Culture, gujarat, India, Offbeat, Travel Guide, Unique Places to Stay, Wildlife
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A Traveller’s Guide to Gujarat’s Best Kept Secrets.

Gujarat travel guide, little rann of kutch

On a chilly December night, I lay on the roof of a watch tower in the darkness of India’s stark salt desert – the Little Rann of Kutch. The silence of the night was occasionally broken by the howling of a lone jackal or the running footsteps of a group of Asiatic wild asses. But the real show was unfolding above – a Geminid Meteor Shower, with bright green shooting stars falling through the dark skies!

As I felt wonderstruck in the vast silence, my host joined me with yummy local snacks – khakra and fafra – and together we took in the wonder above, delving into stories of life in the desert. It struck me then that I had already fallen in love with the misunderstood state that is Gujarat.

I was a bit skeptical while planning my maiden trip to Gujarat, but over an incredible fortnight, I stayed in a restored heritage haveli in Ahmedabad’s old city, stumbled upon an abandoned flamingo colony in the Little Rann, met nomadic tribes that live deep in the grasslands of Banni, spotted a majestic pride of eight lions in Gir, and treated my tastebuds to the delightful flavors of the state’s unique cuisine.

Get off the beaten path in Gujarat with my travel guide, and discover its living culture, pristine wilderness, and unique cuisine:

Old Ahmedabad

French haveli ahmedabad, old ahmedabad, pol ahmedabad

Lost in time at the French Haveli.

The first time I visited Ahmedabad on my way to Diu, its crowded streets and oppressive heat made me want to leave immediately. But thanks to the work of Threee Foundation, a heritage restoration project in the 400-year-old walled community of ‘Dhal ni Pol’ in old Ahmedabad, I got a chance to travel back in time.

Rajiv Patel started restoring heritage buildings as a hobby and gradually turned it into a sustainable business, realizing the immense tourism and economic potential of India’s centuries old architecture. If all goes to plan, they could be hosting traditional music concerts and plays in restored heritage houses in Dhal ni Pol as early as next year.

Where to stay: Staying at the French Haveli, a restored 150-year-old Jain haveli with a central courtyard, ancient rainwater harvesting system and charming corners to sit and write, I felt a little like India’s erstwhile royalty.

Little Rann of Kutch

Little rann of kutch, salt pans gujarat, gujarat travel guide

Salt pans in the Little Rann of Kutch.

I was surprised to learn that this desert is neither little nor in the Kutch region, but perhaps the biggest surprise was driving for miles through this vast expanse of cracked earth without seeing another soul. The only way my host could find the way back was by leaving distinguishable wheel tracks in the desert!  The Little Rann of Kutch was full of surprises:

  • World’s only refuge for the Indian Wild Ass: These Asiatic Wild Asses migrated from Kabul, barely survived a deadly disease and adapted to the cold, arid desert of the Little Rann. In 1971, their habitat became a protected Wild Ass Sanctuary – India’s largest wildlife sanctuary – and they share this arid space with blue sheep, blackbucks, Indian fox and short-eared owls.
  • Tracing the journey of salt: 14% of India’s salt is made in large salt pans in the Little Rann – through back-breaking work by local families who spend half the year in makeshift homes in the desert heat. Hearing their life stories definitely put the food on my table into perspective.
  • An abandoned flamingo nesting colony: When the water level falls after the monsoon in the Little Rann, the migratory flamingoes fly off with their young ones, abandoning the eggs that haven’t yet hatched. One salt worker tipped us off a colony deep in the desert, and when we found it, I was shocked to see newborn flamingoes baked in the sun and eagles feeding on the dead eggs; nature can be cruel like that.
  • Solitude in a white salt desert: When I confessed to my host that even though I wanted to see the white desert of the more popular Great Rann, I wasn’t ready to share it with a thousand other people, he took me to a secret place in the Little Rann which accumulates salt too! Walking alone in that white, limitless space made me feel like I was on another planet.
  • Gemenid Meteor Shower / Wish upon shooting stars: I spent late nights on the roof of a watch tower in the Little Rann, watching the awe-inspiring Gemenid Meteor Shower in the dark skies in the company of my host – hatching plans to rent a boat and explore the Little Rann when it’s flooded in the rains!
little rann of kutch, gujarat travel guide, gujarat places to visit

Walking on the endless cracked earth of the Little Rann.

