Gujarat Travelogue – 7: The Great Rann of Kutch

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Hi :-) Welcome to the seventh part of my nine-part series on India’s western state of Gujarat.

In my previous post Gujarat Travelogue – 6: Bhuj & Northwest KutchI took you on a journey to the north-western side of Kutch. Today, we travel to the north through the Great Rann of Kutch.

When one talks of Kutch, the first thing that comes to mind is the Rann. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Rann of Kutch is one of the world’s largest seasonal saline wetlands.

Check this satellite image of the region…

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The northern boundary of the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary forms the international border between India and Pakistan and is heavily patrolled by the Border Security Force (BSF). The sanctuary is open to civilians only upto India Bridge. To cross the bridge and drive farther, special permission from the BSF is required.

The outer belt of the Rann of Kutch comprises of the socio-culturally unique and ecologically important Banni grasslands, the largest natural grassland in the Indian subcontinent. The grasslands are home to a variety wildlife and birds, including flamingos. They are also home to numerous small pastoral villages which produce some of India’s finest hand embroidery with each community having its own distinctive style of embroidery. Most of the villagers are artisans engaged in producing folk textiles and handicrafts like embroideries, mirrorwork, bandhani (tie-dyed) fabrics, block printed fabrics, camel wool shawls, leather foot wear, pottery, carved woodcraft, enamelled metal ware, etc. They trace their ancestral roots to neighbouring regions like Marwar (western Rajasthan), Sindh province (in Pakistan), Afghanistan, Iran and beyond. Hence, each community has its own tradition, dance, craft and dress.

Now, let’s move on to the journey…

Tuesday, 3 February, 2015

As per my plan, I leave the hotel after breakfast at 8:00 am. I’m looking forward to an exciting time exploring northern Kutch… the Great Rann of Kutch, one of the largest areas of nothingness on earth. Wow!

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The road from Bhuj to Khavda (which is 70 km away, and the last place to get bottled water and food before heading further north) continues on to the famous India Bridge, the last point upto which civilians are permitted. And beyond India Bridge, it goes right till Vigakot, the international border between India and Pakistan, which is 185 km from Bhuj.

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After leaving Bhuj some kilometres behind, the car crosses the line of Tropic of Cancer. A roadside cemented signboard proclaims the fact. The first stop is at the small village of Bhirandiyara. This place is famous for a dessert called Mitho Maavo, which is sweetened milk reduced to fudge like consistency and eaten fresh. I find it at a tea shop. This rich milk-based sweet is common throughout the country but being fresh it tastes good. So I buy half a kilo of it…

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The family owning the tea shop has a small artisan shop next door, where a couple of bright handwoven woollen shawls catch my eye. I choose this red one which costs 600 rupees…

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The young chap showing me the goods, tells me that everything sold here is handmade. I can’t help noticing that he as well as the other Muslim menfolk here look more like those from Baluchistan and Afghanistan.

After a short distance, there is a check post where permits are issued for proceeding towards the White Rann (or White Desert), which is on the road to the left. The Rann’s proximity to the Pakistan border makes it a high security region so entry is allowed only on presenting the permit. For this I have to fill a form, provide a passport-size photo and ID proof and make a payment of 250 rupees (Rs 100 per person + vehicle cost Rs 50). Since it is early at 9:00 am, there are fewer tourists proceeding towards the White Rann. Still, I find myself standing in a queue waiting for my turn at the counter. It takes 25-30 minutes. On making the payment, I immediately receive an sms on my mobile phone.

The car continues straight ahead towards Khavda. Besides being a major stop for those proceeding further north, Khavda is the region’s artisan hub for handicrafts. The town’s mixed population of Hindus and Muslims originally hailed from Sindh, which after the partition of India in 1947 went to Pakistan. Khavda is also the departure point to visit “Flamingo City”, Asia’s largest flamingo breeding ground which can only be reached by camel. More than half a million flamingos stop here on their migrations every winter.

The car reaches Khavda around 9:45 am. I step out to buy a few packs of biscuits and potato chips at the nearest shop. After making my purchases, my gaze falls on some brightly coloured embroidered textiles. Seeing my interest in them, the shopkeeper pulls them out one by one for my better appreciation.

