The deadly Himalayan blizzard conditions and avalanches caused by Cyclone Hudhud are no stranger to Nepal...
"Move the tents," I told my friend Dawa, "It's going to pour for two days and we need to set them up so rain and wind won't wreak havoc." He looked at me as though I was crazy.
"I bet you the pants you're wearing we are getting a storm," I taunted.
"It's a bet, Didi," he replied laughing.
The day had been sunny and beautiful, yet suddenly clouds were coming up over the horizon, dark clouds that should not have been there on a day like this or at this time of year. I did not like it. In 1987, I had been caught in a heavy blizzard at 15,000 feet that lasted for more than 36 hours on a route rarely traveled in the Everest region. We ended out having to break trail over two precipitously difficult 17,000-foot passes down to safety below the tree line.
Now, as we were just about to head up above the snow line on a side path of the main Annapurna route, the weather looked exactly as it had in 1987. Although fall in Nepal is usually perfect trekking weather once the monsoon season is over in early October, occasionally cyclones or gales sweep up through the Bay of Bengal with heavy winds and blinding snowfalls. They appear suddenly to those who don't watch and can't read the clouds. The horrendous conditions block passes, cause avalanches and bring death to those who don't know the trails and are caught unprepared in the wrong place.
Thorong La is just such a "wrong" and dangerous place. Articles about the tragedy that befell so many trekkers attempting to cross the pass comment that the Annapurna Trail is nicknamed the "Apple Pie Circuit," since there are so many lodges along the way and apple pie is a favorite menu item.
Many trekkers sling their own backpacks over their shoulders and march casually off on their own, map and apple pie in hand, to cross Thorong La. At the top of the pass, they descend first to the holy town of Muktinath, and then walk farther to Jomsom and fly back to Kathmandu.
Other trekkers fly to Pokhara, the jumping off point for the Annapurna circuit, hire a local porter or guide on their own to help, and then start climbing. Most of the time they are fine and safe.
But the Himalayan environment is not consistently benign, and when a storm system, such as the Hudhud Cyclone, vents its fury, these independent trekkers tend to suffer the most. Not understanding or underestimating the danger the weather can pose, the independents attempt to cross the pass when no one should, slip off the sides of the trail in blinding snow, suffer from hypothermia, and are buried by avalanches or drifts.
Storms such as the Hudhud Cyclone suggest that tragically, too many of these independent travelers are "penny wise, and pound foolish," putting their lives at risk. Though more expensive, choosing to employ a reputable, experienced trekking company has real advantages. For example, our Myths and Mountains ground operator in Kathmandu had several groups in the area during the recent storm. They contacted the Sirdar, or leader in Pisang, two villages below the dangerous Thorong La pass, told him that a storm was coming and ordered him to go no farther and stay where he was. All of his guests were safe, warm and comfortable, while others struggled or died in raging blizzard over the pass.
As for Dawa, our group and me, although we were out of Kathmandu contact range, I recognized the weather warning signs. That night, as I predicted, a raging storm hit the area. Where we were camped, rain and wind pummeled the tents relentlessly. Higher, there was a blizzard such as that caused by Hudhud, and trekkers suffered badly. Had we not moved the tents and kept our camp below the snow line, we would have been in serious danger. For being correct, I now own Dawa's pants!
The moral of the story: Don't take the Himalayas for granted. They will lash out unexpectedly and can be deadly. Here's what almost 30 years trekking the Himalayas has taught me:
If you can afford to do so, travel with a company that makes an effort to stay current on weather conditions and uses experienced guides who truly know the area and can read different weather patterns. Listen to what they have to say about the conditions.
If you do travel alone or simply hire a porter, read up carefully on freak storms, cloud formations, etc., so you have an idea of what to watch for. Don't expect the Nepali government to babysit you, as this will likely not happen.
