Monday, February 9, 2009

On track for an unforgettable journey

david ellis with frank linn

IF urged to put our money on the city to take out the title of World's Most Traffic-congested, we'd have to put it on Bangalore, just beating out Bangkok and Cairo.

On a recent visit to this bourgeoning Silicon Valley of India, our driver from the airport to the rather grand Leela Palace Kempinski Hotel, confided that his city had seven million, eight million or nine million inhabitants.

It depended, he explained, on who you were talking to at the time: on our day we were certain that all seven, or eight or 9-million were there on our road at the one time, creating six solid rows of honking cars, motorcycles, trucks, vans, taxis, buses and motorised rickshaws that had jammed themselves with great dexterity into the official four lanes.

And remarkably without a hint of road rage.

Having survived it to the rich Vijayanagar Empire heritage that is now the Leela Palace Kempinski, we found ourselves amid a bygone era of not only architectural opulence, but of magnificent colonial-era landscaping… a quiet oasis of aged trees, colourful forever-Spring-time garden beds, and cooling waterways that cocooned us from the outside cacophony and bustle of the city.

And remarkably we would experience similar moments time and again in coming days of exploring the State of Karnataka aboard a new train, the Golden Chariot Railway that offers an eye-opening seven-day, 1500 kilometre exploration of the State and the neighbouring beach-resort Goa on India's west coast.

It is to prove itself an unforgettable journey into the culture, history, world heritage sites, National Parks and the cuisine of this fascinating region, and as we await our Golden Chariot at Yashwantpur Station the masses of people thronging the platforms for local and country services seems to rival the cars on Airport Road.

Thus small sighs of relief exhale when a string of carriages, smart royal purple trimmed with gold, slide quietly before us.

And it is now that we first cross paths with Satish, a forever-obliging, turbaned young man from India's south who is to look after our every whim for the next seven days.

It is Satish who escorts us to elegantly furnished air-conditioned cabins with crisp cotton sheets, a flat-screen TV with news and movies on call, and to a telephone that proves itself a 24-hour hotline to his amazing efficiency and courtesy.

Need a hot cuppa at 7 am? A late-night Panadol? A button for a recalcitrant shirt? Satish is your man

He's also there to rectify the daily havoc one creates in one's cabin, greet us with chilled fruit juice on our return from sightseeing excursions, and show us the way to the on-board internet café, massage room or mini onboard-gym.

And it turns out that there are Satishes everywhere. They're in the plush dining room each evening, the separate breakfast room of a morning, the cosy cocktail lounge and bar before dinner, and opening every door as we pass from carriage to carriage.

All up a couple of dozen of them amongst the 53 crew looking after a maximum of 103 guests – and on our journey, which is in the train's infancy of late 2008, just thirty indulging this extravaganza of hospitality.

And if it's possible that anyone is going to have more impact on our enjoyment than Satish, it is Executive Chef Deepak Chaubey who came to the Golden Chariot from world-ranking Le Meridien hotels in Bangalore and Delhi.

Although no longer enjoying the luxury of spacious kitchens and battalions of ovens and hot plates to do his stuff, the variety of Indian and international dishes he produces from the cramped quarters of a railway carriage amazes all.

Suffice to say that in seven days, Deepak's selection of Indian thali found its way to our table most lunches, and every dinner but one when we did the patriotic thing and chose roast lamb…that proved itself an equally splendid choice.

A week-long Golden Chariot Railway package from Adventure World costs from just $3742, including onboard accommodation, meals and comprehensive sightseeing daily.

Special rates for pre- or post-rail stays at the luxury Leela Kempinski Hotel in Bangalore can be combined with the rail itinerary.

Details on 1300 363 055 or visit Air travel is additional. ………………….

[] The Golden Chariot's Dining Car – home of grand cuisine

[] Chef Deepak's Thali – a lunchtime must

[] Oasis of peace and silence: grounds of the Leela Palace Kempinski Hotel

[] Six into four just goes in Bangalore's chaotic traffic

IMAGES: David Baker

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