A heavily embroidered textile…

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He tells me that all the textiles are woven by womenfolk from this place as well as those from neighbouring villages, including the artisan village of Ludiya. Handicrafts from Kutch, especially the heavily embroidered works, are very popular among foreign tourists. They are very expensive because of the intricate work involved in its making which sometimes takes months to complete. I’m not interested in buying anything but the guy is happy to display some colourful pieces for me to take photographs.

Khavda is the last habitation along the straight road going to the border.  Some 25 km ahead, there is a road to the right which leads to the top of Kalo Dungar (Black Hill), the highest point in the Rann of Kutch at 462 meters. I have planned to visit this place after returning from the border so the car continues towards India Bridge. A simple signboard announces its name with a warning not to take pictures of the bridge. It’s an ordinary concrete bridge but there is something very special about it which makes me feel like I’m stepping into an unexplored region. Perhaps it has to do with it being a restricted area. The border is still a long way ahead. A thrill runs through me as the car drives over the bridge which is a little more than a kilometre long. There is a BSF check post at the other end of the bridge. I get down from the car and walk towards the BSF guys to submit the permit. The guys are surprised that I have taken photocopies because visitors mostly drive in with just the original. And there are 4-5 check posts ahead where a photocopy of the permit has to be submitted. Ahem…well, I’m known to be a wise person. Mobile phones and cameras have to be deposited at this check post before proceeding ahead. Shucks! That puts an end to taking pictures of the exciting journey. And my only proof of having visited the border will be the BSF permit! One guy makes an entry in the visitors’ register while another checks my handbag. They have biscuits and refreshments for sale but I’m well-stocked with it. It’s 11:30 am and the border is still far, some 68 km away.

It feels like a dream. Yesterday, I had seen the stark landscape of the Great Rann, where not a blade of grass grows. Today, I’m actually driving through it. The landscape is mesmerizing. At times, barren scrubland…at times, white salt, sandy desert. The once shallow sea, now a vast marsh land…and I’m right in the middle of this hostile and treacherous terrain! Amazing…and I never ever dreamt about being here in the first place!

It’s a long cruise along the deserted road, mostly rough and bumpy. Out for a pee, I take a brief walk to stretch my legs. There are no trees, just dry thorny scrub. Thorns, thorns and thorns…soon, they are all over my shoes! Damn, just like yesterday! And just like yesterday, I end up spending 20-25 minutes plucking them out carefully, one by one. The ones on top are easy to remove but those that have got nailed on the rubber heels are tough to pull out. Thankfully, unlike yesterday, I don’t get bleeding scratches on my legs.

It’s difficult to imagine that any creature can survive out here with no water in sight. But they do. The entire region is part of the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary. In fact, almost all uninhabited places in Kutch have wildlife which can be sighted, mostly in the mornings. I get my share of luck in sighting the elusive ones too. Though I don’t get to see wild asses or flamingos, I‘m lucky to be greeted by a herd of chinkaras (Indian gazelle) along the road. A few of them stare at the car with intense curiosity before running away. Further ahead, I see blackbucks and nilgais (blue bulls) waiting for the approaching car and then running for cover. I look to the left and right in the hope of sighting some more wildlife. At times, I’m lucky. I’m having the best “Rann experience” that anyone can have in the Wild Wild West, that is, Kutch!

An hour and a half later, the car reaches Vigakot where a few friendly BSF men welcome me to the border outpost. The senior among them leads me to the observation tower. Two more tourist vehicles are parked on the premises. I think this is a nice way for the BSF to interact with civilians and provide them insight on border security and the unique challenges faced by the BSF jawans in this tough terrain.  And for civilians, it’s an amazing opportunity as they not only get to see the BSF – the world’s largest border guarding force – on duty but also get a memorable wilderness experience in the Rann. The driver follows us uninvited.  Tea is served while the officer provides an overview of the border security.