Make sure when you pack that you bring sufficient clothes, food and water for extreme weather - items like super gaiters that totally cover your boots; hand, foot and body warmers, such as those used by skiers; a waterproof jacket and pants to cover your clothes and extra gloves, hats and scarves.
Pack your things in plastic bags, and line your duffle and backpack with plastic to keep things from getting soaked. Above all in the cold and at high altitude, you need to be warm and dry.
Don't overestimate your abilities and try to outrun a Himalayan storm. If you miscalculate, it may cost not just your life, but the life of the porter you hired to go with you!
After almost 30 years of planning family trips to Asia and Southeast Asia for others, Myths and Mountains president Toni Neubauer took her own "intergenerational" trip to Nepal and Vietnam. With her daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren in tow, she joined the 36% of Americans a making multi-generation journey this year, a four percent increase over last year, according to a 2014 AAA survey. There are as many reasons for traveling as a family as there are places to visit, but families who hit the road -- or the sea or skies -- together have one thing in common: They want to get to know each other better.
"It was wonderful having a month with my family and watching their interactions with each other. There was so much love between them. It was an absolute joy!" says Toni.
WHEN GRANNY IS THE GUIDE
For all of its rewards, traveling with a group ranging in age from six to 70 had challenges. Fortunately for Toni's family, Granny is in the travel business. She knows the countries intimately, is acquainted with experienced guides, and has planned many trips for other families. She is aware of what works for others and what doesn't. Plus, as a former educator, she is adept at creating learning experiences that children of different ages enjoy.
"I've planned trips to Asia for families as large as 11 adults and children. And I've designed a trip to Mustang for a couple with a two-year-old," says Toni. "I always want everything to go as planned, but inevitably there are surprises. So I admit I was nervous about this trip, and I was as prepared as I could be for whatever happened."
7 TIPS FOR FAMILIES GOING TO NEPAL
People who choose to go to Nepal are more likely to be travelers than tourists. That means that although they want to see important sites, they also want the experience of being in a culture that's different from their own. So while Toni's family trip included important temples, there were also activities that immersed the family in the culture and integrated them with the people of Nepal. Their trip included visits to an elephant breeding center, a demonstration of Tibetan bowl healing, a meeting with the current Royal Kumari, Nepal's living goddess and a home stay.
Here are Toni's tips for making your intergenerational travels a great success.
l. Be flexible. The itinerary may say fly Pokhara to Jomsom but the weather -- and the airline -- say "not today." Or one family member may not feel well enough to take the temple tour. Of course, every day isn't going to please every person in the family, but knowing ahead of time what the options are gives everyone a sense of autonomy.
"Always have a plan B," advises Toni. If 6-year-old Ella tires easily in the heat, one of the adults can stay at the hotel with her for an afternoon nap and a swim in the pool. If an approaching monsoon threatens to flood a town on the itinerary, have a back-up destination. (To make major changes in plans like this, it's essential to have a tour operator that can make arrangements for your family. You may be willing to take chances when you're traveling with a spouse or a friend, but when you're responsible for a family, having someone to negotiate the logistics is a safety net.)
2. Let the weather be your guide. Unfortunately children's school schedules don't always align with a country's seasons. Summer, for instance, is the hottest time to go to Nepal and Vietnam. But if that's the only time you can go, plan accordingly. For instance, Toni took the family to Chitwan National Park, the "heart of the jungle," at the beginning of trip when it was likely to be cooler than at the end of the month. Include cooling activities -- bathing elephants was on Toni's itinerary. "It's more likely they will bath you!" says Toni. And pace yourself so you can stop several times to sit, talk with the local people and other travelers, and have a cool drink. Visit sights like temples early in the day. Not only will it be cooler, but also that is when the local people go, and you can experience the real traditions.
3. Have a mission. Plan your itinerary with purpose. Toni, who founded READ Global, a nonprofit global organization that has built 71 libraries, 56 of them in Nepal, included Jhuwani, because Jonah, 14, had donated his birthday money to help build the library there. The visit allowed him to see what his generosity had helped create. And the other children learned more about what Granny and READ Global, which they had heard so much about, actually did.
