13th January was the day. By around 9 AM, representatives from almost every automotive publication in India had gathered just outside Ahmedabad airport, in The Gateway Hotel. Some had been flown the previous day, while others had just landed. All gathered, pleasantries shared, breakfast done (if you love non-veg, this is probably the last place to have decent non-veg food during this journey), we moved into a conference room. Soon we were briefed about the car and the route we had to take by Mr Jnaneswar Sen, Sr VP, Marketing & Sales, Honda India.
Before the briefing, I had no idea that the car we were going to drive today, was not the same Honda Amaze which we drove during media drive in Goa about two years ago. This was an updated version. Updated how? Well, Honda said that they had added AVN (audio video navigation) system with touchscreen interface, and had also improved the NVH levels. Yes, this was the big surprise. Apart from this, Mr Sen officially confirmed that a CNG variant was soon going to be launched.
Next, we were divided into teams of three, and one car was allotted to each group. Rush Lane was teamed with CarToq and CarWale. A fleet of 9 Honda Amaze sedans were parked in the hotel parking. After a brief photo-shoot, the three of us soon got in our allotted car as Honda officials were ready for flag-off. By 11 AM, we had left hotel premises and were on our way to Hotel Honest in Hanjiyasar. This was about 200 kms away from starting point.
We soon got on the highway, but not before we noticed most of the two-wheelers in Ahmedabad had an iron rod fixed in the front, as in the image below. What was even more curious, that this steel rod was being sold at almost every busy crossroad and there were many people who were getting it installed on their two wheeler.
On enquiring, we realized that it was to protect the rider from what locals call ‘manja’. This is a special thread, which is glaced with fine, tiny, broken pieces of glass, so that it becomes sharp. This special thread is used to fly kites. As I mentioned earlier, the day was 13th January, one day before the Kite Festival or Uttarayan or Makar Sankranti. During this festival, locals fly kites. With these flying kites, they compete with neighbours what they call ‘pech ladava’. In the aftermath, only one kite survives in the sky, while the other continues its descent with the dangerous, glass laced ‘manja’ dangling along. Every year, manja has resulted in the death / injury of hundreds of birds and humans. Though the birds continue to suffer, humans have found a way to save themselves which costs around Rs 20.
Continuing with our drive, the updated Honda Amaze has improved NVH levels. They are not as good as on-board the new City diesel, but the irritating diesel clutter is now subdued by a big margin.
Apart from this, the new AVN system looks fantastic. It is offered on the newly launched VX(O) trim. This variant is placed above the existing VX trim, and also comes with electrically foldable ORVMs. Speedometer on this trim also gets illumination in blue gradation. The AVN screen features acts as an interface for music, AM/FM controls, navigation, speedometer, and reversing camera. It works perfectly, only sometimes the touch input needs to be a bit on the heavier side.
The roads were brilliant, the only disappointment was that they were too boring. Roads didn’t offer much to have fun with the car. All you can do is keep cruising. The highway till Bhuj is four lane and hardly has any traffic. Most of the vehicles on this highway are trucks which are carrying shipment to and from either the Kandla or Mundra port.
By 3 PM we reached Honest Hotel. Some of our colleagues were already there, and some were yet to reach. Honest is a chain of restaurants in Gujarat, which is famous for serving Pav Bhaji. Without wasting any more time looking at the menu, all three of ordered the same – Special Pav Bhaji. The food did not disappoint. In fact, we ordered a second round of Pav Bhaji. After spending some time with other teams, we got back in our car. The next stop was Hotel Seven Sky in Bhuj. This is where we were to collect our liquor license.
Road continued to be in good shape. You can now notice the changing landscapes. It had started getting dry. En-route, we encountered salt farms and wind-mills. We also passed Bhachau, the epicentre for 2001 Gujarat earthquake. The place was completely rebuilt and was looking new. By the time we reached Seven Sky Hotel, it was dusk.
Being a dry state, you will not find alcohol on sale in Gujarat. In order to buy alcohol, you will need to acquire a license, and then from government run shops, you can buy alcohol (in limited quantity, of course). The process to get this license is so lengthy, you might as well think, its better not to drink. If you still want to get this license, here are some pointers –
You are only eligible for obtaining this license if your id proof is not from Gujarat State. First you will have to sign at least ten times on different documents, provide your ID proof, proof of stay, onward and return journey tickets (if travelling by own car, then car papers), and finally give your finger prints. Once all this is in place, you will get your liquor license, which is valid for a week. This process takes about 20 – 25 minutes per license. By the time all of us got our license, it was 9 PM and we had another 81 kms to go, and this was not a 4 lane highway.
It was 10-30 PM by the time we reached Dhordo Tent City (about 50 kms away from Indo-Pakistan border), our final destination. This is where the three month long Rann-Utsav is celebrated by the Government of Gujarat. We soon checked in, and went to our respective tents. The plan was to meet in the dining area by 11 PM, this is where the dinner was arranged. After a quick shower, we headed to the dining area. Being a long and tiring day, all of us retired soon.