It’s very interesting to discover that along this border, fencing (it is electrified) has been done only on the Indian side. Since no Indian would want to cross over to Pakistan, the Pakistanis haven’t put fencing on their side. Far in the distance, I can see the fenced boundary wall with a gate. After the fence, it’s No Man’s Land – around 300 metres of open ground with concrete stones in the middle of it. These stones are markers maintained jointly by the border forces of both countries. With BSF watchtowers at every 2 km along the border and jawans (soldiers) patrolling the area 24 hours a day, it’s extremely difficult for any person from Pakistan to cross the border without being noticed. There is no water and the Rann can be treacherous to travel on foot. Besides, the flatland makes it easy to see anyone approaching from miles away.  Since the 1965 Indo-Pak war, there have been no instances of conflict in this region. So everything is peaceful here.

Click on the link below to watch a rare video of the BSF (the country’s paramilitary force charged with guarding India’s land border during peace time and preventing transnational crime) in the Great Rann of Kutch:

India’s Border Security Force (BSF) in the mysterious Rann of Kutch

The lousy driver is becoming more presumptuous. Not only has he crept behind me without being told, forgetting that he’s just a driver, he’s now showing off his knowledge on the region to the mildly irritated officer. I give him a stern glare but he doesn’t get the message. So I signal him to shut his mouth. He gets the message and leaves. Such insolence!

The special BSF permission includes visit to Bediya Bet (Hanuman Mandir) which is more than 20 km away. Sitting for long hours has made me totally bored. Already the insolent driver has pissed me off and I’m in no mood to travel further and spend an hour or more in visiting the temple. And the barren landscape goes on forever. Last night, I was looking forward to this drive through the Great Rann but now I’m bored. I’m back at the BSF check post at India Bridge at 2:30 pm. The chatty men are surprised to see the car return so soon, given the bad road.

The next destination is Kalo Dungar (or Black Hill). A few kilometres after crossing the bridge, the car turns to the left of the road going to Bhuj. Besides being the highest point in Kutch, it is famous for the 400 year old Hindu temple of Lord Dattatreya, the three-headed deity encompassing the Trinity of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva in one body. According to legend, Lord Dattatreya was walking the earth and stopped at Kalo Dungar where he found a band of starving jackals. He offered them parts of his body to eat and while the jackals ate his body continued to regenerate. Because of this, for the last four centuries, every evening, after performing the aarti (ritual of worship), temple priests feed prasad (temple food offering) to wild jackals. The prasad, specially prepared by the temple priests, is placed on a circular platform, a short distance away. When the priests call out to the jackals, they emerge from the rocky scrubland to feast on the prasad laid out for them.

The narrow road going uphill is surrounded by arid land with sparse vegetation. Reaching the top of the hill, I find the temple closed for a midday break. It reopens at 4:00 pm.

The 400 year old Dattatreya Temple…

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I pay my obeisance from outside the closed door and head towards the place that offers commanding views of the Great Rann. The way is lined with stalls selling handicrafts, souvenirs…and tattooed camels with colourful saddles! Nonchalantly masticating, they seem to be enjoying the afternoon heat while the camel men solicit customers for a ride.

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The view point area has a few observation decks scattered around. The place is brimming with excited tourists. Walking closer to the edge of the hill, I take in the 360 degree panoramic view of the Great Rann.

Watch my video: View from Kalo Dungar in Kutch

The far-off views appear blurred under the blaring sun. Straight ahead, the Great Rann stretches out far to the farthest horizon. The scenic landscape spreading from left to right is so vast that it cannot be captured in a single frame, not even with a wide-angle camera.

A view of the western side…

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View of the Dattatreya temple…

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The desolate, barren hills with large rock boulders and scrub vegetation…

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A few signboards describe the kind of birds that can be sighted here. Perhaps, early in the morning because right now it too hot for any bird or animal to venture out.

Kalo Dungar is the farthest north that any civilian can travel from Bhuj, which is 97 km from here. There is a dharamshala for those wanting to spend a night here. It would be wonderful to watch sunset from here and above all, the dramatic sight of jackals feeding on the temple offerings. But I have already made my decision to watch the sunset in the White Rann, far away from everyone. And right now it’s only 3:30 pm. After spending some time looking around in the sweltering afternoon heat, I return to the parking lot. The driver is taking a siesta in the car’s back seat. I want to scream “Hey, you little rat, get off my seat!” but instead, I try to keep my cool and take a deep breath.

