As mentioned in the earlier post, the The Tent City is a resort that makes an appearance for four months of the year in order to celebrate what is known as the Rann Utsav or White Rann Festival.
This is an event initiated by Gujarat Tourism, to showcase the marvels of the land and people and culture of the Great Rann of Kutch, a vast tract of salt desert in the western state of Gujarat in India.
The beauty of the The Tent City is that it not just about providing resort accommodation to the tourist. Its inclusive packages also aim to extend an immersive and integrated experience to the guest, by organizing visits to the key areas of the Great Rann of Kutch, for that is the wonder that one has travelled all the way to be amazed at.
Part 2 – Tent City Excursions
Also see Part 1 – The Tent City – An Overview
The Tent City offers 3 fixed packages for 1, 2 and 3 night stays. Each deal comes with its own itinerary.
In general, the inclusions involve a sunset trip to the white rann (a night trip on full moon nights) on Day 1, a sunrise trip and a visit to the handicraft village of Gandhi nu dham followed by sunset at Kala Dungar on Day 2 and on Day 3, a ride to the beach at Mandvi with the Shyamji Krishna Varma Memorial and Vijay Vilas palace en route. Tours are fixed and cannot be interchanged or carried forward.
For those with the 2 night package, there is a choice of opting for Mandvi and missing Kala Dungar on Day 2 but with an additional payment.
In addition to these excursions, on the return drop to Bhuj, there is complimentary sightseeing provided to the guests which includes the Swaminarayan temple, Kutch Museum (closed on Wednesdays) and Bhujodi handicrafts park.
Mine was a 2 night 3 day stay and I have documented my experiences below.
Day 1 –
On arrival at 11 am from Bhuj, we were greeted by drummers and musicians and welcomed with a Teeka on the forehead. We then completed the check in formalities at the comfortable air conditioned reception hall.
The inclusive feel begins right from here, where one can wear colorful, readymade turbans and get their pictures taken.
Tables advertising and selling various adventure rides and spa packages, are also set up in this hall and one can check out the options while awaiting check in.
The procedures were efficient with IDs checked, tents allocated, wi-fi access given, dining coupons shared, baggage tagged and sent to the tent cluster and guests transported to their respective tents in the electric golf carts (buggies), all of this in less than 30 minutes.
After lunch we had some time to rest, after which we were asked to have our tea by 4 pm and then assemble at the entrance by 4.15 pm to avail of the camel cart ride to the White Rann. There are several camel carts, each with a capacity to carry 8 guests but in case they get full, then the remaining guests are transported by bus which is certainly not as much fun. Camel carts being a novelty, everyone made sure they were not late 😀
The camels are ‘decorated’ with tattoo like designs and most of them have their names inked on their necks. This definitely makes it easier to locate your camel on the return ride because believe it or not, all camels look the same 😀 Mine was called Dhawal!!!
Please note that timings are always strictly adhered to and missing a ride means missing a trip because there are not too many transport options in the middle of nowhere.
The 6 km ride to the White Rann was covered in less than 30 min, with all the other camels overtaking us as Dhawal dawdled on, deciding to give us more ‘ride’ for our money 😀
On the way we cantered past a few other smaller resorts, some food courts and Haats (handicraft bazaars) that are set up for the duration of the Rann Utsav. During free time, one can stroll across from the Tent City and take a leisurely look at all the excitement.
Being close to the border of Pakistan, the Border Security Force (BSF) has its check post en route and permits have to be obtained by Indian nationals to enter the Rann. The Tent City takes care of these formalities for its guests.
The entrance of the Rann is a mela (fair) of sorts with camel cart and horse cart rides, camel rides, food etc for the entertainment of the general public and tourists that come from other resorts or on day trips from Bhuj.
The guests of the Tent City however, have an exclusive area allocated to them deeper into the desert where outsiders are not permitted. This is really convenient because one need not jostle with the large crowds or wait for rides and other entertainment.
They unhitch their camels and provide camel rides, All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) rides, photo ops with hired Kutchi costumes, etc.