Do your research before hand so that most days involve a goal of some kind. It can be as simple as getting to a temple in time to hear the monks chanting or as uniquely special as meeting the living virgin goddess Kumari and her family. Having a tour company that can open doors enables your family to have real-life experiences that go far beyond sightseeing. During one particularly hot and long travel day, the entire family was kept in good spirits dreaming of the massage they all would have when they reached their destination that day.
4. Be active. Include activities that engage the body and the mind. Toni, her daughter, Melissa; Leah, 12; Jonah, 14; and Hannah, 16, paraglided around the Anapurna range over Phewa Tal Lake in Pokhara. Climb the eastern stairway to Swayambhunath, rather than being dropped at the car park. And go early, when it's much more lively and less touristy. Ride an oxcart into a village and allow time to talk with the people at the market and have lunch. Book a homestay with a farming family. You might get lucky and see a goat being born, as Toni's family did. Visit crafts people who are busy with their work and may let the children have a hand in the process.
5. Spend time in one place. The logistics of moving multiple suitcases and accumulated souvenirs for a family of four or seven or more can be your worst nightmare. Spending several days in one place, especially if you're on a two-week visit, simplifies your life and gives you more meaningful time sharing experiences together instead of being in transit. And just like at home, whenever possible, avoid long car trips.
6. Stay healthy. For grandparents, this means start out healthy. Nepal and Vietnam are not easy for people with disabilities to navigate. It's hot, the sidewalks, where they exist, are uneven, and cleanliness is not a given. "Physical ability is more important than age when it comes to traveling in Nepal," says Toni.
If anyone does have a health issue, be sure your guide is aware of it and can communicate what precautions are needed to those you encounter along the way. For example, Ella is allergic to peanuts, so the family's guide had to know how to be very precise when ordering food.
Know what to do to prevent health problems. Touring in hot weather is especially tricky: have extra bottles of water, sunscreen, and hats. It's common sense, but travelers to Asia in summer may not be prepared for just how hot it can be.
7. Keep the connection alive. Toni's grandchildren had the opportunity to meet Nepalese children, including those who made school trips to the READ Global library. They were invited to homes and are working on plans to stay in touch and Skype each other.
Introducing children to a world they've never known broadens their minds and touches their hearts. Yes, things will go wrong, but how the family, especially the adults, cope with travel challenges are also life lessons children will carry with them for years to come. As Toni says, "We have so few chances in our helter-skelter lives to spend quality time together, and travel is a golden opportunity for families to get to know each other on an equal footing, stripped of age differences and pretense."
For train lovers and "slow" travelers, Ecuador's newly restored, century-old railwayline -- the Tren Crucero -- is a way to "cruise" from the country's capital
city of Quito to Guayaquil, its commercial center on the Pacific. The four-day trip can also be taken in the reverse direction, which makes it a perfect add-on trip post-Galapagos island hopping.
That's what Myths and Mountains' travelers David Axelrod and his wife Linda Feferman did. Rather than take the 40-minute flight to Quito, they opted for seeing the country by rail. David, a train fan, was intrigued by an article about the newly restored Tran Crucero in the Financial Times, and the trip, which includes a sojourn through the "Avenue of the Volcanoes," did not disappoint. In fact, it just won the title of South America’s Leading Luxury Train Journey from the 2014 World Travel Awards.
"The cruise train is for people who like getting into the back country and traveling in an interesting way," says David. "We went through parts of the country that few tourists visit." Since having the train come through their village is a new experience for the local people, David said the people were friendly and pleased to have visitors.
SLOW TRAVEL MADE EASY…AND COMFORTABLE
Although David cautions travelers not to expect Orient-Express luxury, he says the coaches were quite comfortable. Since they are restored in the Spanish Baroque style, one feels transported in time as well as place.
