Madaba, around and off!

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Madaba became our last stop before we took a flight out of Jordan. It’s a lovely town – much smaller than Amman but with hip restaurants and cafes and bustling markets. It is a better place to stay than Amman, in my opinion. We spent a great few days here. Madaba is famous for its mosaics – ranging from the 6th to 9th centuries. Literally hundreds of mosaics are scattered across churches and homes. The most outstanding is the Mosaic Map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land found within the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. But we spent loads of leisurely time just walking along the Archaeological Museum and Park and taking in spectacular scenes from ordinary life, stills and religious symbols – all in intricate mosaic. Then we dropped into the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration where students come in to learn this ancient craft.

All through these meanderings, we drank beautiful pomegranate juice from road side stalls and ate at iconic places like Haret Jdoudna and Abu Yoseuf. One wonderful place we chanced upon late evening was the Church of St. John the Baptist. Since we reached late, we had low hopes of seeing the church complex. But when we got there, we were greeted by a large group of bantering, joking, friendly youth who had come there for a prayer service. As soon as they found out that we are from India – “Oh! You have come from soooo far!!” – they gave us an exclusive tour of the entire underground vault and the bell tower. The absolute highlight was a well in the underbelly of the church – dating back to Moabite era, 3000 years ago – and still operational!!

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Around Madaba – Mount Nebo and Bethany beyond the Jordan.

This is a day trip from Madaba or from Amman. From Madaba, it is truly magical because you drive first to Mount Nebo. This is the hill from where Moses is said to have witnessed the Holy Land. This is also where he breathed his last. As I skirted around the simple white monument and exhibition on the significance of Mount Nebo, I stood at the spot where Moses may have stood. The hill sloped down to the dry arid land below to the River Jordan and beyond that spread present day Israel. It is difficult not to be overwhelmed.

Just as the hill sloped down, so did we. Right down to the River Jordan which today is only a small canal. Here I bought my ticket and took a guided bus ride to see the place where Jesus is said to have been baptized. The area is dotted with small churches – small and ornate. But the place of baptism itself is a simple shed.

And a little on the side, the river where faithfuls from all over the world come to be blessed with the holy water. As I climbed down the steps, I saw, just 20 feet away, on the other bank – the border of Israel. Both banks – so close and yet so far away!

Bethany beyond Jordan made my eyes teary. And I felt, even more strongly, that you don’t have to belong to a religion, any religion to feel the power of an ancient space held sacred over centuries. I came away touched by a signboard near the baptism site that said, “Heritage belongs to Humanity”. Amen.

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Petra and the Kings Highway

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Petra was the main reason for me to visit Jordan. I had researched it, seen pictures, but nothing could prepare me for the actual experience. After leaving Wadi Rum, we took a taxi and arrived into Petra by noon. By 4pm we were at Petra Visitor Center buying our tickets. We got the 2-day ticket and separate tickets for Petra by night. This was also a good choice as it does take two visits to get some sense of the magnificence of the place. And Petra by Night isn’t outstanding but can’t be missed either. We slowly walked through the canyon (Siq) passing important small sites that take you into the world of Nabateams in the 1st century BC. As you touch the rock faces, you can’t escape the feeling of awe that someone from 2000 years back may have touched them in the same way. The 2kms walk is stunning and that’s just the beginning. From the time you see the celebrated Treasury and till you reach the end of the gigantic city, you are humbled, gob smacked. I come from a very old civilization, but I just could not get over the scale and antiquity of Petra. We hurried through most of this, promising to do it in more detail the next morning. This was so we could go up to Monastery and watch the sunset over the Wadi Araba. It’s a very hard climb – by mule or on foot – but it is well worth it. We were the last people coming down and by the time we got midway, it was pitch dark. We were guided by the Bedouins and the stars. It was a thrill beyond words.

Infact, I am not going to use any more words. Petra has to be experienced, savoured and stored as a gem in the memory.

Late morning the next day, after another more leisurely visit to Petra, we resumed our north-bound journey on the Kings Highway. We stopped at Shobak, took in views of the Dana Biosphere area and meandered through the Kerak Castle. Each of these places and a few more along the way, could be stopped at and experienced for longer. However, we made small stops and by 4 pm we had reached our destination Madaba.