The last stop is the White Rann via the artisan villages of Hodko and Dhordo which skirt its southern edge. For a remote area, the serpentine road is in pretty good shape. A few years ago, there were stories about a strange phenomenon of vehicles hurtling down the slope at uncanny speed on return, even with the ignition switched off. Well, at least I don’t experience any such thing on the way down the hill.

Half an hour later, the car reaches the check post where I had obtained my White Rann permit in the morning. I present my permit to the security personnel and then it is a straight drive towards the White Rann. But first, I want to visit the pastoral villages in the heart of the Banni grasslands. A short while later, I’m at the artisan village of Hodko. My attention is immediately caught by a few attractively painted circular mud-plastered huts with thatched roofs popularly known as bhungas (or bungas).  A quick look inside reveals a wide variety of handicrafts: embroidered textiles and furnishings, decorative mirrors, lamps, hand fans, wall hanging, leather goods, etc. The village artisans sell their products from these artistic huts. In this, they get help from NGOs (non-government organizations), many of which have set their base in this region to promote its rich wealth of handicrafts.

Entering a door, I see more of these decorated houses. It looks like a rural tourism resort. Right now, it is invaded by school children from Bhuj, which is at an hour’s drive from here.

Watch my video: Bhungas (or Bungas) in Hodko village -I

Colourful designs adorn the exteriors of the bungas

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In search of more bungas, I walk along a dusty track and reach another small cluster of mud houses surrounded by mud walls. It too houses a tourist resort.

Watch my video: Bhungas in Hodko village – II

Tourist bungas

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Just nearby, there are about half a dozen bungas, a few of them selling handicrafts. A woman dressed in colourful mirrorwork ethnic wear invites me inside one which is stocked with handwoven textiles. Another woman in traditional wear is busy doing embroidery work. I’m not keen on buying anything so I don’t spend much time in looking around. The surroundings appear deserted except for a small group of German men taking a guided tour of the village.  A little away, I find another cluster of 7-8 mud houses with tiled roofs. These look pretty plain compared to the earlier ones.

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Back in the car, I’m looking forward to the tour finale…the White Rann! Yes, the same Rann that received immense publicity after Gujarat Tourism’s successful series of advertisement campaigns featuring Bollywood superstar and Gujarat’s brand ambassador, Amitabh Bachchan. Kutch nahin dekha toh kuch nahin dekha” (If you haven’t seen Kutch then you haven’t seen anything.) His deep baritone voice reverberates in my mind as I recollect the advertisement in which he is shown walking the white sands, clothes fluttering in the breeze. And tonight is the special full moon night, the highlight of the annual Rann Utsav (or Rann Festival) which started on the 6th of December and will continue till the 5th of March. A colourful programme has been organized for tonight’s audience comprising of VIPs and visitors from across the country and the world. I can’t help but wonder which special VIP is slated to visit tonight…the Prime Minister, President, Vice-President, Chief Minister… or perhaps, it’s just a rumour. A little later, I realize that somebody important has definitely arrived as the car drives past the helipad where a nice-looking whirlybird and a couple of official vehicles are parked.

Half an hour later, the car nears the tourist tent city that the Gujarat Government has set up near Dhordo for the Rann Utsav. Since Dhordo is very close to the White Desert, it became the hosting site for the festival. Guests get the unique experience of staying in lovely white tents in the white desert (one of the most inhospitable places on earth); roam in the whiteness and watch the beautiful sunset; enjoy folk songs and dances, camel shows and rides in camel carts; buy exquisite handicrafts and relish Kutchi food. The main objective of the festival is to promote and celebrate the rich cultural wealth of Kutch. The tent city area is accessible only to people staying there. For day-trippers, there is an elaborate set-up of food and handicraft stalls just outside the tourist tent city. Shortly afterwards, the car stops at the White Rann check post where I submit my permit.

