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!
Myths and Mountains, an award-winning experiential tour operator offering active lifestyle trips inAsia, Southeast Asia and South America, was named winner of the ninth annual Observer Ethical Awards’ travel category for the first time today. Myths and Mountains, along with the READ Global Program, was the only American company nominated for an award sponsored by the Observer, one of England’s most prominent and trusted news sources. Information about the ninth Annual Awards is available here.
The Observer Ethical Awards Ceremony- dubbed ‘The Green Oscars’- took place at One Marylebone in London on June 11th. Sponsored by Virgin Airlines, the competition was voted upon by both a panel of judges and the public.
Dr. Antonia Neubauer founded Myths and Mountains in 1988 after a trekking trip to Nepal, where her deep connection to international education and development was realized. Her knowledge of the Nepali people and culture grew, and her desire to educate and connect other travelers with Nepal and other countries inspired her inception of the travel company. When Dr. Neubauer had asked a Nepali guide what he had wished for most in his home country, his reply of “a library” sparked Dr. Neubauer’s desire to create an organization dedicated to giving back to the communities to which Myths and Mountains traveled.
Established in 1991, READ Global was founded not to simply create a library, but to develop a catalyst for systemic and sustainable change in the community. In 2006, READ was awarded the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation’s one million dollar Access to Learning Award, and it has been a stand-alone organization since 2007. READ Global works in rural Asia to build community library and resource centers and seed small businesses. Offering programs in education, economic empowerment, technology, and women's empowerment, READ Global has established almostseventy centers and has serviced nearly two million rural villagers.
Upon receiving the Observer Ethical Award, Dr. Neubauer says, “We at Myths and Mountains are honored to be chosen for this award. True sustainability is a hallmark of READ – economic prosperity through a business generating income, social viability through village ownership and empowerment, and continuous educational development through the knowledge the program inspires."
About Myths and Mountains
Founded in 1988 by veteran adventurer Dr. Antonia Neubauer, Myths and Mountains provides travelers with an intimate experience with the places they visit. With more than 25 years of expertise, Myths and Mountains offers award-winning trips focusing on cultures and crafts, religion and pilgrimage sites, environment and natural history, and natural healing and traditional medicine. Dr. Neubauer was named one of the “Top Travel Experts Who Can Change Your Life” for her specialty in Nepal by Conde Nast Traveler consecutively from 2010 through 2014. Myths and Mountains was chosen as one of the “Top Ten Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” by National Geographic Adventurer in 2009, “Ultimate Adventure Outfitters From Around the Globe” by Travel + Leisure Magazine in 2010, and “50 Tours of a Lifetime” by National Geographic Traveler in 2013.
Myths President Toni Neubauer headed to Nepal and Vietnam with her daughter and grandkids a few days ago. First hurdle? Jet lag! She writes: "Time, watch time, is really meaningless when you travel by plane. You leave a place at 8:30 AM, and arrive somewhere else that is 4 hours away. Yet, it is not 12:30, but 2:30 PM. Your stomach says, "Hey, babes, it is lunch time," but the clock says, "You lie, stomach. You missed lunch and need to wait for tea time." But, then, when you connect to the next flight, 11/2 hours away, it is not tea time, but 6:30 and dinner time, because it is an hour later. Then, you fly another twelve hours for a total of 17 1/2 hours in the air, but it is not 1:30 AM when you disembark. It is about 1:30 PM where you are, and you missed lunch again! Of course, watch time is man-made, and created by humans. There is another kind of time, more real, a time that includes sunrises, sunsets, stars, and moons - a universal time that is really the only one that makes sense."
We know there's always a price to pay when it comes to jumping a few time zones from continent to continent. But the memories you keep? Priceless.
“When is the best time to go to the Galapagos?” is the first question that most people ask who are thinking of traveling there. Our answer: “Anytime.”
"That’s because no matter when you go, something on the islands is breeding, courting, nesting or giving birth, says Allie Almario, Myths and Mountains' resident Galapagos expert who has visited the islands 13 times in all seasons.
There are basically two peak seasons: mid- December through mid-January when it’s summer in the Galapagos and mid-June to early September when North American and European school students are on vacation.
Every season has its pluses, a few minuses, and a trade-off or two. Before you turn in your “Personal Time Off” request or plan your family trip, check out this season-by-season guide and think about the wildlife you’re most interested in seeing.
May to December
It’s the Garua season when there may be mist in the morning and some clouds, but the atmosphere is dry the rest of the day. Air temperatures range from high 60’s to high 70’s (see chart below). From June through October, the cold Humbolt current flowing up from the tip of South America is strong, cooling the air and water.
