I hate early mornings. Unless the sacrifice of my precious sleep is to board a 6:00am flight, one that takes me to a place I’d been wanting to explore since years. And when four women have managed to leave home, fetch each other, reach the airport before time, that’s either a wonderful stroke of luck, or an enthusiastic bunch of girls yearning to get on that plane, to Kutch: a district in the state of Gujarat.

It took us 6 minutes and 30 seconds to disembark, collect our luggage and reach our vehicle at the parking. I love such efficient (read; “small”) airports. And i t took about 7 minutes to get the right “Patel” snap, which meant four of us smiling, at 7:30am, with the board of “ Welcome to Bhuj” right behind us. The air was nippy and crisp; perfect to spend a day in the open. Our cab driver-cum-guide Iqbal bhai, had now taken charge and off we were on a 90 km drive to Kala Dungar – the highest peak in Kutch- is accessible by road till the peak, has ample parking space, and a few shops around. A short walk brings you to the view point, a spot for gorgeous sunrise and sunsets, and offers a spectacular view of the Great Rann of Kutch. On a clear day, you can spot the India Bridge at the far end. As much as many believe that we can view the Pakistan border from Kala Dungar, unless one is a super human with magical powers, I doubt you’d see the border that’s at least 67 km away, with a naked eye. The famous Dattatreya temple is perched near the Kala Dungar.

The Great Rann of Kutch , a seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar desert, about 7,500 square kilometers in size, is the largest salt desert of the world. In India, the northern boundary of the Rann forms the International border between India and Pakistan. It is heavily patrolled by the Border Security Force ( BSF) and the Indian Army.

A bridge known as India Bridge needs to be crossed from Kutch to enter the Vigakot outpost of the Indian Army guarding the border with Pakistan. The left side of the bridge is the WHITE RANN and the right side is RANN of KUTCH. Photography is prohibited on this bridge and you need a permit from the BSF commander in Bhuj, a few days in advance, to visit the Indo-Pak border. Apparently it is a tough, bumpy 6 -7 hour journey of about 65 km , with nothing spectacular to view. Call it luck or our charm, a group of ministers visiting from another state, had the permit to the border, and we did get the permission from the security at the check post to tag along and visit the border with them. One of the reasons we decided to skip the visit was, we didn’t have an extra day to spare. Another , was the thought of spending 7 hours in a bus with strangers, on a hot afternoon, hungry and thirsty, a rough ride, was too much excitement to handle.

Dhordo : a small village in the Bhuj Taluka, 48 km from Kala Dongar, is the gateway to the white salted desert. The village has a few resorts, made of mud houses, called ‘Bhungas’. The stay is open to tourists from October to April and is shut for the summer months. The ‘resorts’ are a cluster of bhungas, lined around a piece of land- used for recreation/ entertainment, a restaurant that serves basic, simple vegetarian Kutchi meals made from fresh ingredients available in and around the village, a humble reception area decorated in traditional mud work, and a play area for kids. The bhungas at ‘Gateway to Rann Resort’ though made of mud, are well equipped with all necessary comforts – an Air-con, TV, and attached washroom. Earthy smell of the mud floors, intricate mirror work on door edges, and painted design on the walls, give the place a rustic, yet charming effect. Just before we reach Dhordo, mobile networks decide to take their time off. The ever trusted BSNL network, that works in many far off corners of India, and is supposed to to be alive in Dhordo , decided to take the day off too. The pleasure of being disconnected in incomparable.

