. It is dirty on the outside because if you cleaned it, it would be filthy again in five minutes. This is the very best of Indian train travel. You must judge it against other train journeys in India and not elsewhere."
Apart from one day crossing the desert of Rajasthan, the travelling is done at night, which is not made clear in any of the brochures. But after a long day's sightseeing, the train's bar - with its marquetry, fumed wooden seats and lampshades - was a refuge from the heat, the beggars, the forts and the government-run jewellery shops, gem wholesalers and state handicraft centres which seemed to comprise most of our daily itinerary.
My fellow passengers agreed about the bar. "After the elephant ride up to the Pink Fort of Jaipur in that sun, I thought the Glenfiddich was a mirage," said Arthur. "Black Dog 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 two honeymooning Puppies (Punjabi yuppies). Other regulars included sundry flabby couples from various countries, as well as Rex and Sheila, a charmingly gregarious and comparatively spry pair of British expats now living in Zimbabwe.
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 pocket 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 is empty and therefore it's easier to walk. My movements aren't so restricted."
The broad gauge rattled under our seats. Arthur asked me whether I was a railway enthusiast. "Not really," I said. "But I have learnt a bit from you boys over the past few days. Previously, I didn't know anything about railways. I have never been a trainspotter, I didn't know one end of a train from the other. But now I know a great deal about the middles of trains. Some people are into engines and rolling stock. My passion is for Pullmans."
We drank to that, Rex, Arthur and I, for several hundred more miles aboard a palace through the blazing Thar Desert.
INDIA'S PALACE ON WHEELS
Return flights to Delhi with KLM, booked through Airline Network (tel: 0870 241 0053), cost from pounds 381.30, travelling after 15 September.
A seven-night journey on the Palace on Wheels through India specialist Partnership Travel (tel: 0181-343 3446), costs from pounds 1,856, including return flights from London to Delhi and full-board travel on the train. Optional beach extensions in Kerala or Goa are also available. Other India specialists include Greaves Travel (tel: 0171-487 5687).
The Indian Tourist office (tel: 0171-437 3677).