We were standing there in the white land. It was white till our eyes could see and there in the horizon it merged with the blue. The sky was clear and it was a beautiful evening. The best we could have asked for. This was one of the emptiest places I had ever seen. The vastness of the landscape and the flat barren land till the horizon made us look meek and small. To think that this extended for over 100 KMs and that we were staring into Pakistan was quite amazing.
Yes! We were at the Rann of Kutch, the great white desert. It is one of the strangest places I’ve been to!
It was the 5th day of our trip in Gujarat. The experience thus far had been one of the most reveling ever! The vibrant old world charm of the state, interspersed with modern outlook, made for a really charming combination.
A walk through the streets of Bhuj tells you stories of how the region has come back on its feet after having been devastated by the earthquake in 2001. Almost every building had scars from the catastrophe, some in the form of cracks, some in the form of rebuilt balconies and stairs. But the entire scene of the city of Bhuj leaves you with a feeling of contentment. A positive vibe prevails. A sense of hope looms onto you, a hope that there is always a beautiful future beyond the troubled days.
I distinctly remember seeing the visuals of that devastation back in 2001. It was on a republic day. And it was the 50th Republic day. I remember that because AR Rahman’s Jana Gana Mana album released on the same day and was being played on every TV channel then. I was glued to the TV and right then these visuals started flashing everywhere. Crumbled buildings, split roads, fire, cries and people running around with wounds all over! The next one-week we were involved in collecting clothes, food, medicine and donations for the victims. A huge consignment was sent from our school to Bhuj.
I had a sense of Déjà vu, walking down the streets.
The trip to Gujarat was a result of my trip to the Himalayas. Yes! The lovely mountains of Himalayas had hosted the beginning of a love story between Kiran and Srushti, who met on the trek and later decided they were meant for each other. The moment this news was broken, after a much-staged drama by Kiran, I decided that this was the right opportunity for me to make a trip of Gujarat! And as usual, my partner in crime, Arjun joined hands and we decided to make it to Gujarat for the wedding and spend a week there!
The wedding was one of the best I’ve ever attended (being the first complete North Indian wedding I had been to). The food, though veg, was amazingly yummy! The spread was huge and there was a sense of celebration all around. This was so different from the Tamil and Malayalam weddings I had been to. Wedding was a celebration here and last for 3 days! The garba on the Wedding eve was amazing! We danced till our legs cried! But no! We south Indians were bad at Garba, including the groom Kiran! Arjun and Kiran got into the groove and put up a dabaankuthu (south Indian dance) much to the surprise of the crowd! The wedding the next day was equally amazing! Since the groom was from Karnataka and the bride from Gujarat, they had rituals pertaining to both the cultures! The food thereafter was again sumptuous!
I had planned the trip by reading through a lot of blogs and articles on the Internet. To keep the trip flexible, I had just booked the to and fro Journey from Ahmedabad. We were to start by a night train to Junagadh and the return was planned from Bhuj. We were 7 of us.
After a ride through Ahmedabad, hogging on some delicious Dabelis from Anand’s shop (courtesy Aditi), we reached the station and started our Journey. It was a fun ride in the train. We hardly slept. At around 4.30 AM the next day, we alighted at Junagadh. This was a complete backpacker’s trip and I did not book any accommodation, anywhere! We used the 2nd class waiting room in the station to refresh.
The plan for the day was to go on a safari in Gir (in high hopes of sighting the magnificent Asiatic Lion!) and then proceed to Somnath, or stay somewhere in Sasan as per time.
Around 5 we proceeded to the bus station, a 10 minutes’ walk from the station. We reached around 5.15 and to our despair, the first bus had left just 5 minutes ago! The next was scheduled only for 6 AM. But if we took that, we would miss on the morning safari and would have to wait until the evening, with nothing else to do. Did a little asking around and found a share auto that could take us to Sasan Gir. The price was pretty cheap at Rs. 50 per head. Delighted, we got in and started our journey. The morning was cold! My watch recorded a temperature of 14 degrees and the drive, with the breeze hitting our face, made it feel like 5 degrees.