Each cart is accompanied by a guide, many of whom are young interns from Hospitality management colleges. Stay close to them for they will narrate to you very interesting stories of the geography of the Rann, the history of the border wars and emotional tales of their life changing earthquake of 2001 where many of their peers perished. There is also a pragmatic and remarkable gratitude that they feel towards the calamity because it was only after the quake that this region came into prominence as tourist potential.
The spot where we are taken to lies 75 km east of the Arabian sea and 130 km south of Pakistan (45 km by air) with nothing but the Rann in between. The Rann is drier in the center and turns marshier towards its western and northern borders.
The Rann was a part of the sea hundreds of years ago, with geographical upheavals separating it over a period of time.
The current process of manifestation of salt begins when the Arabian sea suddenly remembers its estranged portion and flows 150 km inland to inundate the land that centuries ago was its own. The flow is enabled by the tides and winds of the June to September monsoons and the fact that the land and sea are not at very different levels. The rain water mingles with the sea and post monsoon after evaporation, the only thing that is left behind is the vast sheet of salt. A poor monsoon last year resulted in frozen rivulets of encrusted salt as compared to the unbroken sheath that forms over the clay after good rains.
There is a viewing tower where one can climb up to get a panoramic view of the Rann but in the evenings the crowd is just too large and it is not pleasant to squeeze through several human beings to get to the top. However, the guests of Tent City did get to exclusively access the tower the next morning at sunrise.
The Highlight (or low light ?) of the evening is the sunset of course. The flaming ball makes a rapid descent into the ombre orange ochre of the horizon and there is a rapid scramble to capture the sight in innovative ways. The lucky ones return with the sun trapped in their mouths or fingers or palms or even behind their left shoulders for some unknown reason 😀
After the sunset we located our respective camels which took us back to the resort whose glittering lights beckoned to us in the distance.
A sumptuous Gujarati dinner preceded some live cultural performances and made a satisfying end to a fulfilling day.
Instructions are given to the guest prior to every activity and we were told to assemble at the entrance at 7 am sharp the next morning to re visit the Rann, this time to greet the flaming orb that we had waved goodbye to just a few hours ago.
Day 2 –
‘Bed’ tea brought to the tents woke us up and we quickly got ready to catch the bus that was going to transport us back to the Rann for the sunrise.
This time we were taken straight to the viewing tower and we perched up there, taking up vantage points to greet the upcoming sun.
The tower is designed ingeniously, with salt being the star of the show. The salt molecule is a crystalline matrix of the Sodium and Chlorine ions and the crystals of Sodium Chloride are almost perfect cubes. Hence the tower is fashioned out of 6 open cubes in a pyramid format.
The lights of the Tent City twinkle in the distance and the approach road terminates at Zero point at the tower, beyond which there is no more human habitation.
February mornings are also very cold, especially on a windy plain with no barriers and I was all ensconced in what I call my 5 degree jacket 😀
Being the West, sunrise is late, usually in the region of 7.30 am. We waited at the tower and watched the sky flirting with us and tantalizing us with various hues until the horizon decided to permit the sun to pop out.
Immediately after sunrise we were taken back to the Tent City where we had our breakfast. Those who opt for the paid Mandvi tour will have to leave soon after breakfast but those who choose to stay with the schedule are told to assemble post lunch at 2.30 pm in order to visit Kala Dungar. The rest of the morning can be spent visiting the neighboring haat or exploring the Tent City or participating in the various activities.
At 2.30 the buses set off to Kala Dungar. En route we reached Gandhi nu dhaam at 3 pm and were given time till 3.45 pm to explore the shopping village.
This village was originally called Ludiya and it was pretty much wiped out in the earthquake of Jan 2001. In order to rehabilitate its people, the NGO called Manav Sadhan at Gandhi Ashram, Ahmendabad, extended support to rebuild the village and it now also goes by the name of Gandhi nu dham.
The locals now earn their living by specializing in traditional mirror and embroidery work, mud work, hand carved furniture and other crafts.
The houses here are also now built in bhunga style which is a cylindrical mud hut that will result in minimal damage to life in case of a quake. The skills of the people extend even to their huts which are decorated in bright colors with mirror and mud work.