Where to stay: I stayed in a traditional kooba (circular mud hut) right across the road from the Rann, set up by Devijibhai Dhamecha – a passionate environmentalist and wildlife photographer, who was instrumental in the conservation of the Little Rann and its wild ass sanctuary. Indeed, I could see wild asses trotting in the desert even from the charpai (traditional rope bed) in my balcony!

Banni Grasslands (Kutch)

Banni grasslands, kutch, gujarat travel, gujarat tourist places

Our own Grand Canyon in Kutch. Photo by Jugal Tiwari.

Before I arrived in Kutch, I had only heard of two things: the white desert and the Kutchi crafts. Luckily my host, a renowned environmentalist, wanted me to the unexplored delights of the region:

  • Nomadic ways of the camel herders: Our adventures began with a serendipitous encounter with the nomadic Fakirani Jath people and their large herd of camels! They invited us to their makeshift homes deep in the wild scrub desert of Banni, and shared stories of how when the India-Pakistan borders were still lax, brides and grooms would walk across the length of Banni to get married. Their resolve to keep their traditional way of life in the confines of Banni, when urban civilization is literally at their doorstep, amazed me.
  • A million cranes flying into the sunset: In the seemingly lifeless scrub land of Banni, I was mesmerized by the vast species of birds we saw, and even more so in witnessing a million cranes flying together to their home in the wetlands just as the sun set.
  • Strange mineral-infused landscapes: On an early morning, I witnessed sunrise over the Grand Canyon-like landscapes in a secret part of Kutch – once under the sea, with minerals accumulated on unearthly rock formations to give them a strange shiny white color.
banni grasslands, gujarat photos, gujarat travel guide

Gorgeous sunsets in Banni. Photo by Jugal Tiwari.

Where to stay: I would’ve been quite lost in Kutch without my host Jugal Tiwari, a professional ecologist and an inspiring soul. CEDO Homestay, his home in the village of Moti Virani, is a hub for birding enthusiasts, and his work and stories of Kutch made me fall in love with the region.

Gir National Park

gir national park, sasan gir, sasan gir national park

A majetic lioness in the barren terrain of Sasan Gir.

It’s one thing to go on a jeep safari through Gir National Park; quite another to live inside the park’s buffer zone and hear about hair-raising lion encounters from your Gujarati hosts on moonlit nights!

  • Living in the buffer zone of Gir: That experience of casually strolling outside on a moonlit night and seeing a pair of shining eyes moving through the bushes, looking right at you! Living in a charming house on an organic farm, with just a fence separating me from the territory of Asiatic lions, was the highlight of my time in Gujarat.
  • Saurashtrian (vegan) food: In the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, which has traditionally been famine-prone, the rule is that nothing gets wasted. That meant I feasted on sev tamatar by night, and on poha and saunf (fennel) stuffed roasted tomatoes for breakfast. My host family veganized their delicious traditional dishes, and I promised to come back, stay longer and indulge further in the culinary delights of Saurashtra.
  • Jeep safari through Gir National Park (Sasan Gir): I could score a booking for a jeep safari in Gir thanks to someone’s heads up on Instagram; bookings can only be done online and as far as 3 months in advance. I chose to pay a bit extra and have a jeep and guide all to myself – and I’m glad I did, because there is so much more in that dry teak forest than lions. All other jeeps zoomed past us in search of lions, while we took our time, watching birds, smaller mammals and discussing the lives of people who live inside the park without electricity. Just as we were on our way out, a majestic lioness crossed our path, and led us to a tribe of 8 lions – 3 lionesses and 5 cubs! What a sighting.
  • Please avoid: Even if you see no lions on a safari, please don’t go to the adjacent Devaliya Park – which is essentially a zoo of Asiatic lions where older lions are kept in enclosed areas and fed manually. What a pity that the forest department encourages this form of cruel wildlife tourism – let us be responsible and not support it.
Aranya eco farm, Sasan gir national park, gujarat homestays

With my host couple at Aranaya Eco Farm.