Wildlife watch: Thanks to the cool current, there are more nutrients in the water and marine life is quite active. (Divers and snorkelers often prefer this time of year even though wearing a wet suit is a must.) More fish mean more seabirds, too. Now is the time to see the blue-footed boobies do their famous mating dance.
December to May
The good news is that everything warms up as the Humbolt current weakens. Air temperature ranges from low to high 80 degrees F. Seas are calm, and flowers bloom. The sun shines most days, but there are also brief periods of drizzle or showers, especially later in New Year, which is why this time is called the rainy season. But no worries! Most people are wearing wetsuits anyway when snorkeling! Underwater visibility is greatest in March and April when water temperature peaks.
Wildlife watch: Warmer water means less vegetation and fewer fish. On land though, there’s much bustling activity since it’s breeding season for birds, tortoises, and sea lions.
Location, location, location
The water temperature is determined by the three currents that meet in the Galapagos, most noticeably, the Humbolt current, which brings cooler 70-degree waters during the Garua season. (In an El Nina year, water temperature may be about 5 degrees cooler.) And temperatures vary somewhat on different islands. West of Isabela, for instance, the water can be as cold as 60 degrees F.
Here’s a month-by-month temperature chart to help you factor climate into your decision:
The avalanche that killed 13, and possibly 16, Sherpas on Mt. Everest on April 18 was a wakeup call to the entire world of the dangers these intrepid climbers face day after day during Nepal's brief climbing season. It also highlights the economic and political realities of Nepal, questions the responsibility of mountaineering companies, and raises awareness of the lack of compensation porters and their families receive if accidents occur.
Mourning, of course, marks this tragedy, but the loss of life is also a call to action for key groups involved in mountaineering--the government, mountaineering companies, and guides/porters, most of whom are Sherpas. Here's what needs to be done.
The Nepali Government
One can contend that the job of the government with respect to mountaineering is to establish regulations for obtaining permits and thoroughly monitor their compliance. As this tragedy made all too clear, these regulations should require that mountaineering companies meet well-defined standards of responsibility for their Nepali guides and porters.
The government needs to require that a mountaineering company meet certain basic conditions in order to receive climbing permits.
• providing adequate life and accident insurance for its support staff and guides.
• certifying that their employees have taken approved mountaineering courses.
• confirming that the equipment and clothing used on the expedition are adequate and up to date.
• monitoring that the government’s regulations are being followed.
To argue that the government receives huge sums for permits and should use part of this for insurance is questionable. Nepal is a desperately poor country, and the roughly $4 million received from climbing permits is critically needed for development.
One of the responsibilities of any good company is to care for its employees and help them improve their skills. In the field of mountaineering, employee care and development are integral to safe and successful climbs. Unfortunately, some mountaineering companies are negligent employers.
This tragedy makes very clear that with respect to their staff, companies--at the very least--must be required to:
• provide insurance to porters and guides commensurate with the financial loss families experience if the employee is injured or killed.
• see to it that their helpers have quality apparel and gear.
• confirm that all porters and guides who go above Base Camp have completed an accredited mountaineering school course.
Some employers will argue that this will substantially raise costs, but is this bad? Already, reaching the peak of Mt. Everest is the purview of the rich who can afford the $40,000 to $90,000 cost. Most likely, international climbers can afford more. Secondly, if higher prices mean fewer climbers, given the crowds trying to ascend the mountain these days, perhaps a decrease in expeditions will be a plus!
The Sherpa Climbing Community
The aftermath of this tragedy presents an opportunity for Sherpa climbers to organize, crossing divisions within their own communities and among the different ethnic groups involved in mountaineering. (Not all Nepali climbers are Sherpas. Some are Rais, Limbus, or are members of other ethnic groups and are not always treated the same way by the Sherpa society.)
Porters and guides need to form a cohesive whole, or union, with specific goals. Once organized, these climbers will have the power to get the pay, protection, and benefits they deserve. They must take the following steps.
• Organized porters and guides must make demands--such as accident and life insurance--of those who have the most to lose by a walk out. And that's not the government. It's the companies that bring climbers to Nepal.
• Experienced, organized support climbers, working in concert with the expedition leaders, must be given the authority to decide when climbing should be stopped--that is, when weather and other conditions are unsafe, when multiple trips edge toward danger, or when other situations, such as traffic jams of climbers, pose too great a risk.
• The porters and guides and the government must be on the same side and work together, not against, each other. After all, what better incentive could the government have to enforce regulations than the threat of a losing the climbing fees that support development in Nepal.
For too long the Sherpas, unlike other ethnic groups in Nepal, have not been outspoken. Now is the time for them to speak up in one, inclusive voice. After all, if they do pack up and walk away from Mt. Everest, the entire country loses.