Come winter and the salt plains in the Rann of Kutch transform into a stunning white desert. This is also when the popular Rann Utsav is held, bringing a burst of colour to the barren land in the form of bedecked camels, colourful costumes and shimmering lights. This year, the festival began on November 1 and will continue till mid-February, and, as always, is being held across a sprawling hub in a village called Dhordo.
Vibrant bazaars are set up, and there is also an array of activities like music and dance performances, parasailing, kite flying (above, in pic) and night-time camel safaris. While the festival is a tad gimmicky, there are other splendours that Kutch has in store for travellers.
For your culture fix
Visit the textile centre of Bhujodi, located roughly eight kilometres from Bhuj. Here, you can meet weavers, tie-dye artists and block printers, most of whom belong to the Vankar community. Watch them at work, and take home their handiwork.
Kutch's villages are home to weavers, artists and artisans who create these puppets
Another place worth exploring is Kalo Dungar (Black Hills), which, at 462 metres, is the highest point in Kutch. From here, you can take in the expanse of the Great Rann. The site is also home to a 400-year-old temple dedicated to Dattatreya.
Nandita R Nair travelled to Kutch with an NGO in 2011
Legend has it that he had stopped here and offered his body to a pack of starving jackals, but being a god, his body kept regenerating. Even today, the temple priest offers food that has been blessed to the jackals in the area after the evening aarti.
For a wildlife high
Visit the Kutch Bustard Sanctuary in Naliya, which is home to the endangered Great Indian Bustard, a large bird that is not unlike the ostrich in appearance. You will also find other avian species here, such as the MacQueen's bustard, lesser florican, Stoliczka's bush chat, as well as the merlin.
Make time to explore the Wild Ass Sanctuary in Little Rann
The Wild Ass Sanctuary too is worth visiting, but is situated 420 km away (around 10 hours), in Little Rann. The sanctuary houses the last remaining population of the Indian wild ass that currently number around 3,000.
Rushikesh Kulkarni runs Breakfree Journeys
This land is also home to blackbucks, chinkara, and plenty of birds, including flamingos. Ahmedabad airport is closer to the sanctuary than Bhuj, so you can fly straight out of there instead of heading back.
Good to know
>> Spend a day in Mandvi, a quaint port city an hour away from Bhuj. Visit the shipbuilding yard here to see men involved in the construction of giant wooden ships. The area around Mochi Bazar, meanwhile, is lined with old pastel-hued buildings and sculpted temples. Most importantly, Mandvi has long beaches with glittering sands.
>> You need a permit to enter places like White Rann, Dhordo, and Kalo Dungar. These permits can be obtained from the BSF outpost at Bhirandiyari, which
is on State Highway 45. There might be long queues on certain days take this into account while planning your day.
>> The White Rann is particularly splendid on full moon nights. Try and plan your trip to coincide with one, but prepare to deal with other visitors who have the same thing on their minds.
How to get there
The best way to get to Dhordo is via Bhuj, which is 86 km away. Jet Airways and Air India fly to Bhuj from Mumbai. Although taxis are available, it is preferable to rent your own vehicle. If you're travelling solo, try to share a ride with others who are headed to the Rann.
What to pack
Winters in the Rann can get quite chilly (temperatures drop to 5°C or lower); make sure to pack your woollens. It gets hot during the day, though, so carry sun hats and sunblock. Wear comfortable walking shoes, and carry a bottle or two of water before you head out on a day trip.
Where to stay
Skip the Swiss tents at the festival venue — they're pricey and bang in the middle of the action. Instead, opt for nearby resorts like the Toran Rann Resort, the White Rann Resort, or Shaam-e-Sarhad at Hodka, which are in quieter spots. You can also base yourself in Bhuj.