Aquaba and Wadi Rum

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Aquaba

I took a morning Jett bus from Amman to Aquaba. The journey was about 4 hours through the Desert Highway that runs through acres and acres of (yes, you guessed it!) desert. But Aquaba is an aquatic paradise. It lies along the Red Sea – the northern tip that is called the Gulf of Aquaba. I spent a couple of days with Sushma at one of the resorts – just idling. But I really could not get into the laidback beach feeling with the foreboding presence of the Israeli warships on the opposite shore. Of all the places in Jordan, I liked Aquaba the least. The only thing interesting is the shopping because of its duty-free status. The one thing you must not forget to get here are the BBQ and smoked nuts. They can be bought by weight and are to die for.

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Wadi Rum

From the bottom tip of Jordan, we worked our way back up to Amman. And for that the thing to do was to take the super scenic Kings Highway. This is the ancient trade route linking Africa (through Egypt) to Mesopotania (Iraq). It is also part of the pilgrim’s route to Saudi Arabia. It’s like a slow drive through history. We used a good map (see elsewhere in this blog) and decided the places we wanted to stop enroute. Our first stop was actually very close to Aquaba – off the Highway – but on the ancient pilgrim’s route to Mecca. As soon we turned off, we went back in time and space. Suddenly the landscape was desolate, vast and silent. The barren hills wore shades of crimson and gold. And the railway track from the last century that carried the faithful pilgrims added to the ghostly feel.

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As the sun went down, we arrived at our Bedouin Camp sheltered by a massive rock face and settled for the night. The Camp was basic but that was part of the experience. Few other guests came around the fire and exchanged travel tales. Then we were served the traditional Zarb meal – chunks of meat with rice and vegetables all slow cooked underground in huge pots. After dinner, we brought our camp beds out of the little tents and spread ourselves under the moonlit night. I am not sure when I slept but once I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a soft light about, a slight breeze and a million stars. It was in the middle of nowhere, yet wrapped up in nature, I felt secure as ever.

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The next morning, we leapt out at the crack of dawn and witnessed the sun coming up against the beautiful contours. Then, after a hearty breakfast, we went out to visit local springs, Lawrence of Arabia’s house and many ancient inscriptions – probably made by the pilgrims as they journeyed across this land. It was magical and all too soon we had to pack our bags and head out again to civilization.

Dead Sea and Wadi Mujib

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I did a day trip from Amman to the Dead Sea and Wadi Mujib – left at the crack of dawn so I could arrive early at the public beach in the Dead Sea. The cab ride to the Dead Sea was full of excitement. We passed the hilly outskirts of Amman and then pretty much dived into the earth. The entire journey was downhill – from Amman’s 2500ft above sea level to Dead Sea at 1400ft below sea level. On the way, you feel your ears pop! And we stopped to catch a breath at sea level!

I chose the Amman Beach as the place to dip into the Dead Sea. This turned out to be a wise choice. It is a public beach so quite cheap – way cheaper than the 5- star hotels that offer you day visits. And it was just right – because you really can’t spend much time in the Dead Sea anyway. Probably an hour at the most. The water isn’t for swimming (that’s the point!) and the skin starts to sting with the high exposure to minerals and salt. Amman Beach has basic but clean facilities for showers and change. I reached there much to the surprise of the sleepy attendant and then had the entire beach to myself. I tried various poses of floating and squeaked and whooped around. And just as I was feeling hot and tired, few people miraculously appeared to take my photos. I could not have timed it better!!

The next stop was Wadi Mujib – hugging the Dead Sea but 30kms beyond Amman Beach. Wadi Rum is a reserve made up of gorges carved out by the many streams that rush down from the high mountains of Jordan to the deep arms of the Dead Sea. Now the thing to do here is to take the Siq Trail – the journey upstream from the point that the stream meets the Dead Sea to about 3kms up to a high waterfall. Along the way, I had to pass (and heave up) many small waterfalls and rock faces. It is stunningly beautiful but also intensely foolish to do on your own. The start was easy enough with just about knee deep water to wade through. Soon tons of water were pushing me down and I had to keep holding onto hefty ropes along the way. There is a fair bit of rock climbing to be done. I could do all this only with the help of three people who thought I was mad but worthy of assistance. Anyway, gasping (due to the water) and gaping (due to the jaw-dropping rock facades), I made it to the waterfall. The feeling was heady and I would not have missed it for the world. BUT caution: you must go with friends (or organize through Wild Jordan), wear water-resistant shoes and be ready to go underwater a few times!