We reached Sasan around 7.30 and immediately went to book our safari. The first safari had left, but there was another at 8. We took that. The ride inside the sanctuary was quite interesting. It was not the typical sanctuary that one sees in the south. The forest cover wasn’t thick, being a dry deciduous forest. The safari lasted for over 2 hours but to our dismay we did not sight any lions! All we spotted were a few peacocks, Nilgais, number of spotted deers, crocodiles and a huge variety of birds! With a heavy heart, we returned.
It was a very hot and dry day! Thirsty and dehydrated, we devoured on some Malai falooda, limejuice, Buttermilk and water at the roadside shop. It was noon and without much delay we started to our next destination, Somnath.
Trying to take in as much local flavor as possible, and to save time, we took got into a chakda for our next leg of our journey. This chakda was a modified old bullet with three wheels, and looked like a tricycle, only heavily decorated and super-fast! There were other locals in the chakda along with us and they were equally amused by our company, as we were with theirs, thanks to our constant photographing, coolers and the noise!
This was the best part of such trips. Mingling with the locals and getting an insight into their lifestyle was a very heartening experience! It taught us a great deal about simplicity and humility!
After a good one-hour’s ride on the chakda, we reached this place called Veraval from where we took to another chakda, this time a very fancy covered one! The route from Veraval to Somnath was dotted with Sugarcane farms, and the kind hearts that they were, the farmers offered us sugarcane which we devoured through the journey! The sweetness of the people there reflected in the Sugarcane!
Around 3 in the evening we reached the small temple town of Somnath! The Somnath Templewas a very famous destination in Gujarat and was located near the coast in the Sourasthra region. The temple has a huge history to it and has been rumored to have been destroyed several times by Muslim conquerors over the years. The present structure was rebuilt after Sardar Patel’s intervention in 1947, during the integration of states.
As we landed, we went around looking for accommodation! We had to refresh and take a nap before hitting the temple. We found a Dharmshala, which; with the help of Aditi and Chandni we got for a very reasonable price. This place was located right near the main junction in Somnath and they offer basic facilities for an affordable price for travelers. The only catch here is that one has to be a Brahmin to get accommodation here. So it is important to have a Brahmin in the group or have some details regarding the Ghotras, Nakshatra etc, to get into a Dharamshala.
We took one room for all of us (Rs 200). There was a common bath, which was in quite a dilapidated condition. But we weren’t complaining!
After a short nap, we decided to catch some waves, for there was a beautiful beach right behind the place where we stayed! The beach was beautiful and being a weekend, it was quite crowded. We went to one end of the beach where there wasn’t any crowd and enjoyed the dip! The sunset there was amazing. The sun did not set in the sea, but rather to the right of it. That’s because the sea in Somnath was facing the South. It was a long time since I saw such a clear sunset! We stayed on till the last bit of sun dipped down the horizon.
Back in the room, we got ready to leave for the temple at around 7. We reached the temple. The security in the temple was quite stringent and we weren’t allowed to take any electronic gadgets into the temple. I decided to stay out and click pictures while the others went in. The temple was beautifully lighted and the entire place was maintained very well.
After an hour the others came out and we decided to have dinner somewhere and hit the room. Meanwhile I thought of an alternate plan; I had read that there was a night train to Dwarka from Somnath. So instead of staying there for the night, I thought we could take the train and reach Dwarka early next day, saving a lot of time! Just to be sure of the train, Mithun and I went to the station after the dinner. But to our dismay, the station looked very deserted! It was brand new too! Went in and there was just one Station Master and from him we found out that the station was not functional.
So we went back to the room, enquiring about the bus for next day on the way. There was a rumor floating around that due to the elections in the region, the buses may not be functional. But we had our hopes. Back in the room, we packed all our things and slept. At 5 the next day, after refreshing, we left for the Bus Station. Luck prevailed and there was a direct GSRTC bus to Dwarka!