The four coaches of the Tren Crucero, or "cruise train," are alternately pulled by a reconditioned, authentic steam engine and a gleaming new diesel, depending on the track and the terrain. It carries as many as 54 passengers nearly 300 miles, through villages, orchards, and fertile farmlands and down deep gorges and up cliff-side switchbacks, including crossing the precipitous "Devil's Nose," which is said to be the trip's most exciting moment.
A bilingual concierge in each car answers questions about the passing landscape and points out landmarks travelers wouldn't want to miss by looking in the wrong direction.
Along the way, the train stops in towns and villages for travelers to enjoy local cuisine, folk dances, and craft markets. At some stops, passengers are bused to popular sites, such as the national park surrounding Cotopaxi, one of the world's highest active volcanoes.
"The train crew warned us about altitude sickness and then kindly provided us with unlimited amounts of coca tea which is claimed to cure it," says David. "I'm not sure it helped with the altitude, but we definitely left the train with a buzz on!"
There are several off-the-beaten track experiences, too, like a tour of working rose and cocoa plantations, which were a surprise for David and Linda. If you're lucky, your stop at the town of Guamote will be on market day, when everything from fabric to pigs are for sale.
"We got off in one town, which seemed quite dismal at first, but when we turned the corner, there was
a spectacular 19th century castle-like structure with strolling musicians," he says. "Even the Ecuadorians on the train were surprised!"
SAMPLING HACIENDA LIFE IN STYLE
Each day ends near a hacienda, where passengers dine and spend the night. The first night's accommodations at a hotel outside Bucay were fine, says David. But the hacienda stays were among the highlights of the trip. "They were places we never would have known about," says David.
David and Linda spent the second night at the Hacienda Abraspungo outside Riobamba. Set against a backdrop of Andean peaks, the hacienda is built in the traditional colonial style and is a working estate.
Another highlight was lunch at Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, which is built on the site of an Inca palace and has changed little since the 18th Century. Its previous owners include several presidents of Ecuador and famous bullfighters. "After lunch, two of the hacienda's herdsmen brought a huge pack of llamas into the courtyard for our amusement," David recalls.
On the third night, David and Linda were guests at the Hacienda La Cienega, a historic inn dating back to 1695 outside Latacunga that was once home to the Marques family, staunch defenders of Simon Bolivar.
AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER
"Many people going to Ecuador do their own tours, but this is quite a unique trip. We felt we had an Ecuador experience that few people have had," says David. And they met other interesting travelers, many of whom were Ecuadorian seeing this part of their country for the first time.
David offers some good advice for travelers taking the train from Guayaquil: "The train leaves from the station in Duran which is a 20-30 min drive from central Guayaquil. It's a good idea to use a fixer and driver because the procedures at the station are somewhat chaotic, and English is not widely spoken by the station staff."
David and Linda had traveled with Myths and Mountains before, and they love that almost any trip they want to do can be customized to their standards.
For 25 years, Myths and Mountains has been taking travelers beyond the guidebook sites to experience different cultures through their crafts, natural history, spiritual centers and healing traditions. Now, these kinds of trips have a name -- experiential tours -- and it's a hot trend in worldwide travel.
An American Express survey last year found that 72% of respondents said they would rather spend money on experiences than things. That certainly describes the typical Myths and Mountains traveler. Take the six women who took our Untamed Cambodia journey last winter.
Real Life Encounters
Of course, no one going to Cambodia wants to miss the Royal Palace and Angkor temples -- andArta, Terri, Roz, Alain, Susan and Nancy were no exception. But Untamed Cambodia, named a "Tour of a Lifetime" by National Geographic Traveler last year, offered the women opportunities to spend time in the wild animal rescue facilities that had attracted them to the Myths and Mountains Cambodia trip in thefirst place.