 

Once back, I had hot tea and a look at the wonderful exhibition on the special geology of the region. Then, headed back to Amman – knackered but ecstatic.  Along the Dead Sea, there are other places to visit such as the “Museum of the Lowest Place on Earth” and Bethany Beyond the Jordan (where Jesus was baptized). I did come back to Bethany but only after going down south first.

 

Salaam Jordan – Amman

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This is a 10 day trip to Jordan. Fully for pleasure – no work. My birthday was the perfect excuse. It worked very well as I was joined by my dear friend Sherine for the first part of the trip (she had lived in Jordan earlier and flew in from Lebanon where she works now). The second part of the trip was with Sushma, a close friend from India.

 

Why did I choose Jordan? Two big reasons: One, Petra. Two, it was in the Middle East – a region I had not visited before and wanted to know about. But there are many more reasons one should visit Jordan, as I found out happily.

What to do before you go:

Get a Jordan Pass: This saved me more than 30 JD as my visa fees got waived and entry to most sites was included in the pass. With the pass, you get great brochures on what to see and do. Please see http://jordanpass.jo/

Look up a map of the region: the past and present of Jordan is intertwined with that of its neighbours – Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. This is the land traversed by Moses and Jesus and Mohamed giving the world three major religions. This is also the land that is the center of intense dispute and division with global ramifications.

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Look up a good map with main tourist sites. This one worked well for me.

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This trip report is organized around places I visited. I started with Amman, traveled down to the southern-most city of Aqaba and then slowly made my way up again.

Amman

The capital city. Sand coloured houses crowded together on a few hills. It is the city with the highest flag in the world!

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It is also a city that has an ancient past. Relics from the Stone Age, Roman era, Byzantine period and the Ummayad dynasty are all packed together on one mound – the Amman Citadel. This is absolutely not to be missed.  Keep about two full hours. Also peek into the Archaeology Museum here that gives you a chronological view of Jordan’s history.

 

 

Amman is worth a day of tourist action but several evenings of fun. It has lovely restaurants and shops on Rainbow Street. I enjoyed visiting the Soap Shop http://trinitae.com/trinitaestore/ and Wild Jordan http://wildjordancenter.com/. The Old Town is magical with small shops and eateries buzzing with action till late at night. For humus head to Hashem (this guy is a veteran and it is his rumoured that his delicacies made the King leave his palace and eat here!), for authentic Jordanian sweets like Knanef (it is a sweet – hot cheese base with fried. It should be banned!) go to Habibah and for fab home-done pizzas and great music, visit Jafra. ENJOY!

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Bundelkhand – The Heart of India

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This is a memoir about travels between Khajuraho, Orchha and Jhansi in February 2016. These towns are part of Bundelkhand region in Central India and though I did not fully appreciate it at first, there is a distinct attachment of the people here to this identity – of being a Bundelkhandi. So, there is a Bundelkhandi language, cuisine, dance and song, culture and ofcourse the all awe-inspiring art and architecture.

It was really for the art and architecture that my friend and I decided to do this trip.

We took an overnight train from Delhi and arrived into Khajuraho at the break of a pink dawn. The cab ride from the railway station to the hotel was among green fields and a trail of small and big hotels. After checking into ours, we hit the streets. Khajuraho is really a small town with the temples as the focal point and hip cafes and hotels making the most of it. You can walk, cycle or take autos to see most of it. The temples are spread across three main areas – western group, eastern group and southern group. We started by exploring the western group. These temples face the east so that the first rays of the sun hit the idols. So, ideally the best time to visit them is during sun rise. Each temple here is poetry in stone. The sculptures speak to you. And the voice I heard mostly was the equal right of women to their own sensuality.  No subservience, no excuse for the gratification they sought and no shyness. Only the joy of being equal. We could learn many lessons on feminism from this 9th century marvel.

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9th to 11th century. Most of the temples are from this period when the Chandela dynasty flourished. And then amazingly, they were abandoned to be claimed by the forest. It was only in the 1800s that an Englishman Captain Burt discovered them quite by chance. All this and more fascinating stories related to the bravery and patronage of art of the Chandelas can be witnessed at the Sound and Light show in the evening (630pm English, 730pm Hindi)

We spent the late afternoon visiting the eastern and southern group of temples. A must-do at sunset is the Chatarbhuj Temple. This is a little away from the town center, secluded and simply beautiful. This temple is the only one facing the west so as to receive the last rays of the sun. Special here is the idol which combines three Gods Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna. Close by to this temple is the site of the newest archeological find – probably the largest temple of all – in ruins but you can see the solid base.