What followed was a wonderful journey through the southwestern coast of Gujarat! The winding roads ran parallel to the coast and the sea looked splendid, with beautiful blue hues of the water and the sky! The roads looked unending and beautiful! The bus was quite comfortable and cost us Rs 150 each for a 250 KM ride! 3 days into the trip and it was evident why Gujarat was being hyped as the most developed state in the country!
We crossed Porbandar around 11 AM. Stopped for brunch on the way, to be treated by a nice Gujarati thali! The entire stretch between Porbandar and Dwarka were dotted with Salt pans on one side and 100s of wind mills.
At around 2 PM we reached the temple town of Dwarka! This trip was turning more spiritual than I had anticipated! And when you are travelling in India this is very common. Every second place is a temple town!
From Dwarka we bargained a share auto to go to Okha, which was a harbor town. This town was at on the tips of Indian land, the lower lip portion in the land of Gujarat! Just before reaching the Okha town, we got down at the ferry point, from where we were to take a boat to reach Bet Dwarka, a small island with an old temple inside. The boat ride from Okha to Dwarka was one of the high points of the trip.
The ferry cost each of us Rs 5 and the boat was full to its brim. We cruised through the small strip of Arabian Sea and we were right there around 4.30 PM, the golden gleam of sun glowing on us and the small island of Bet Dwarka! While on the ferry, 100’s of Sea Gulls flew along with the boat, feeding on the biscuits and peanuts that were thrown at them by the passengers. The Sea Gulls were brilliant and had such amazing eye sight! They caught the food thrown into the sky, swooping down from a great height!
After getting down at Bet Dwarka, I just stayed near the ferry point clicking pictures while few others went to visit the temple. There was a huge crowd and I was skeptical about waiting in queues to get in.
The ferry back to Okha was even more eventful with the sunset and the Sea Gulls! The entire sea was glowing gold!!
Our plan was to take a bus for Bhuj the same night. Without much delay, we wanted to get back to Dwarka and book our bus. We waited for an auto, but no auto that could accommodate 7 of us came by. After some 15 minutes a mini bus came by and it happened to be a group of tourists on a temple trip. They were happy to drop us at Dwarka! The ride back to Dwarka was yet another spectacular one, with the driver taking some small road, off the highway! The landscape was beautiful with the sea visible on either side and the entire round gleaming sun in sight, setting beneath the horizon, making way for the bright moon and the stars to peep out!
In Dwarka, we went straight for the private bus booking place. There was a good drama here when Chandni said she had to go back home since she got a call from College to go on invigilation. After a much tough convincing, she agreed to stick on to the trip! We booked ourselves on a sleeper bus to Bhuj. Mithun was going to bid goodbye to us at Jamnagar, since he had a train to catch from Ahmedabad in 2 days. He was going to visit his friends at Jamnagar and go off to Ahmedabad from there.
We had and packed some Dabelis for dinner. After refreshing a bit and charging our mobiles, we got into the bus. It was quite a comfortable journey and did not was quite cheap for the distance! It cost us around Rs 350 for an overnight journey of over 350 KMs.
The bus journey was quite comfortable. We could not open the windows because of the cold breeze. One hour into the journey, I tried opening the window a little and to my surprise realized the bus was spearing through the road! And there was not a jerk inside! I switched on the GPS, curious to know the speed at which we were travelling. GPS read 124 KM/h!!! And it wasn’t even a multi-axle Volvo!
Mithun got down at Jamnagar around 11.30 PM post which we went to sleep. Around 4.30 AM we were woken up, we had arrived at Bhuj! The scheduled time of arrival was 5.30!!! I didn’t know if it was the bus or the road which was responsible for the speed!
It was a cold morning in Bhuj. We had a cup of tea and asked around for a place to stay. A lodge was right in front, but was costly for our budget. Then we went around asking for a Dharamshala and ended up in a modern Jain house, which was like a Dharamshala. Though at first the guy in there said he can’t allow us, Aditi and Chandni spoke for a good 10 minutes and got him to give us a room! It came to around 300 per head for 2 days and a night!