Where to stay: Staying at Aranya Eco Farm, an organic mango farm in the buffer zone of Gir National Park, hosted by a sweet Gujarati couple – was totally worth the splurge! I spent time with their friends in the village, cooled off in the pool on warm days, saw stunning sunsets on the hill nearby, appreciated their approach to organic farming and eco-friendly living, and promised to come back in the rains and stay longer!

Safety as a solo traveller in Gujarat

white desert gujarat, little rann of kutch, gujarat secret places

Solitude in the white salt desert of the Little Rann.

I loved journeying through Gujarat all by myself – my hosts, co-passengers on long day bus rides and random people I interacted with were all very friendly. I never got cheated, rarely saw touts, and the few autos / taxis I took were very decent. In retrospect though, most of my interactions were with men; I rarely met women leading tourism initiatives.

Getting around by public transport in Gujarat

little rann of kutch, gujarat places to visit

Exploring the Little Rann on a four wheel drive.

I was surprised to arrive at the intra-state bus stop in Ahmedabad – a fancy, clean, well maintained space for people in transit. But my elation quickly crashed when my bus arrived – no different from the dingy, rickety state buses across India.

I ended up traveling fairly long distances on such buses (thankfully it was winter and the heat was bearable), for no volvo or luxury buses run during the day. I hope Gujarat tourism fixes that soon.

Eating vegan in Gujarat

Gujarati thali, Gujarat food, Gujarat culture

Gujarati thali (vegan) at the House of MG.

As a newbie vegan, I was apprehensive of my tryst with the dairy capital of India. I found that people are incredibly proud of their vegetarianism (except the small meat-eating population), but no one quite engaged with me to debate the cruelty in dairy farming.

Ghee (clarified butter), butter, milk and curd feature in several dishes and veganism is an alien concept – so I had to constantly remind and check whether the food being offered to me was dairy free. It was worth the effort, because from my first Gujarati thali at the House of MG in Ahmedabad to Saurashtrian food in Gir, I loved every morsel I ate! I think I finally get the Gujarati obsession with carrying theplas for emergency meals 😉

Offbeat places for my next Gujarat trip

little rann of kutch, gujarat sunset, gujarat travel guide, wild ass sanctuary

Sunset on the salt pans of the Little Rann.

I’m glad I didn’t rush through my fortnight in Gujarat, but I’m definitely going back to explore more of the state:

  • The tribal area of Dang in West Gujarat
  • Blackbuck National Park in Velavadar; if you know of an environmentally-conscious place to stay nearby, please let me know!
  • Marine National Park, off the Gulf of Kutch near Jamnagar

What is on your travel wishlist for Gujarat?

Featured photo by Koshy Koshy.

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44 Comments

  1. Lovely post and some interesting places you have visited in Gujarat. I made a solo trip to Gujarat last December which included visiting, Ahmedabad, Dwaraka, Somnath, Bhuj, Rann of Kutch and vadodara in a span of 15 days.I have written my experience on some these places i visited in my blog and others will follow soon. Once thing I realised after reading your post is that I need to have a good camera. All those pictures posted in my blog are taken from my Mi4i phone. Hope you like it and would like to hear your thoughts.

    Like

    • Thanks Krish; sounds like you had a fun trip too! Unfortunately my laptop crashed during this trip and I lost some amazing photos taken with my camera. Most of the photos I’ve taken above are with my iPhone 6.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aww thats really sad that your laptop crashed. Its really interesting to know that the photos were taken in iPhone 6 because they are really nice.

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  2. OMG, Shivya, I can’t believe seeing pictures of the same French Haveli I stayed at, in february this year, so excited to see that. I was a solo traveller through Rajasthan for almost three weeks and had the greatest time with my camera, as you can see on my posts about India. The French Haveli is a real nice place to stay. An I also went to the MG house to have dinner, as I am vegetarian there was so much delightful food. Namaste

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  3. followthesun says

    As always nice post ! I had similar experiences during my first solo (ever) trip through Gujarat a couple of months back 🙂 Also I had been to Velavadar, its a beautiful park. I stayed at Bhavanagar, about 45kms from velavadar, at Narayani heritage. I am not sure if it is environmentally-conscious but is certainly a nice place to stay.
    Btw, am a big fan of your work 🙂

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    • Thanks! And glad you had fun solo tripping through Gujarat too. Thanks for the recommendation in Bhavnagar, it seems like a better alternative to staying in the sanctuary itself.