The next day we visited Panna National Park. We were not lucky enough to see tigers but the park was scenic with the beautiful Ken river that runs through it. There is very little chance to spot tigers here but if you go with a wish to see the natural wilderness that surrounds Khajuraho, you will enjoy this very much. Panna is not recommended if you don’t have much time. More rewarding is a slow viewing of the temples.

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Other than the temples, a total must-do is Raneh Falls – whether dry or in spate. This is a deep gorge with beautiful coloured rocks – with deep hues of pink, yellow, grey, black, greens. Usually when it has rained well, this gorge has multiple waterfalls and is said to be a wondrous sight. We went during a particularly hard drought time, so there were no falls and the water was in deep pools below. But the full splendor of the rocks was visible to us. Again very few tourists here so we spent some quiet time sitting with the swifts whistling as they flew by.

 

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There are several good places to eat in but we quite liked the Raja Café with its big neem tree and views of the temples. Excellent continental stuff. The Bakery by the lake – run by Lalit hotel – is also very nice.

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After two nights at Khajuraho, we drove to Orchha, at a turnoff some 10 kms before Jhansi. A nice place to stop for tea and snacks on the Khajuraho – Jhansi road is Alipura Palace. This is a heritage hotel run by the erstwhile king. We were served by Maan Singh who told us many tit-bits of Bundelkhandi food like their ber powder (made by drying and grinding ber) which is a cooler for the hot months. Also, things like badis (dried pulse dumplings) are quite popular. This food speaks of the aridness and the heat that is an essential part of living in Central India. We had lovely pakodas, green chutney and tea, said hello to the King and moved on. Alipura Palace, Maan Singh, 08085238223 www.alipurapalace.com

Orchha is bewitching. A multitude of spires and tall towers are spread around the winding Betwa river. The main site to be visited is the Palace complex along with a few important temples. There is also a sound and light show in the evening that we ditched to go and catch the sunset on the river. The reflection of the cenotaphs in the glistening water enticed us to visit the cenotaph complex in the morning. It was fantastic. Isolated, verdant and peaceful, these cenotaphs have a timeless beauty about them. The gardens are impeccably kept by the caretaker who has been at this job for the last 26 years. He also looks out for the birds that have these cenotaphs their home – vultures, parakeets and pigeons. A great place to stay at Orchha is http://amarmahal.com/

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We took the train back to Delhi from Jhansi but not before making a breathless stop at the Jhansi Fort. I would definitely recommend more time here. This fort brings to life the incredible story of the Queen of Jhansi – Rani Laxmibai. We have learnt about her in school but seeing the palace she lived in when she got married at 13, the courtyard from where she ruled after she was widowed at 18 and finally the steep height from where she leapt and fled after being betrayed by her soldiers at 23. The most definitive part of the story was her decision to adopt a son and pronounce him heir after her husband’s death. This is not a story of a sad suffering widow who gave up on life. She was dedicated to ruling Jhansi and wasn’t going to give this up meekly to the British. Our guide brought life to the story of this bold and daring queen by weaving an evocative poem into his commentary. His deep voice, full of feeling will remain in my ears. I am sharing it here but if he is around when you come here, do get hold of him! Chandan Prajapati, 09598809858

Another recommendation is of our driver Zahid – 8085082155. He is a proud and well-informed Bundelkhandi.  And yes, he is most respectful of feminists!!

Road to Rann

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This is a 12 day long circuit by road from Delhi/Gurgaon to Kutch in Gujrat. Although I had been to Kutch several times earlier on work, my last visit was in 2007. The rest of the family had not been at all. And my son Anav was very keen on bird-watching there. So, this was an all family trip with bits of birding, history, landscapes and culture. We left on 27th December 2014 and were back on 7th January 2015.

The travel route to Kutch:

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DAY 1

Traveled to Udaipur. Left home at about 7am and reached destination at about 6pm. Great roads all through. Recommend eating a heavy meal just before the turnoff to Ajmer on NH8 as no great food options after that. Passed the wonderfully interesting cities of Ajmer and Chittorgarh on the way – each worth a stop and stay. The kids got their binocs to see the massive Chittorgarh fort that dominates the skyline as we passed the town. But we had to hurry on to Udaipur, so we did!