It was only the next day I realized how enormous this tent city was. The tent in which I was staying, had 59 another similar tents in the same cluster. And there were about 9 such clusters in the Dhordo Tent City. Though the number of tents in other clusters was probably not 60, still, thats a huge number of tents.
Each tent had two beds, a air-cooler, air-heater, tea maker, fan, bulb, electric plugs to charge your phone, and all other comforts you would expect in a three star hotel room. There was also a contact number, in case you needed anything else.
Inside the tent city, you are not allowed to bring your vehicles. Inside only electric buggies are allowed. There are cycles available on rent, if you want to roam around inside the city. Also, entire tent city is a non-smoking zone.
After breakfast (only veg, fafda, jalebi, khaman, dhokla, puri, chhole), the plan was to fly some kites, as today was Uttarayan, Kite Festival. But, none of us were really enthu to fly kites. The other option was to visit the famous White Desert and that is what we did.
This was the place which was right on top of the must watch list during this journey. The White Desert was hardly two kilometres away from the tent city. Our entire convoy of 9 Honda Amaze moved together towards the white desert. Soon we were there.
This is the world’s largest salt desert and we were gunning the Honda Amaze on it. The reason it is called White Desert, is because of the salt deposits on its surface. Where we were driving the Amaze, the salt deposits were about 2 inches thick. The further you go in the desert, it keeps getting thicker. But there is only till a certain point that you are allowed to go, after that no one is allowed. Locals say it gets as thick as 10 feet at its thickest. We continued driving Honda Amaze in the designated area. After a photo-shoot session, it was time to head back to Dhordo tent city.
After lunch, we decided to retire for the afternoon. With nothing much to do, in the evening we went on a walk to explore the tent city. The place is like a mela. Hundreds of shops are there which are mostly run by locals from nearby villages.
Soon it was dusk, and there was still some time for dinner. We continued with our exploration. The place looks completely different at night.
Post dinner, we were taken to the White Desert in a luxury bus. We walked about a mile into the desert, where the only light you could see was that of the starts and the moon. It was surreal. My camera lens was not powerful enough to capture the beauty of that place.
Next morning, there was not much scheduled. This gave us an opportunity to continue with our explorations around the tent city. After lunch, the Honda team had arranged some games for us. These included slalom runs in the desert, to effectively test the turning radius of Honda Amaze. After this there was some fun with footballs. We had to fit in as many footballs as possible inside the boot of Honda Amaze, without using our hands. The third game was testing the brakes. We had to accelerate the car to 60 kmph and then brake hard without hitting an artificial obstacle.
These activities took the entire afternoon. Some participated, some decided to stay inside the car with air condition on. Not sure what the temperature was, but during the day it was hot enough to make you sweat. Nights were exactly opposite, blowing winds will make you feel chilly.
After this, the plan was to visit Kala Dungar (Black Hill). Situated on the edge of the Great Rann of Kutch, this was highest peak in the entire of Kutch. About 70 kms from Dhordo Tent City, we left in our respective Amaze sedans to catch the sunset.
The above picture was clicked a few kms from the highest point.
The White Desert visible from the highest point – Kala Dungar.
You can travel in your car all the way up to the tip, but the sunset point is accessible only by foot, or by these colourfully decorated camels.
Soon it was dark, and all of us left for Dhordo Tent City. Driving at night on these roads is not safe as due to Rann Utsav there is too much traffic on the road. One needs to be extra careful as most of the drivers here drive using high-beam.
By the time we reached base, it was close to 9. As this was the last night, most of us stayed up till late into the night.
Next morning, immediately after breakfast, we decided to leave the tent city and explore Bhuj.
Our first destination was Prag Mahal, a 19th century palace located in the heart of Bhuj city. Built by Colonel Henry Saint Wilkins, Prag Mahal features Italian Gothic style of architecture.
Completed in 1879, it was built at a cost of Rs 31 lakhs. Today, the palace is a museum, open for visitors. It houses the artefacts, photos of a bygone era. The palace is also the location where famous hindi films have been shot, like Lagaan and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
During 2001 earthquake, the palace was damaged severely. Apart from this, as there was no proper security in place, artefacts worth millions of rupees were stolen from the palace. Later, the palace was restored to its original glory, but the stolen artefacts are still missing. From the palace tower (yes we managed to climb till the top), you could see the entire city.
Another fact about Bhuj is that it is home to many migratory birds. Inside the city lake, we managed to see many of them swimming in flocks.
I was not able to click those migratory birds, but did manage to click Amaze surrounded by pigeons.
Soon after we received a call from Honda, asking for our whereabouts. Guess it was time to leave for Bhuj airport and bid adieu to Kutch.