      Like

  4. Shreyans Vora says

    Hi
    I am from Jamnagar. Hotel President Mushtak Bhai is a knowledgeable and interested person.
    +919824227786. He will easily manage things. Give a try.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful post, I have started envying you and your travel quests:) I really wish there was some all women blogger travel package as I am scared of solo travelling, even if it were 2 or 3 women it would be good, I insist women bloggers because we have a different lens of seeing life altogether! What is a good time to visit Gujarath and Rann especially, pls let me know…

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    • Winter’s definitely the best time, when the weather is cooler – though it’s also the peak time, so maybe early / late winter. You could try banding together with other women bloggers and planning a trip 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Do you do lot of planning for you trips Shivya? I mean booking stays, transport, minute details of details of places to visit etc? Just curious to know how you usually plan so that I can take some tips. I am normally dont plan much apart from places to visit just to make my trip as much dynamic and interesting as possible 😀

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    • Hey Krish, I only plan my accommodation – infact I pour in hours of research to find something unique and experiential. That almost always leads me to unique adventures (like the ones in Gujarat), interesting people and local insights. Transport is easy to figure out once you get to the place, as are other details 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ahmedabad and Gujarat is one of the safest places to be! 🙂 I’ve stayed there for 2 years, roamed on bikes alone in the midnight to have bun maska at stations, traveled on highways (dreamlike)! It has some awesome mid night street food places like Manek Chowk! And hotel Viram in Bhuj which had the most cheapest yet best Kachchi food ever 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true PJdiploma 🙂 Foods are really awesome and the maska bun in Lucky restaurant in ahmedabad is the best! Few cups of tea and couple of maska bun makes your day and keeps you light 🙂

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  8. You have no idea how much this has helped me! I am planning to go to Gujarat soon and that too on my first solo trip. You whole blog has been an inspiration. Thank you!! 🙂 🙂

    Like

    • Hey The Paw lady,

      December is a good time to visit and you have the rann festival also happening during that time which worth to see.The Vadodara laxmi Vilas palace is another awesome experience and a must go place. I had visited last year and posted some of it in my blog. Feel free to browse through and hope you find it useful…Shivya in this post has shared some which Iam yet to explore but that’s for another time. Oh don’t miss the Kutchi food and the maska bun 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Karthik Bk says

    It’s a Wonderful state… I’ve spent four years there… The people are very helpful and nice…

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  10. Shivani Saraf says

    I’d love to visit the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the Panchmahal district of Gujarat.

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  11. Me am basically from Kutch. But still its wonderful to see how much ground youv covered there in an offbeat way. Its only one small area but that youv covered, the whole coastal part along with border and port areas with its rich spiritual cultural quotient is also worth its salt. Its really helpful though some of the contacts UV posted herein. Gujarat on a whole is always fun, visiting many times a year.

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  12. Nice post on Gujarat, We also did a Road trip across Saurashtra, and you can check out our footprints at: http://www.shoebytes.com/2016/08/19/road-trip-through-saurashtra-gujarat/

    As for the Rann of Kutch, I did the Run the Rann in Kutch, and it is a great experience to experience the White Run on this fantastic Ultra Marathon. Do check it out if you are a runner.

    Finally, at Velavadar, since you asked, do stay at the Kaliyar Bhavan Forest Lodge. It is a barebones government-run forest lodge right inside the sanctuary. We loved our stay there, and I guess you should surely check it out.

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  13. i read some of ur post and all of the captions which captivated me. im feeling really good to see ur hard work for others encouragement and u r really talented in featuring photographs. ur thoughts r very connective and im spell bounded. i have many questions regarding travelling. im messaging u the questions through Facebook, i would be grateful if u help me by answering them.
    thank you

    Like

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