Stayed at: Chinar Villa, a homestay run by Ajit and Manju Rathore, a lovely couple who built this home to retire in. The rooms are very clean and reasonable. But the absolute gem is the enormous balcony that has the best views of the entire city. We got the room that has this balcony and I suggest you insist on this one. The sunrise and sunset from here are great. Location is quite central too. http://www.chinarvilla.com/aboutus.htm

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Ate at: 1559 AD. Okay food, nice atmosphere. Especially nice old ceramic plates on the wall

DAY 2

Traveled around in Udaipur. Visited the Monsoon Palace, City Palace. There was lots more to see but we really did not feel like. Instead we had a lazy lunch at Udaivilas and then parked ourselves at the sunset point – Deendayal Park for some great views. An alternative location for sunset is the Ambrai restaurant or even another branch of 1559, situated very close to Ambrai.

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Ate at: Don’s miss the samosas and kachoris at Jagdish Misthan Bhandar (fondly called JMB). For dinner, we had thalis at Gordhan near the railway station. They had good food but if you want authentic dal battis and don’t mind a basic eating place, then would recommend Santosh Dal Batti.

Stayed at: Chinar Villa…

DAY 3 and 4 

We left Chinar Villa at 8am and took the beautiful, rugged road to Little Rann. The NH8 stretch winded through the Aravalis – hilly terrain and tiny tribal hamlets.  We turned off the NH8 near Chiloda, somewhat short of Gandhinagar and passed the milky blue Sabarmati river. We then continued onto Dasada where we planned to stay for 2 nights at Rann Riders.

We reached in time for lunch and then swiftly went for our afternoon safari into the Little Rann. Mainly saw flamingoes. Also gazed long at the Wild Ass. The Rann of Kutch is the ONLY place in the world where they are found. The most beautiful part of this afternoon was the sunset. We went to nearby salt pans where salt workers continued to be busy making salt from the earth. Their children were children – jumping on the salt without a care in the world. Our kids had never seen salt being harvested before and they marveled at how many people had to work so hard to something as basic as salt in their food.

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There is something about the terrain at the Little Rann, unlike anything you will see even at the Greater Rann. Its location makes it a huge swamp, where water gets stored and then drained out into the sea. Coupled with the harsh sun, it becomes a salty swamp. The outer layer is like caked white mud as if the land is always thirsty. But a few inches below there is lots and lots of mushy water.

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We got an experience of this on Day 4 when we were busy bird watching. We got so excited chasing the Greater Spotted Eagle that we drove right into a wet patch of the swamp and got badly stuck. We had to be towed out! Getting off the jeep and feeling the wet mud sucking my feet in was a humbling experience. Never take nature too much for granted! Day 4 was all about great bird-watching: Indian Coursers, Avocets and the very rare Mcqueen Bustard. We also saw the elusive Desert fox. It was a pleasure birding in the company of some super birders here – Megh Roy Choudhary, Himanshu Jani, Jayantika and Prasanna.

Stayed at: Rann Riders (http://www.rannriders.com) is the best stay option in the area. The owner, Muzahid, is local and started this as a “nature” destination 12 years back. He has 6 dogs, 2 Persian cats, many geese, 17 horses, and a couple of emus on the resort! But now, it caters to all kinds of tourists – not just birders or wildlife enthusiasts. So, if you are focused on these two, you have to make sure that he knows. Then they will give you some of the best guides. Otherwise its a pretty place to stay for a couple of nights, close to Ahmedabad.

Ate at: Rann Riders – they do an all inclusive package. Very decent food and if you eat non-veg, fill up here as the rest of Kutch is unlikely to serve up any.

 DAY 5 and 6

Day 5 we moved deeper into Kutch district. Rann Riders is just at the mouth of Kutch and Kutch is the largest district of India, So, we had some distance to cover. We headed to the westernmost point we intended to reach, a place called Nakhatrana. This is right in the middle of the Great Rann and a good location to look out for birds in the region. On the way we passed huge windmills, many smoke-spewing factories – all signs of the rapid industrialisation of Kutch. Thankfully, this was largely near Kandla port and as we moved past that towards Bhuj, the beautiful barren landscape stood before us.