Post our afternoon siesta in comfortable A/C bhungas, we were charged up to visit the majestic White Rann. A permit, against a small fee and photo ID, was collected from the entrance point to the Rann. During the Rann Utsav, which ended in February, cars are stopped at the entrance and one can either walk 3 km on a concrete road or take a camel cart, to reach the watch tower and the start point of the endless rann. As March offered few visitors, vehicles were allowed till the last point of this road, where you stand right in front of the gigantic white, salted, silent desert. A flat canvas, layered by the brown sand and white granules of salt. As you walk through the landscape, the salt granules overpowers the brown sand grains, the beige turns to white, the salt grains grow larger. As you look up from the frost colored salt pans, a misty haze seems to layer the far end of the rann. My eyes struggled to decipher, where do the white sands end and the clear blue sky takes over as the next layer. We stood there watching the sun set in white nothingness, mesmerised with the sheer magnitude and unique experience this desert has to offer. Soaking in various colors the sun threw on the salted desert, as it wrapped itself from a tiring day—a fiery ball of orange, a mellow peach, yellow, beige and finally wore the dark cover. While at the other end of the spectrum, a round bright ball was readying itself, shaking off it’s dull beige attire, to a cream robe, and finally a bright white, as it climbed up the sky slowly. All set to wrap and paint everyone and everything around him in white, it was a full moon night after all. We head back to the resort for a couple of hours and returned to view the full moon in it’s glory around 10.30pm. It took our eyes a few minutes to adjust to darkness and witness the moonlight paint the canvas white- silver at some points – but mostly white. As we walked into the rann, with hardly 3 or 4 people around, the silence was louder than any other sound heard. The salt is in the air, under your feet, everywhere. I could feel the rawness of the place, as I stood with my arms wide open in an attempt to embrace this entire experience, serene, calm and new. Simply breath taking.

The next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast of ‘thepla’, raw green chilly, jaggery, fresh butter loaded toast and a few photo clicks, we left Dhordo and drove to Bhuj.

Bhuj : a flourishing walled city, one of the important towns in the Kutch district, is a famous destination for shopping of handicraft work like ‘Bandhni’ (tie-dye), lark work and block printing. Main tourist attractions are Prag Mahal, Aina Mahal, Kutch Museum, Swaminarayan Temple, and a few other temples. We stayed at Ryan Resort, which was a great mix of traditional culture and modern facilities – quaint cottages, unique artifacts, garden landscapes and a large swimming pool. The breezy evenings were enjoyed on their comfortable charpoys with hot soup and chilled lime soda- Gujarat is a dry state 😀

After visiting Prag Mahal and the museum (we’re tourists you see) , lunch was at a restaurant called ‘Toran’ located in Hotel Prince, for an amazing spread of the Gujarati thali, food good enough to feed a king. That explains why we were snoring on our 1 hr drive post lunch, from Bhuj to Mandvi, 62 km away. Or maybe it was to ensure the snores keep the driver awake.

Mandvi : once, a major port and summer retreat for the king, is now visited for it’s beach, Vijay Vilas Palace, ship manufacturing and a restaurant called Osho which seemed to be everyone’s favored eatery. Coming from a city surrounded by sea, the Mandvi Beach had nothing much to offer, so earned a very quick trip. Ships made out of wood are assembled in Mandvi for local and international clients. You can watch the hand made boats being build. The red sandstone Vijay Vilas palace, is one of four palaces the Maharaj of Kutch owns, and shot to fame after bollywood movies ‘Hum dil de chuke sanam’ starring Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai , and Lagaan starring Aamir Khan was shot here. Part of the palace is converted to a hotel and can be accessed only if you are staying in. The high dome, carved stone ‘jalis’, extended porch, carvings, make the palace worth visiting. The gardens and the main building do feel run down and could well do with some restoration.

As we drove to Mandvi, the dry and barren landscape of Kutch had changed to lush green trees, the coastal effect. We drove out of the green into the brown once again and reached Bhuj. The roads in Kutch are excellent and can cover long distances in a breeze.

The next day, we visited the Ashapura temple, Madhapur Yaks temple, and the Swaminarayan temple- a marvelous piece of architecture with intricate marble carvings and pillars. Half a day was spent visiting a few villages around Bhuj – Ajarakhpur, where you see block printing factories and the tedious process of making . Bought some fabric and scarves too, too pretty to let go. Bhujodi Gaon – famous for Bhudia Natural juices. Nirona village, where the Khatris are the only family in India, that practice Rogan art. The art has been passed down through generations. They patiently display their work and even demonstrate the technique to visitors. The local Bhuj market is worth seeing for colored Bandhni fabric and patchwork bed sheets.

Every corner of Kutch has something interesting to offer, all one needs is the thirst to experience, an open mind to soak in the newness, good weather, lots of buttermilk and a fantastic driver like Iqbal Bhai (highly recommended).

– Renuka Manghwani

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