At last, I’m nearing the much awaited white vastness! And then, something unexpected happens. “Madam, can you give her a lift?” The security personnel directs my attention to a girl wearing jeans, standing nearby. She immediately steps forward. “Sure, hop in.” In the car, when she learns that I have come from Bhuj she excitedly asks me if I’m going to stay around till night. Damn! I had planned and waited for this special full moon night, to seek solitude in the white desert…! Not one to tell a lie, I say “yes” much to her delight. And with that, I kiss goodbye to my plan to spend time alone deep inside the white land. Sigh. The girl is thrilled at the unexpected dreamy opportunity to witness the full moon night in the Rann. Travelling alone, she has come by the Gujarat Tourism Department bus that departs daily from Bhuj at 10:00 am. The bus is to leave soon on the return journey so she informs the bus driver not to wait for her. She had been here yesterday too and had walked around in the salt marsh. So I suggest her to go and watch the entertaining activities and call me up when the special cultural programme ends, probably at 10:00 pm or so. But no, she prefers to accompany me.

Right now, it’s 5:15 pm so there’s an hour left for sunset. Before leaving the car, I tell the driver that I’ll return after 4 or 5 hours. Bhuj is 92 km from here so it would take around one and a half hour for the return journey. The entrance area of the White Desert is muddy but a short distance away, I catch my first glimpse of the white marsh. After travelling through coastal Gujarat in the past few days, I have got used to seeing salt pans everywhere. But now I’m seeing a vast flatland covered with salt for miles on end! I’m thrilled. This is one of the most visited places in the Great Rann that turns snow white in the dry season. Hence it’s called Safed Rann (or White Desert) standing at a height of 15 metres above sea level.

The thin salt covering disintegrates with a crunching noise as I walk over it. The water hasn’t completely evaporated after the rains so it’s all wet and muddy underneath. The brightly shining sun adds intensity to the whiteness on ground. At this hour, there are relatively small numbers of people wandering around. Muddy footprints, tire tracks and bits of trash mar the beauty of the flat terrain. I had expected thick slabs of white salt so I’m a bit disappointed to see a mix of salt and mud. Further ahead, the salt covering, although thin, looks a bit like snow. I pick up a small chunk of it. It has a rough feel… like sea salt, of course.

Yours truly in the white desert…

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We pass by a few bikers who have driven all the way from Bengaluru (or Bangalore) but are now stuck in the salt plain which isn’t solid enough for a motorcycle.

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We walk on further into nothingness. To the right, the flatland looks whiter so we proceed in that direction. It’s only after walking some kilometres deeper inside that we get to see the real beauty of the White Rann. Now, we are the only ones in the sparkling white desert. It’s a soundless environment, simply out-of-this-world…a never-ending blanket of white, devoid of flora and fauna. So very calm and peaceful. But the girl gets jittery. She wants to pee and also watch the camel show on the festival grounds. I give her two options: return back alone or follow me. She’s afraid of walking back alone so she has no other choice but to stay with me. I suggest her to pee right where she is standing. She is horrified. Hmmm… as if anybody is going to see her in this barren expanse of white! “But I have never…” she goes on till I tell her that there’s always a first time for everything. She relents and I turn away from her to let her do her thing.

We continue heading into nothingness. The road lined by colourful flags is faraway behind but still visible because of the flat terrain and I want to walk deeper inside the desert till the flags become invisible. My wish is fulfilled after covering some more distance and then, it is just white touching the horizon in every direction. And the salt layer not only looks snow-white but is also thick and firm. Meanwhile the sun has started its descent, a big fiery ball colouring the western horizon in brilliant hues of orange.

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On the other hand, the eastern horizon is a combination of white and blue.

Yours truly against the background of the eastern horizon…

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As the sun starts dipping away, the white terrain appears bluish…

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Watch my video: Walking around the White Rann of Kutch

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And then, the sun disappears. After this spectacular show of nature is over, it’s time for the next one… in the opposite direction. We turn around in the direction of the eastern horizon. The beautiful full moon has begun its ascent in the clear blue winter sky.