Kutch is very different from the rest of Gujrat – you see this in the vast empty spaces , the dry shrubs but most of all in the people. Rabaris in black moving on their horse carts, men in stunning multi-coloured shawls and scarves and women in clothes with intricate embroidery and glasswork. it is a living museum of craft. There are signs of modernity – good roads, shops, vehicles etc. but still the world of the nomadic Kutchis survives.

We reached Nakhatrana, had lunch and then left for the Banni grasslands. We saw the most glorious sunset on the last day of 2014 with thousands of Common Cranes coming home to roost at Chari Dhand. Unforgettable. And our first sunrise of 2015 brought us a sighting of Grey Hypocolius which can be spotted only for the first hour of the dawn, if at all. Other special bird sightings were of: Grey necked Bunting, Red necked Falcon, Cream coloured Courser, Marshall’s Iora and White naped Tit. We also did some great shopping –  pickles, earthern pots and clothes!

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Grey Hypocolius    Cream-coloured Courser

Stayed and Ate at: CEDO http://cedobirding.com/. This is a homestay run by a local NGO that focuses on environment protection and sustainability. It is led by Jugalji who is a renowned botanist with a passion for environment and geology. The rooms are very clean and airy. And the food is fantastic – all local Kutchi preparations. Definitely ask for bajra rotlas, baingan sabji, khicdi and kadi. CEDO provides naturalists for those interested in birding and geology and if you are lucky to have him, Jugalji is an expert guide. CEDO and Jugalji are also part of a comprehensive film on the Rann of Kutch by Discovery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HO8QV0PvQoU

Note: On earlier trips, I did not do Nakhatrana as the aim was not birding. So, if birding is not your thing, I recommend going to the most touristy part of Kutch – Kaladonger. This is a small hill from where you can see the white salt desert right till the border of Pakistan. You also can drive or walk into the salt desert here. There are tiny villages around where you can visit the homes of artisans and see the astounding beauty of the lipan work done inside and outside their houses, their embroidery and wood work. During the months of December to February, you could participate in the Rann Utsav held here and stay in tents and see artist exhibitions etc. There is also a lovely eco-resort run by locals called Shaam e Sarhad that you can stay at – I loved it.

Day 7

With our birding appetite satisfied, we now moved on to the more cultural and historical aspects of Kutch. We headed for Mandvi and Bhuj. Mandvi a quiet town by the sea. The beach is secluded, long and wonderful. For more solitude, we headed towards Modava. The drive is beautiful with little lagoons and ponds on the way. On the beach, we saw flamingos walking daintily and a jackal relaxing! Also, Shyamji Krishna Varma memorial is a good place to visit to see how this early revolutionary from Kutch contributed to the freedom struggle. We also briefly visited Vijay Vilas Palace – seen in many movies. It is located right on the beach. We were scheduled to stay in the tents but ditched the idea. They did not look great at all. We went to Bhuj and stayed at Amikunj, the home of our friends, Dipesh Shroff and Kirit Dave.

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Day 8 

What a breakfast we had at Amikunj! Hard biscuit type wheat bhakris topped with pickle for savoury and organic honey for sweet. We alternated between savoury and sweet and ended up eating A LOT. Large amounts of tea followed. We slowly moved to Bhujodi, a village very close by and very well known for its weavers. We spent the morning understanding the spinning, dyeing and weaving process – enthralling! And then ofcourse shopped for some great shawls and scarves. More shopping followed at the Shrujan shop – run by a NGO dedicated to improving livelihoods of women artisans and led by Chandaben Shroff, a lady who has inspired many including me.

But the truly amazing place that morning was the Living and Learning Design Center. This was under construction to be inaugurated in March 2015. But we were guided there by staff of Shrujan who explained the vision and intent. This place will showcase arts and artisans from all over Kutch, have live galleries and films and places for people to learn in. This is a must-see.

By 11am we headed towards 4500 BC – to the ancient Harrapan town of Dholavira! This meant now moving back eastwards from Bhuj to Rapar. This would also be our way out of Kutch into Rajasthan.