The room was a nice 2 double bedded one with a balcony and a nice bath! We settled inside and at Sunrise Anurag and I set out for a walk around the place, to get a toothbrush!
A walk through the streets of Bhuj tells you stories of how the region has come back on its feet after having been devastated by the earthquake in 2001! Almost every building had scars from the catastrophe, some in the form of cracks, some in the form of rebuilt balconies and stairs. But the entire scene of the city of Bhuj leaves you with a feeling of contentment. A positive vibe prevails. A sense of hope looms onto you, a hope that there is always a beautiful future beyond the troubled days!
I distinctly remember seeing the visuals of that devastation back in 2001. It was on a republic day. And it was the 50th Republic day. I remember that because AR Rahman’s Jana Gana Mana album released on the same day and was being played on every TV channel then. I was glued to the TV and right then these visuals started flashing everywhere. Crumbled buildings, split roads, fire, cries and people running around with wounds all over! The next one week we were involved in collecting clothes, food, medicine and donations for the victims. A huge consignment was sent from our school to Bhuj!
I had a sense of Déjà vu, walking by the streets!
In search for a toothbrush, we came across a Dabeli wala! Unable to resist, we had a couple of Dabelis! It was the best dabeli I had so far! And that’s when the Dabeli wala told us that he’s been making Dabelis all his life and his dad also was doing the same! Kutch was the birth place of Dabeli.
Just across the street there was this small tea shop; there was some strange breakfast being served. It was some fried pakoda like stuff along with salted, lime dipped chilli! This along with a piping hot chai made for the best breakfast snack! Yet again, a delicious dish! I’m drooling now, just writing about it!!
After an hour’s stroll, we went back to the room. I jotted the plan for the day. We were to leave around 8, have breakfast at the Dabeli stand we discovered, walk to the bus station and try and get to the white Desert. Since I was not sure about coming back that night, we were to take our bags.
After a sumptuous Dabeli breakfast and a visit to the local Bakery, stocking up a couple of packets of Balaji Chips and some other Kutchi sweets and namkeen. Balaji Chips was one of the highlights of the trip. The Gujju girls kept buying these everywhere they found them! It was the Gujarati equivalent to Frito Lays, with more chips and less air of course! And yes. It tasted more organic!
A short walk further led us to the Bus station. We enquired around and realized that there was no bus to the White desert. Only till a particular village which was 30 KMs from Rann. The taxis were charging us a bomb! We then bumped into an auto wala. He told us he would take us around the whole of Bhuj and to Rann of Kutch and back for 1200! This was the best deal we could get! So without much thought we took that.
First we visited the Prag Mahal, a beautiful palace in the center of the city. The palace still stands, though damaged by the earthquake. The palace has intricately carved ceiling with beautiful ball rooms adorned with European artifacts a revelation of how our kings were wooed by the British with fancy things in return for land and regions.
Many scenes from the movie Lagaan were shot here. The Aina Mahal, adjacent to the Prag Mahal was closed for renovation when we were there. The clock tower was open. It offered Panoramic views of the whole city! The stairs to the top of the tower makes one giddy while getting down, due to its sharp curvature.
Just outside the Prag mahal was the Hamirsar Lake with 100’s of Pelicans making it their abode. Did a quick detour and went into the dry lake bed to photograph the beautiful birds. From there we left for the Swami Narayan Mandir. The temple was an architectural brilliance! After a quick photography session inside, we went and had lunch at a lesser known restaurant and then proceeded to Rann of Kutch. The ride was on an Auto, two seated in front beside the driver and 4 behind.
The drive was again through a winding road through a desert! There was no house or any building till the eye’s reach and the entire landscape was filled with scrubs, giving it an arid desert like look! To add to this, half way through the drive we found a herd of Camels on the road! Classic! After a small halt to take pictures of the Camels and the point where the Tropic of Cancer passes through, we resumed our ride.