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The seemingly white carpet has now started gathering a tinge of blue from the sky above and it looks very dreamy…beautiful, peaceful emptiness! Here I am, in the midst of an astounding landscape with not a soul in sight, except for the girl. No sound, no trash, no building or structure, no vegetation, no bird, no animal, no anything…only an endless flat expanse of white nothingness below the clear blue sky! Nothing but white from east to west and north to south, reaching every horizon. The only sound is my footsteps on the crusty desert floor. It feels as though I have reached the end of the world. Woohoo…I’m the master of the Universe and this vast featureless, soundless place belongs to me. Funnily, when I’m peeing, I realize that this is exactly the way dogs stake a claim to a territory.

The bluish-white flatland goes on forever, blending with the blue sky which now looks splendorous with the bright full moon.

A truly ethereal sight…

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And this is supposed to be one of the most uninhabitable places in the world! To me, this harsh vastness devoid of any feature or colour except for white is in fact tranquil, beautiful and brimming with colours.

Yours truly against the surreal backdrop…

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It starts getting dark and the girl, in her early 30s, gets scared. What if the sea rushes in? What if some strange creature appears before us? She wants to turn back and watch the special programme which must have already started. But I want to walk further deep so she reluctantly walks with me. She is chatty and good company so I don’t regret bumping into her even though it destroyed my plan of a solitary venture in the desert. At least I got a few good pictures of mine in the unique surroundings. Strangely, in spite of being deep in the desert, my mobile phone hasn’t lost connectivity. Hmmm…now where on earth can this Vodafone tower be? I don’t see any tower or anything representing civilization. Squinting my eyes in search of one, I see something that leaves me mildly disappointed.  Far away in the south-western horizon, I see bright floodlights covering a long distance. Is it the bromine factory of Archean Chemicals? I turn away from that direction to walk towards the north. Damn! Towards the north, I can make out street lights. The road leading to Vigakot? Because of the perfect flatness of the desert, no matter how far we walk away from the lights, they remain in sight.

I’m not sure where exactly we are but I think it must be somewhere in the deep white patch in this satellite view of the White Rann.

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The red dot marks the tent city of Dhordo. The structures extending to its left are the factory premises of Archean Chemical Industries. The road leading to Vigakot is to the north.

Slippers in hand, the girl has started walking barefoot. She tells me that yesterday she took a small chunk of crystallized salt to carry home for a nice pedicure. I didn’t know that walking over salt was good for the feet. Just to check, I remove my salt-encrusted shoes. It feels soothing when my warm bare feet make contact with the cool white floor. I pick a small slab of it to carry home as souvenir. After twenty minutes of walking, I notice that my salt-covered heels have turned pink. They feel very soft. I brush off the sticky salt crystals while putting on my socks but some of them remain, making the socks wet. Anyway, it feels good to be back in shoes.

At 7:00 pm, it gets totally dark. But the full moon bathes the magnificent white desert in a soft and silvery light. It makes for a perfect romance scene for film shoots. In fact, a couple of Hindi films have been shot here during full moon nights. Unfortunately my old digital camera is unable to capture the vast expanse of whiteness in the dark. Despite the full moon, it’s not bright enough to take pictures.

Full moon night in the White Rann…

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Spending this beautiful night in sheer isolation has been such a wonderful idea. The girl is enjoying the peaceful existence too. “I’m not afraid anymore,” she says. Good…

Having walked for long, we settle down on the thick layer of salt with something to protect the seat of our pants. Earlier, I ruined the seat of my cotton pant by sitting directly on the crystallized salt. The wet patch still feels rough and heavy. We remain seated for half an hour or so admiring the moon and the twinkling stars above. Time passes quickly as I breathe in the calm and reassuring air of this incredible place which is utter emptiness.

Around 8:30 pm, we start on the return walk which could probably take two hours.  It’s very easy to get lost in this place but I know that we just have to head towards the east and that’s exactly what we do. Soon, civilization beckons us through faintly audible sound of loudspeakers and a thin strip of lights dotting the horizon. By the time we reach the venue, the programme has already got over. We hang around for a while before starting on the return journey at around 10:45 pm. The road goes on forever in the dark. Tired and sleepy, I’m glad when we reach Bhuj. I drop the girl at her hotel somewhere near Bhid Gate before returning to my hotel. It’s more than half an hour past midnight, when I walk into the hotel lobby with salt crusted shoes.

Coming next:  Gujarat Travelogue – 8 : Mandvi & Bhuj

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