Some of the women were or had been involved with the Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, Mn., so bathing elephants at the Elephant Valley Project and playing with the sun bears at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center were experiences that still give them goose bumps. Their 13 days experiencing Cambodia also included trekking through the jungle with local guides, floating in small boats down the Tonle Sap past floating villages, and meeting people in other villages.
Bear Keeper for a Day
Arta says spending the day as a bear keeper at Phnom Tamao was "…an amazing, amazing experience." As a member of the board of directors of the Colo Zoo, she was aware that sun bears were in trouble, but she was not familiar with rescue programs such as this one in Cambodia.
Sun bears are in danger of becoming extinct as commercial hunters ruthlessly capture them. They may be killed for their paws, the essential ingredient in bear paw soup, a gourmet Asian delicacy that is said to promote health. Or they are held captive in "bear farms," where their gall bladders are continuously and painfully drained of bile for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The bears at Phnom Tamao were the lucky ones. The Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team has rescued them for several reasons, including confiscating them from illegal wildlife traders. The bears and other rescued animals are cared for at the Center until they are healthy enough to be released in the wild.
"We did enrichment exercises with the sun bears to bring out some of their natural instincts and break up the boredom," said Arta. "We tossed balls with holes filled with food to them, and the bears would hold the balls between their front and back paws to get the food out. It was such fun to watch."
What surprised Arta was how modern the animal care was. "The animals are very well cared for and the local people working at the facility were informed and educated. I'm not sure what their background was, but they certainly knew a lot about sun bears."
"It was painful to hear about how the bears were treated but also hopeful that something was being done to rescue them," said Terri. She is a therapeutic harpist, who has worked with primates. The Cambodia experience inspired her to compose three pieces that will be recorded later this year.
Nancy, who is a volunteer at the Como Conservatory garden, didn't find the birds she was hoping to see. "We made too much noise walking through the jungle," she said. But seeing the floating villages and having time to wander through a rural village and meet the locals was especially memorable for her.
The experience that caused her goose bumps? Trekking through the Mondulkiri jungle to the Elephant Valley Project, which rescues overworked elephants from Bunong families. The project pays the elephant owners what their animals would have earned doing exhausting jobs like dragging timber from the jungle. "It's awin win situation," says Terri.
"We walked down a steep path and then, just like magic, there was an elephant!" said Terri. "It brought tears to my eyes. I thought elephants would make a lot of noise walking through the jungle, but they don't. They are so quiet."
We couldn't help but ask, "Did you know this kind of 'experiential' travel is a hot trend now? "
"No, but it's the kind of travel we like to do," says Arta, "we just didn't know it had a name."
When travelers call us about a trip to Tibet, our first question is, "Why Tibet?" The reason we ask is because there is another option that might be even more interesting, less expensive, and just as gratifying. It's Ladakh, also known as "Little Tibet."
Don't get us wrong. Tibet is a must if Lhasa is on top of your bucket list or visiting the Jokhang temple is a lifelong dream, as it is for many Mahayana Buddhists. But if experiencing the Tibetan Buddhist culture, enjoying festivals that will not be cancelled and appreciating the stark and breathtaking landscape of the Tibetan plateau are your main interests, Ladakh offers it all.
Tibetan culture in Ladakh has been allowed to flourish unimpeded by 20th century political clashes and restrictions. And the culture has a centuries- old history in Ladakh: Tibetans began migrating from western Tibet, or Guge, in the 7th century. During the same period, Buddhist texts were being carried across the Himalayas, and the sage Padmasambhava was bringing Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan and neighboring countries. Today, Mahayana Buddhism is the main religion of eastern Ladakh. (The western part of the region is primarily Muslim). The Dalai Lama is free to visit, and he does with some frequency. This July, for instance, His Holiness will be in Leh, Ladakh's capital city, for the first three days of the Kalachakra festival.