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Dholavira is situated on an island called Khadir Bet right in the middle of the white salt desert. To reach it, you have to pass a long stretch of black tarred road with the white desert gleaming on both sides. It’s an outstanding sight! What is even more astounding is the location of the site of Dholavira. It’s far far away in one corner of the island, resembling a large mound of mud. When you get closer you see a huge campus complete with a fort, houses, canals, drains, playgrounds and massive water tanks. At the highest point, you can see the white desert on all sides and can imagine a time when this was all sea and ships sailed all the way to Persia and Greece. And just 10 kms away is Sindh, in Pakistan where other major Harrapan sites can be found. Standing there, with the breeze blowing in, as it must have come in for centuries, you get in touch with something timeless and surreal. We slowly disengaged ourselves from that time and moved to the sunset point, near Fossil Park, a few kms away. On the way saw the Indian Fox and a pair of sandgrouse. We climbed a small hill before Fossil Park, from where all you could see is the white desert. And the sunset was magical. We stood there with not a soul around, only the sounds of the wind and wolves in the forest. As the sun went down and the moon came up, we walked on the white salt desert. First slowly and then running, chasing each other – laughing and happy to just be alive and in such a beautiful place. Perhaps what added to the magic was the near full moon. It stayed with us shining all the way back from Dholavira, through the tarred road to Rapar. As you can imagine, this was the absolute highlight of our trip to Kutch.

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Stayed at: So, whats the downside of visiting Dholavira? There is no decent place to stay at all. Dholavira has a rotten government hotel – to be totally avoided. There are no homestays allowed as it is a sensitive border area. You cannot camp without permission of the BSF so basically you have to stay at Rapar. There is not much to choose from at all. We stayed at the Suvidha Guest House – atleast we got clean rooms and toilets. Just slept and left early in the morning next day.

Day 9

Left Rapar for Mount Abu. On the way we made a small detour to Patan, the town known for its Patola weaving and beautiful stepwells. It was also the capital of the Gujarat Sultanate (before Ahmedabad) and has beautiful havelis. We could only stop at the Rani-ki-Vav, an exquisite stepwell built in the 10th century and then at Patola Palace, to see the intricate patola dyeing and weaving process. But Patan could be worth a couple of hours more.

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We continued on to Mount Abu and reached around late afternoon at the famed Dilwara temples. Whatever you hear of white marble Jain temples, does not prepare you for the beauty of these temples. I had seen Ranakpur temples but Dilwara made me do a double take. The fact that these were constructed in the 11th century, in such a remote part, with incredible fine detailing, it’s truly gob-smacking. In the evening, tired, we checked into our hotel and wound down.

Ate at: We were zooming off on the highway around noon when we saw restaurants with big signs “Non-veg served here”. The kids went mad, we stopped and had our first non-veg meal in a long time! Close by was the Havmor ice-cream parlour. So all in all, a long lunch and dessert distracted us from hurrying to our destination.

Stayed at: Bikaner House with sprawling grounds, its own lake and all the various memorabilia that make up such heritage places. The rooms were large and comfortable. Food was okay. http://www.palacehotelbikanerhouse.com/index.html

Day 10 and 11

Traveled to our last stop on the way back – Kumbhalgarh. We selected this as it was a good place to break the long journey back and we had heard good things about the fort and wildlife sanctuary. The drive there was very interesting passing by deep ravines, small lakes, rugged territory and tribal hamlets. This was the place I had first seen the ‘rehat’ or persian wheel nearly 25 years back when I had visited Ranakpur (located very close by). This contraption to lift water from wells/ponds powered by a pair of cows or humans was so intriguing, I never really forgot it. And now, so many years later, villagers continue to use this method and ‘rehats’ dominate the landscape. Some things will remain the same…..and why not?

Kumbhalgarh turned out to be pleasant surprise and well worth a lazy three days visit. We could only do two. The fort is huge – the length of its walls next only to the Great wall of China. The ramparts are formidable and the entire inner area is dotted with interesting temples and ruins. There is also a sound and light show in the evening which the kids found entertaining and we discovered a new Rajput hero – Raja Kumbhal! Large areas around the fort are actually a sanctuary for leopards, wolves and other wildlife. We went around for a night safari, very exciting and some near misses with a leopard! The guide was great – Rajkumar @07568486383.

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Stayed and Ate at: Club Mahindra. This is one of their nicer properties, well laid out and good food. The buffets are great value and ask for their local specials – ker sangri, gatte ka saag and ofcourse dal battis.

Day 12

Started the day early and drove all the way back to Gurgaon. back in time for evening tea!

Ate at: Ajmer family hotel just before the toll naka at Ajmer – the best toilets and parathas.