Photography of the women of Gandhi nu dhaam is prohibited, Unfortunately there is no notice to intimate the visitor and the instruction is verbally given when someone attempts to take pictures. However the men and the handicrafts are not in the taboo list. The little ones and elderly ones are also exempt and I captured 2 beautiful faces.
There was also this little hero who summoned me and asked me to take his pictures 😀
After going around the homes and making a few purchases, we went back to the bus that left sharp at 3.45 pm to its next destination 20 km away.
Kala Dungar or Black Hill, is the highest point in the Rann of Kutch and stands 458 meters above the Rann. It contains the 400 year old Dattatreya temple complex, a few tea and food stalls, a guest house, rest room facilities, locals renting out temporary turbans for a small fee and shops selling the ubiquitous mirror laden Kutchi clothes and handicrafts.
Buses are permitted only up to a point and the 500 meters of road with an easy gradual incline, can be covered on camel for Rs 50 per head or shared jeep taxi at Rs 20 per head or by walk, which our guide made sure to say was Rs 0 per head 😀
Beyond the temple there are a few more steps that are not too steep, leading to the topmost view point where there is only a small pavilion and a few seats to watch the sunset and surroundings.
Regular footwear can tackle the hill and one need not resort to walking shoes.
We reached the bus stop at 4.30 pm and after visiting the temple and having tea, we were at the view point by 5 pm.
En route I was surprised to meet 3 kannada speaking riders who had ridden there all the way from Shimoga in Karnataka. It is a small country/world after all.
The only reason they were looking like sardars was because they had hired the turbans from the locals 😀
Once you reach the peak, there is nothing to do but wait for the sunset (usually around 6.30 pm) or enjoy the performance of the lone musician, or hire binoculars from local guides that include little children, or hire turbans for photo ops or just gaze at the black hills and white rann in the distance.
If the day is not foggy, it is said that the India bridge at the Pakistan border is also visible to the naked eye.
Our horizon was hidden by fog so we missed out on the bridge but we did manage to catch snippets of the setting sun between the clouds.
The musician’s melodies fill the air as we wait for the sun to eventually disappear.
Please note that while it is rather warm at 4.30 pm, it rapidly gets cold and windy soon after 5.30 pm. I greatly regretted leaving my coat in the bus and shivered the rest of the hour away.
Fortunately I had some welcome distraction from a 12 year old ‘guide’ who constantly followed me asking me to pay him Rs 20 for his ‘services’ that included using his binoculars to view the bridge and listening to his commentary on the region 😀 Since I had only a Rs 500 note, I told him I could oblige only if he could get me change. The enterprising little chap who told me he came here everyday after school to earn some money, spent nearly 30 min trying to change my note. He finally got the change from the old musician whom he called kaka/uncle (who apparently makes quite a packet :-D) and I was handed over a fat bundle of 50 Rs 10 notes, of which he took his Rs 20 and well, Rs 10 for kaka of course 😀
Of course there was no bridge to be seen through the haze, so I told him to keep the money without using his binoculars or listening to his narration but I did ask him to pose for me in return and he obliged with the professionalism of a trained model as I captured his various expressions, cold, cracked, chubby cheeks and all. The final smile was given only after my special request 😀
We left back to our bus soon after sunset and reached the Tent City well in time for dinner and the usual post dinner performances.
Day 3 –
This is the check out day for the 2 night package but for those on the 3 night stay, this is when they go on the complimentary Mandvi beach tour via Shyamji Krishna Memorial and Vijay Vilas palace which was built in 1929 as a summer resort by the Maharao of Kutch. Be aware that the tour lasts the entire day from 8.30 am to nearly 9 pm.
Mine being the 2 night package, I checked out after breakfast and left the Tent City in the 9 am bus to Bhuj. Please note that timings have to be strictly followed because missing the coach service will mean making it to Bhuj at your own cost.
As always, we were given instructions in the bus as to where we would stop and for what duration. The complimentary sightseeing which is a part of the Tent City package, included the Swaminarayan temple, Kutch museum and Bhujodi.
The temple and the Kutch museum are 50 meters away from each other and we had 40 min to cover both.
