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Indian Odyssey with John McCarthy

Journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy and his nine year-old daughter experience the wonders of India aboard the luxurious Deccan Odyssey train.

Suddenly noise fills the air. A band of dancers and drummers dressed in bright pinks, reds, greens and purples has appeared on the station platform to entertain us. After a moment’s hesitation Lydia, my nine-year-old daughter, accepts an invitation to join the troupe, trying to follow the steps with a broad smile on her face.

Lydia’s eyes are bright with excitement as we wait for the Deccan Odyssey, the train that will take us on a tour of Rajasthan and beyond. It’s getting late, but she is showing no sign of weariness. A few minutes ago she’d bustled back from a visit to the station manager’s ‘Panel Room’ and seen a board of lights showing all the trains moving around Delhi this evening. Our train was steadily working its way towards us, she’d told us.

When it arrives, resplendent in a livery of purple and gold, it presents a grand spectacle under the platform lights. Our cabin steward Himangshu – “Call me Himi!” – leads us from the lounge coach, through two restaurant carriages and a bar to our cabins. I feel as though we’ve gone back in time, becoming elite members of the British Raj.

Apart from Lydia, who goes out like a light, we don’t get much sleep on the first night, the motion of the train being quite dramatic at times. Nevertheless everyone is on good form at 6am next morning, as we speed in open-topped trucks towards Ranthambore National Park, wrapped in blankets against the chilly air.

Amazed at how many animals there are wandering about on the roads, Lydia starts counting the cows, pigs and dogs we pass. Breaking off the count, she points at a six-storey building clad in scaffolding made of bamboo poles.

“Awesome!” she exclaims.

Her eyes are still wide, but a more thoughtful expression crosses her face as we pass families squatting by open fires outside their little shacks. She turns to me, a puzzled tone in her voice: “It makes me feel sad to see people like that. Makes me feel a bit bad and spoiled that we have so much!”

Beyond the village the truck speeds up again and Lydia is distracted by a new sight: “Look a camel pulling a cart, Dad!”

Morning mist shrouds the entrance to the park where we hope to see a tiger. There are some temples at the centre of the park and our guide points out a Jain priest making his way on foot. The priest is stark naked. I can’t decide whether Lydia is more amazed at the sight of this man, or of an elephant appearing just a few feet from us with its face and trunk brightly painted.

As the sun burns off the mist and the sky becomes an intense blue, we stop on a ridge. The engine off, there is sudden and complete peace. White-furred langur monkeys caper in the branches above us while spotted and sambar deer graze on the shores of a lake, where a floating log turns out to be a dozing crocodile. As we drive back out of the park we see many more deer, monkeys, antelope and birdlife, including ibises, herons, owls, cormorants and peacocks. But no tigers.

After lunch in the comfort of the train we head back into the park on even bumpier tracks, and though we see more monkeys and deer, there are still no tigers. The rough road and sheer exhaustion overcome Lydia who tries to sleep across my lap and is ultimately sick.

Some pasta and a good night’s sleep see Lydia back on form the next morning in Agra. We leave the train to a fanfare of local musicians and dancers and are showered with rose petals as we walk along the platform.

‘Humungous!’ is her word for the Taj Mahal. While everything in India seems so different to us, and to Lydia in particular, we of course seem very different to many of the Indian people. Having a mother who is a photographer, Lydia is used to being photographed, but not to having smiling strangers coming up asking for her to pose with their children.

Back on board the train, Himi teaches us a new board game. I’d never seen Karrom before – a kind of draughts meets billiards, where you have to flick the counters into corner pockets. Himi is brilliant at it. Lydia and I are not, but it’s great fun.

In Jaipur we get a chance to walk and enjoy the hubbub of crowds of people, traders’ stalls and vehicles going in every direction honking their horns. Snake charmers squat on the pavement, playing their reedy trumpets to encourage cobras out of their baskets.