LAND OF MOUNTAIN PASSES Ladakh, the "land of mountain passes," is crisscrossed by two great mountain ranges, the Himalayas in the south and the Karakoram to the north. It is within the Jammu & Kashmir state, which juts upward from India and is bordered by Pakistan to the northwest, Xinjiang, China to the north, and Tibet to the east. And, yes, a river--the Indus River--runs through it.
Ladakh and Leh, the capital city, is the site of many festivals and functioning monasteries. At almost any time of year, we can schedule your trip to coincide with a major festival. And your travels, including treks for those who wish to experience the high desert and deep gorges on foot, can be organized around visits to several important monasteries. We can also include a journey to Kashmir to the west and/or south to Dharamasala, where the Dalai Lama resides. Flights can be arranged, but going by van allows for seeing spectacular scenery up close.
MONASTERIES OF LADAKH As Buddhism spread, monasteries to house the monks and Lamas were constructed. By the 11th century there were over 100 in what is today Tibet and Ladakh. Here are a few that are typically included on a Myths and Mountains itinerary--two of which date back to the 11th century.
Thiksey Like many monasteries, this 600- year-old one sits on a hilltop with a panoramic view of the Sindh Valley. With ten temples, Thiksey (or Thikse) is among the largest monasteries you can visit. It is said to be one of the best organized, since the incarnate lama actually lives there, along with about 100 monks and a school for children. Thiksey is also home to a nearly 50-foot-tall Buddha statue, the largest in Ladakh. Lovely murals decorate the walls, and an image of Sakyamuni (the past Buddha) in the central hall is a main attraction. Cham (mask) dances take place here during the annual Thiksey festival.
Hemis In a remote valley on the bank of the Indus river about 25 miles from Leh is one of the most important and largest monasteries in Ladakh. Hemis is actually a unique complex of temples built in the 17th century and based on the concept of a three-dimensional mandala. The two-day Hemis festival celebrating the birth of Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, is one of the most famous festivals in Ladakh. The highlight is a masked dance performed by the colorfully robed Lamas celebrating the victory of good over evil. If you are really fortunate, you may see one of the largest thanka paintings in the world, which is displayed only every 11 years.
Dak Thok Unlike other monasteries, Dak Thok (aka Takthok, Thag Thog, and Thak Thak) is built within and around a cave about 28 miles from Leh. It is the only Buddhist monastery of the Nyingma (the "school of the ancient ones") tradition in Ladakh. The name Takthok means, "rock roof." Padmasambhava lived there and meditated for three years--or so the legend goes. Just outside his small cave are images of him and Avalokitesvara, the deity of compassion. It's believed that a large footprint on a nearby rock slab belongs to Padmasambhava. The monastery was initially created when a Lama walled in the cave and built an entrance door. Later a three-story building with an assembly hall was constructed, which over the years has been modified several times and now is home to about 50 monks. Attending the lesser-known Dak Thok festival, often at the same time as the Hemis Festival, is a treat, as there are few tourists and many Ladakhis.
Alchi About 44 miles from Leh on the banks of the Indus river is the village of Alchi and a thousand-year-old monastery and temple complex--the oldest in Ladakh. The architecture is typically Tibetan with flat roofs and multiple windows. Thousands of images of the Buddha and murals dating as far back as the 11th century decorate the monastery, and some are extraordinarily colorful. You'll see some of the oldest wall paintings in Ladakh as well as major shrines, such as the Manjushri Temple, with its painted wood ceilings. Another distinguishing feature of the monastery is the series of chortens marking the entrance.
Lamayuru Like Alchi, Lamayuru is ancient, dating to the time of the Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055 CE), the great builder. It's thought that Lamayuru was actually built by the King of Ladakh and given to Zangpo. Also known as Tharpa Ling, or "place of freedom," Lamayuru is one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh. Nearly 80 miles from Leh and perched on a steep mountain, it contains many works of Tibetan Buddhist art--colorful murals, thankas, and statuary--and is home to about 50 monks. The surrounding landscape is “otherworldly” and the drive definitely epitomizes “adventure travel” at its best!