Kutch

It’s usually really easy to write about travel experiences, given their factual nature. But when a trip is packed with one amazing memory after another it becomes difficult to write a factual blog about it. To find my way around it I first thought of a BuzzFeed kind “10 Reasons why you should visit Kutch” but gave that up before the idea had taken a well-defined shape. To be sure, there are the indigenous textiles, the crafts, the Rann Utsav and amazing hospitality. All that apart if the idea of an unending expanse of white salt desert, some mesmerising sunsets and amazing night sky (full moon or no full moon) doesn’t motivate you to visit Kutch, then nothing ever will.

In the spectrum of trips categories range from “absolute disaster” to “a lifetime lived in these x days”. Kutch undoubtedly belonged to the latter. The perfect setting, awesome company and some great hospitality offered a glimpse of the life I have always wanted for myself. The four days spent in this region were as close to perfect as I could have asked for. Murphy seemed to be taking it easy and my guardian angel seemed to finally be up and about (given the manner of flight and train bookings, any delay anywhere would have ruined everything).

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Sunset at the White Desert
Logistics 

Best time to visit: November to February is when the climate is suitable for a visit (preferably during full moon).

How to get there: Kutch is 70 kms from the Bhuj Railway Station. To reach Bhuj from Ahmedabad, the following options are available:

  • TrainTrains from Ahmedabad to Bhuj are a convenient option if time and budget are a constraint.
  • Road: If you wish to self-drive around Kutch, then a car needs to be rented at Ahmedabad. The 331 kms from Ahmedabad to Bhuj can be covered in five and a half hours. From Bhuj cabs with drivers are available (with a fare structure like Rs. 2400 for 300kms/day for a hatchback ). Cabs are freely available at the Bhuj Railway Station.
  • Air: Flights from Ahmedabad to Bhuj (via Mumbai) are available but are definitely not the most convenient option. There are no direct flights currently.

Stay: Stay needs to be figured out depending on your itinerary. Our itinerary involved the Great Rann of KutchKalo Dungar, Indo-Pak Border,  Mandvi and Bhuj  (though Dholavira was initially part of the plan, we dropped it later to give more time to ourselves to enjoy every moment!). With these, we divided our stay between Kutch and Devpur (50 kms from Bhuj).

Rann of Kutch: Of the multiple stay options near the Rann of Kutch the ones closer to the White Desert are more expensive. Most of the resorts offer stays in camps/tents and traditional bhungas (their package will include all meals). Toran Resort is the closest one can get to the White Desert (and the Rann Utsav, of course).

Shaam-e-Sarhad, owned and operated by the Village Tourism Committee of the indigenous people from Hodka village, is located 20 kms away from the White Desert but is a convenient stay option with great hospitality. For stay options to access the Rann of Kutch (Salt Flats) I would recommend the accommodations available in Hodka over the hyped and unduly expensive Rann Utsav tents.

Among the other options available, I would strictly recommend against Rann Kandhi. Their online reviews and my personal experience in dealing with them did not leave a positive impression.

Devpur Homestay: Devpur is located almost midway between the White Desert and Mandvi. Since it is a mere 50 kms from Bhuj, we zeroed in on Devpur Homestay for its convenient location, but there was way more to it than just that. The place is an absolute jewel. Thanks to rave online reviews I had high expectations from the place. The place surpassed all expectations by a significant margin.

Divided into Home-stay, tents/camps and Farm-stay options, we picked the latter for its description. Situated adjacent to a mango orchard, with a kindergarten run on the premises, the Farm-stay is rejuvenating. Walks through the mango orchard, stints at the see-saw and long conversations on the cozy swings made this place a destination in itself. The thoughtfully done interiors and furnishing, the overall ambience and the amazing hospitality of the Jadeja family and the staff does not leave any scope for disappointment. In fact, it was because of this place that we scrapped Dholavira from our itinerary!

Day 1: The Great Rann

If you go to this place to tick it off your bucket list then an hour is more than enough. However, to do justice to the place, an evening should definitely be spent here. We reached the place around 2:00 pm and after walking around for an hour sat down to watch the sight ahead of us (with music to accompany us-kudos to bluetooth speakers). Watching the Sun going down, the white expanse changing color and the stars coming out was enough to keep us busy till 8:00 pm (with a complimentary pre wedding photo shoot on offer!).

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After an evening spent looking at infinity we came back to Hodka (Shaam-e-Sarhad). Dinner was accompanied with villagers entertaining us with folk music. After dinner my travel companion and I walked out of the resort into the barren lands ahead. Since it was a no moon night, the night sky was full of stars. Our fascination with the night sky and faith in Calvin and Hobbes led us to lie in the mud, with a few stray dogs for company, for hours just staring at the stars, increasing the dimension of infinity. I also saw my first shooting star and was taught how to identify Orion and Little Dipper. The night sky at Hodka, to say the least, was ethereal.