The Swaminarayan temple is a grand and brand new one that was completed in 2010 after the original one was damaged in the 2001 earthquake. Built by followers of the Swaminarayan sect, this magnificent structure is constructed in high quality marble with 258 exquisitely carved pillars and 7 gold tipped pinnacles. The insides of the domes also have beautiful carvings. At Rs 120 crores, it is one of Gujarat’s most expensive edifices. The temple complex also has a bakery selling local snacks and there is a reasonably tolerable washroom facility.
The Kutch museum is a treasure trove of relics and is a great place to understand and revel in the history of the region.
Please note that this is closed on Wednesdays and hence one has more time to spend in the Swaminarayan temple on that day.
This museum was built by Maharao Kengarji in 1877 in an Italian Gothic style of architecture and is the oldest museum here.
The entrance fee is Rs 5 for Indians, Rs 50 for foreigners and Rs 100 for mobile/camera photography. If you pay for your mobile, you are allowed only to click with mobile and likewise for the camera.
Some of the exhibits showcased here are the different local soil specimens from over the centuries, currencies of Kutch including Kori and terracotta, textiles and embroideries of Kutch, weapons, musical instruments, models of the various communities that came from lands as far as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan etc and made Kutch their home and contributed to the rich melange of Kutchi culture and many more such priceless items. Museum buffs can spend several hours in this moderate sized albeit, exhibit rich space.
Bhujodi also known as Hiralaxmi craft park, is spread out over 10 acres and was established in 2005, so that rural artisans could have a platform to safeguard and promote the arts of Kutch and provide a one stop shop for customers. This park now receives thousands of visitors.
Another outstanding feature of this place is the Vande Mataram complex built in the form of the Parliament house (Sansad Bhavan) in new Delhi. This is a museum of sorts that showcases 4D exhibits that immortalize significant episodes from India’s freedom struggle. Photography is strictly prohibited inside this complex.
The entry fee to the park is Rs 50. We had 40 min to explore the place which I thought would not be enough, hence I just clicked some pictures from the outside.
Tie and dye (Bandhini), mirror work, leather work, wood work etc are some of the crafts showcased here.
Bhujodi is about 10 km from Bhuj railway station and one can opt to leave the bus and stay here longer if desired. However I did not see any means of public transport here.
After the Bhujodi visit, we returned to the bus and in the last of his narrations, our guide told us the gripping war story of the brave women of the adjacent Madhapur village, who had helped rebuild the runway for the Indian air force within 72 hours after it was destroyed, during the 1971 Indo Pak war. Most of the 300 women also lost their lives.
Through our bus window, we had the opportunity to view the memorial called Virangana Smarak that was built to honor them.
We were eventually deposited at the Bhuj railway station waiting room of the Tent City by 2.30 pm.
The Tent City provides the convenience of remaining in the waiting room or depositing baggage in their care there until it is time for the flight or train. This is really helpful because one need not look for alternatives in the interim.
The bus guide also obligingly suggests itineraries for those who have further time in Bhuj. Since my train was a 6.30 pm, he recommended that I visit Prag Mahal, Aina Mahal, Darbargarh shopping area, Royal Chhatedi, Bhujia Fort and Sharad Baug palace and gardens, since they were all within a radius of 2-3 km from the station. There are several autos and cabs at the station, that can be hired for whatever duration is needed.
Almost everyone is honest and friendly in Bhuj and I found a nice auto chap who agreed to take me around for 3 hours at a total charge of Rs 300. One can also opt to go from place to place in different autos but be aware that they are not easily available in some locations. Hence if there is a train or flight to catch, it is a better idea to have a dedicated vehicle at your disposal even though it may cost more.
More information on sightseeing in Bhuj, coming up soon.
Booking and Contact –
A2, Shivalik Business Center,
Opp. Kensville Golf Academy,
Behind Rajpath Club, Off SG Highway,
Ahmedabad – 380054, Gujarat, India
Phone – Ahmedabad reservation office +91 97234 33208
Bhuj Pick Up +91 94299 14208
Dhordo Tent City Reception +91 94299 24208
They have 3 fixed packages to choose from. All details on their website.
Please Note – This is a collaboration, based on the invitation of The Tent City and I thank them for hosting me with their warm hospitality.
The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Feb 5th – 7th, 2019