We reached the BSF checkpost at a point where we had to get permission to travel into the Rann of kutch. After obtaining the same, we proceeded. The Rann Utsav, a colorful week long celebration at the Rann of Kutch was scheduled to take place the week next to when we were there and the preparations were on in full swing!
The last village before reaching the desert, Hoodka was host to the festival. There were tents, huge statues, camps and lightings in the area. We passed this area to get into the Great White Desert.
The first scene of the Desert left us all awed! There was nothing. And the emptiness was so magnificent! It extended into the horizon! We were standing there in the white land! It was white till our eyes could see and there in the horizon it merged with the blue. The sky was clear! It was a beautiful evening! And this was one of the emptiest places I had ever seen! The vastness of the landscape, flat barren land till the horizon, made us look meek and small! The emptiness filled your eyes and mind!
We were at the place at the right time! It was around 5 and the sun was still up. But it was going to set in a while! The land was filled with salt throughout and was marshy. What looked like hard ground gave way once you step in. There’s marshy clay beneath the salty layer! It was the weirdest places ever! I ran through the desert for a distance, trying not to get my show immersed in the marsh! At one point I just stood. The silence was deafening! You could hear the distant hammer from the village! Standing there and staring at the vastness of the land was an experience which can seldom be put into words!
The sun started setting! And it was one of the best places to watch the Sun set! There was no obstruction of view! The orange hues of the sunlight merged with the blue sky creating beautiful colors! The place was a photographer’s paradise! Landscape got a new meaning when there. It challenges the best photographer, because of its immense beauty, which lay in its emptiness!
We stayed there till the sun had completely gone down and the place had turned dark! How we wished it was a Full moon day! That would’ve been an experience of another level! But we weren’t that lucky! After sometime in the dark, we walked back to the auto and started our journey back.
On the way back we stopped at a tea shop in the village, had tea and snacks. We were also given a Khova, made of camel’s milk! It was yummy! After this we started our long drive back. It was around 8 in the night and we found numerous Jackals crossing the roads every few meters! The temperature had dipped considerably! But this did not stop me from standing on the side of the auto, body exposed to the cold breeze! The sky was so clear and darkness made the stars and constellations stand out! I stood there, looking up at the stars the cool wind combing through my hair! I could never complain about this life, no matter what, for I was living a dream then!
Around 9.30 we reached Bhuj. The driver stopped at a view point, near a hillock, from where the whole city of Bhuj was visible, completely illuminated! It was a beautiful sight! We went to a open ground restaurant, where the driver dropped and bid goodbye. We had a sumptuous meal there. Rotis, Khadi, Dahi, Chaval, Dhal, Paneer! The food rejuvenated the tired soul! After a nice meal and a pan to finish, we headed to our room and called it a day!
Early next morning, we woke up around 5 and we were to leave for Mandvi. We refreshed and left, checking out of the room. We went to the junction and took a sleeper bus to Mandvi. It costed us Rs 50 each. Around 7.30, we reached Mandvi. The first sight that welcomed us was an under Construction, wooden ship!
Mandvi was an old Ship Building town. They still made wooden ships used for short and long distance travel and ferry. It is said that ships made in Mandvi were used by the kings of Malabar, down south!
After a quick photo session and the usual routine of tea and snacks, we asked for directions and proceeded to the Beach. The streets of Mandvi had this unique old world charm! All the houses and buildings had a pre independent look. The roads were narrow and most houses had sit outs, like in Kerala. A 2 KM walk led us to the beach. The beach was long and beautiful and had a stretch of now obsolete wind mills! There was a huge ship on one end of the beach and the other end was a small hill like structure. It was a beautiful place to be at! There wasn’t much activity at the beach when we entered since we were early.
A nice swim in the sea and play in the sand followed. The girls even did a Camel back ride! The beach became buzzing after a while with lot of water sports.