From its vantage point high on a hill, the Amber Fort offers fantastic views of ‘the Pink City’, and in the bright, sunny, morning air its ancient crenelated walls are sharply silhouetted against the blue sky.

The next stop, an observatory built by a prince in the early 18th century, really grabs Lydia’s attention. When she sees the 90-foot-high Samrat Yantra – the world’s largest sun dial – she jumps forward, an uncontrollable physical reaction I think, and then stands on tip-toe looking up at the huge, stone, ramp-like structure. She borrows my notebook and starts sketching, announcing that she is going to ‘build’ a sundial in her Minecraft game. We are covering a fair bit of ground, journeys of 300km or so between cities, but mostly at night, so we don’t get much chance to see the countryside. But outside Jodphur we take an unscheduled trip to see some villages.

Our first stop has been a centre for pottery for over 400 years. Sitting on the earth floor of his workshop, a potter sets his wheel spinning and in moments fashions a couple of wonderful pots. His elderly mother sits in another corner of the courtyard cooking simple bread from millet flour over a fire.

Before heading back to the train, we cross a wide area of scrubland, where shepherds in white clothes and bright red turbans tend their flocks, and reach a very basic compound that is home to a semi-nomadic family. They crowd around us as Lydia shares some sweets with the dozen or so children and receives massive hugs from one of the mothers.

In Jodhpur Lydia experiences one of the things I love about India – an auto rickshaw ride. I love the three-wheelers: they don’t inspire much confidence in their stability, so any journey is an adventure, and there’s a wonderful feeling of being incredibly close to the bustle of the street, but somehow in your own private bubble.

Out of the auto bubble and into the Clock Tower Market, we are overwhelmed by the smells of herbs and spices and the colours of the fruits and vegetables piled high on the stalls. An old man beams at Lydia as he sits on the pavement having his hair cut. At the next stall a dentist plies his trade with some fearsome implements.

Everything is so close: people, animals, and at one point I feel myself being nudged and turn round to find a grinning man riding his motorbike into me. “Not quite like the High Street at home!” I say to Lydia as we stand aside to let the man past.

Mehrangarh Fort sits serenely on a rocky outcrop above Jodphur, vast and magical in the evening light. Ushered through a petalstrewn courtyard and up to a terrace, we are entertained by dancers as waiters bring dishes from a barbecue. The setting sun lights up the fort above as, below, ‘the Blue City’ disappears into inky darkness.

Approaching Udaipur we get to see more of the countryside as we enjoy breakfast. In the distance the Aravalli hills are masked in mist while the landscape passing nearer to us is divided up into small fields. Amid the greens and browns of plants and earth there are sudden flashes of intense colour – the purple of a woman’s sari, the white robes of a man on a bicycle.

Udaipur’s City Palace is a fun place to explore: one moment we’re clambering up narrow staircases, then emerge into a courtyard where fountains play beneath shady trees and carved stone openings look out across ‘the White City’ and Lake Pichola.

After another day of palaces at Udaipur, our final stop-over is at Vadodara. Lydia sketches the exterior of the Laxmi Vilas Palace, an amazing blend of Hindu, Mughal, Jain and Sikh architectural styles. Later, in the Durbar Hall, we meet the maharaja and his young daughter. The princess and Lydia sit side by side to be tattooed with henna.

The train has been a brilliant base for exploring many wonderful sites: it is so comfortable, a bit like a cruise ship on wheels. We’ve enjoyed the company of our fellow guests and the staff have been fantastic.

We spend our last day in India chilling by the pool at the Taj World’s End hotel in Mumbai, reflecting on what we have seen. Lydia has made lots of lists on the animals we have seen, the types of houses, the vehicles and so on. The most detailed is her ‘Facts on India’. Items 4 and 5 stand out for me. Item 4 is about the Taj Mahal and how vast and beautiful it is, and Item 5 notes that many families live in just one room with a plastic sheet for a roof.

As for all of us, India for a nine-year-old has been an intense experience – or rather a series of intense experiences.