Day 2: India-Pakistan Border, Kalo Dungar

While the plan for the day included India bridge, Rann of Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary for the flamingoes and Kalo Dungar, it got changed at the last moment because of the unexpected permission we got for visiting the India-Pakistan border. Normally, tourists can go upto India Bridge (without permit before 5:30 pm.) which needs to be crossed from Kutch to enter the Vighakot outpost of the Indian army guarding the border with Pakistan. We had read on the internet and told by locals that to go right upto the border you need to apply at least 7 days prior to DSP-Bhuj with total details and ID proof of all members + details of driver and vehicle. However, on account of sheer luck, on the day of our visit, tourists were being allowed to go to Vighakot (approx 70 km from India bridge, bad roads but good view) after an inspection of their identity proofs.

It is completely a matter of individual preference to take a journey upto this border. It will take at least 3 hours (from India Bridge and back) and you might come back saying, “So much for just pillars” or you might go there, look at those pillars, feel the breeze ostensibly coming from Pakistan, think of the partition and everything that has happened since and say, “So much for these pillars, barbed wires and a black gate.” BSF personnel stationed there provide all the relevant information in understanding the sight that lies ahead.

Another day was drawing to a close and another spectacular sunset was in store for us at Kalo Dungar. 25 kms north of Khavda, the top of Kalo Dungar is the highest point in Kutch. From here a mesmerising panoramic view of the Great Rann, the desert and the sky meeting at the horizon can be had. When it comes to places with a “feel”, Kutch spoils you for choice. After sunset, as the crowd leaves, just hang around till the cops chase you out (which would be well after sunset). With the place to yourself, the magnificent view being slowly engulfed in darkness and the breeze to lift your spirits, those moments spent at Kalo Dongar are tranquility personified. Looking into oblivion with not a soul around us, standing facing the breeze with our arms outstretched (and some good music)-that moment will stay etched in my memory.

Day 3: Mandvi

Mandvi is a historical port town which was the principal port of Kutch and of Gujarat for hundreds of years until the rise of Mumbai. A visit to the shipbuilding yards along the Rukmavati River where wooden ships, called Dhows, are still built by hand is definitely worth the 20-30 minutes that it takes.  When at Mandvi, a meal at the Osho Hotel is a must, not only for its Gujarati thali but also for their service. If you miss the days when people would forcefully make you eat till you had to beg them to stop, when just when you thought you could take no more a pleading face with jalebis in its hand would stand in front of you, then this is the place. It used to be the Indian way of feeding people that if not extinct is definitely critically endangered.

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Vijay Vilas Palace, Mandvi
The next to-do thing at Mandvi is the Vijay Vilas Palace. Wandering around the Vijay Vilas Palace one recreates scenes from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or Lagaan, both of which have scenes filmed at the palace. The view from the top of the palace (overlooking the sea) and the architecture make the visit a joyful experience. The taxidermied tiger and leopard that are on display inside the palace might irk the wildlife enthusiasts.

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Mandvi Beach
Another day, another sunset. By now we had made it a mission to end our days with an amazing view of the sunset. So there we were at the Mandvi Beach, having walked away from the crowded portion and perched ourselves at the spot we found convenient to wait for the golden orb to sink below the horizon. The waiting period saw us playing tic-tac-toe on the sand (the idea was to finish the game before each succeeding wave wiped it off-in that pressure to perform I actually lost a game!). This was followed by racing with the waves and with one another. Amidst all this fun and frolic, the orb sank and with it another day was coming to an end.

Day 4: Bhuj

Bhuj has a well-defined to-do list for tourists. Visit the Prag Mahal and the adjacent Aina Mahal, which we did not on account of the Prag Mahal being booked for a wedding, though we did have the sugarcane juice outside the compound! Follow this up with a visit to the Kutch Museum (which we did not because neither of us were interested in a museum). What we did visit were the royal cenotaphs or ‘chhatris’ of Bhuj (found in the centre of Hamirsar Lake). There are some fine specimens of exquisite carvings. Our driver informed us that with Maharao Lakhpat’s death, fifteen of his consorts too gave in their lives in his funeral pyre which is apparently evident in sati stones at the site. The exterior walls of chhatris bear sculptures of deities, hunting scenes, animals and couples in local costumes. The chhatris were heavily damaged during the earthquake of 2001. We also visited Bhujodi (famous as a textile center) and Ajrakhpur to get a glimpse of the famous textiles of Kutch. Ajrakhpur is where Kutchi artisans who do block printing live and work. The art is called Ajrakh, from where the village derives its name.

 It was finally time for another sunset and promises had to be kept. The final day of our trip saw us climbing onto the walls of the Bhujia Fort. The panoramic view of the city and the sunset lived up to our expectations. Two souls silhouetted against the twilight on the walls of the Bhujia Fort, celebrating the completion of a trip that was happiness and perfection personified was how we ended this trip.While this trip has come to an end, it has given a lifetime full of memories and has raised the bar for trips to come!
Epilogue: When we reached Ahmedabad at 2:00 am, instead of heading for the airport, on an absolutely random impulse, we took an auto and gave it instructions to show us Ahmedabad in 1.5 hours. An ardent Bollywood fan, the guy drove us to all those destinations where Raees was shot (accompanied with stories of Latif bhai) and as an epilogue to this epilogue showed us the gates of Sabarmati Ashram!
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