Around 10 we left from there and headed to the Vijaya Vilas Palace, in an auto. This was one of the most famous landmarks of Mandvi. The palace, a summer retreat for the king of Bhuj, is tucked in between a sprawling 100+ acre garden/plantation. The palace, adorning Rajput style architecture is still in use by the King’s family! It has been featured in numerous Bollywood movies as well.
The palace is open to tourists who like to get a peep into the extravagant lifestyle of the Kings. The rooms, the balconies, the walkways and the artifacts in the palace speak of the rich heritage of that these families possess. The palace terrace has a beautiful sit out overlooking the sea. The exquisitely carved Marble floors and the beautiful domes make you feel like royal, just being there.
After a leisurely time in the Palace, we started back to Mandvi. From there we were to head straight for Bhuj. While waiting for a transport I spotted a flock of Flamingoes in the lake nearby! Excited we set out with the cameras and got some really nice shot of the birds. Once in the lake, we realized it was abode of birds! An Indian Cormorant, sea gulls, Pelicans and few other birds were using the lake to cool themselves on the hot day!
We shared a jeep back to Bhuj and reached around 4 PM. Lost some time looking for places to have lunch, since it was 4.30 and all the restaurants were wiped clean! At last we found had some food at a south Indian restaurant (yes, an irony there!). Idly and sambar were a welcome change for others, but I was content with the Dabelis and Kachoris!
At around 5.30 we left for the station. It was an emotional farewell to the city, as it poured down as we reached the station. It was like the sky was crying out, asking us not to leave! For me, I had to come back to the place, having missed a lot of places like the Kala Dungar, Dholavira, Lakhpat, Kandla, Dandi, Gandhidham among others!
We reached Ahmedabad around 4.30 AM. After much roaming, we found a decent place to stay. We stayed on in Ahmedabad for 2 more days before we came back to our routine mechanical life in Chennai.
In Ahmedabad, we visited a few places.
The Sidi Sayed Mosque, famous for its intricately carved Marble windows, the design of which has also been adapted as the logo for IIM-A, the Sabarmati ashram, a quaint place which takes one through the life of Mahatma Gandhi and the Science city.
The highlight of the stay in Ahmedabad, however, was the night’s eat out at Manek Chowk!
The place opens at around 11 and stays open till 3 in the morning. And it is thronged by 100s of people in the middle of the night. We started from the room around 11.30 and asked for directions and reached the place. It was so crowded that one doesn’t get the feeling that it was the middle of the night.
Manek Chowk was famous for its Sandwiches, Dosas, Tikkas, Kulfis among a horde of other delicacies. We had a aloo masala toast and the famous Chocolate and ice cream sandwich. Both were yummy and so different. We had to fight for a seat at the Dosa stall since it was in demand. After much delay we found a place and ordered for the famous Gwalior dosa and also 2 or 3 other varities of dosas. Hands down, the Gwalior dosa at Balan Dosa in Manek Chowk was the best dosa I ever had! And till today I haven’t had a yummier dosa. The sambar was just ok. But the dosa made up for it. The secret behind the extreme crispiness of the dosa was the butter that was added to the tawa before pouring the batter. The chef was an expert and his speed and precision was worth applauding.
On the last day of our stay we went caught up with a movie, Talaash, and then we were taken through the markets of the city where we shopped for sarees and other stuff to take back home. All through the trip one amazing thing that we noticed was the extreme bargaining skills of the Gujaratis. Aditi and Chandni could bargain a Saree which was quoted at Rs 2000 for Rs 200 and still get it for Rs 250! It was a surprising trait and it helped us save quite a lot of money throughout! So if you are in Ahmedabad, do not be scared of bargaining down to 10% of the quoted price. You might be lucky enough to get it at 20% of the quoted price!
And thus ended one amazing trip through one of the most colorful and diverse places in India. Right from the bustling city of Ahmedabad to one of the most silent, vastest empty patch of land, the beautiful temples, beaches, the never boring, delicious Dabelis and the 100’s of different food that we gorged over the 6 days; Gujarat had been a beautiful experience. And I was definitely going back, very soon!