The Road Less Traveled

Mountain Travel Sobek leads the way to adventure

By: Allen Salkin

One-horned rhinoceros, wild tigers and the moonscape valley of Zanskar if you’ve got India-curious clients who aren’t scared by the sound of such adventure, there is a Northern California-based tour operator with some fantastic itineraries to consider. Mountain Travel Sobek has expanded its India tours for 2005, offering four all-new trips and a trusted favorite. The company, founded in 1969, is considered a leader in off-the-beaten-track travel.

“These trips are a way to expose yourself to a culture or a destination, especially a place like Nagaland or Arunachal Pradesh, in a way you could not do on your own unless you spent years planning it,” said Robyn Savage, director of marketing for MTS. Many of the company’s clients are in their 50s or 60s and the guides are similarly seasoned.

“You can’t work for Mountain Travel unless you’ve had 15 or 20 years experience,” Savage said. “We are the pinnacle. Guides want to work for us.”

The most adventurous of the current offerings is The Zanskar Traverse, a 22-day trip across a remote swath of the Buddhist Himalayas. The sometimes strenuous trek takes clients across an arid landscape with glacier-irrigated fields. Stands of yellow buckwheat and green pea patches are broken by high passes marked with Buddhist prayer flags. The Zanskari people are welcoming, but have little in the way of luxury accommodations. Mountain Travel Sobek endeavors to offer the most comfortable available accommodation, but does not neglect a region merely because a five-star hotel is not available. In the case of the Zanskar trip, this means 11 nights are spent camping. “Our clients are like ‘I want to stay in a bed if it is at all possible, but I don’t want to miss out on something if it’s not possible,’” Savage said.

Much more comfortable and less remote is the company’s new Royal Rajasthan Tour, which includes visits to palaces, safaris, camel and elephant rides, and fine dining. While away from cities clients stay in large deluxe tents carpeted with dhurrie rugs. Each tent has a bedroom with an attached bathroom where there is a toilet and hot and cold water. In Rajasthan, clients move indoors. Some of the hotels are restored Maharajah palaces. A new-this-year tour is esteemed guide Gary Wintz’s trip to India’s northeast frontier, the newly opened territory of Nagaland. Included in the 21-day itinerary are: visits to the hidden tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, including the Buddhist monastery of Tawang; Meghalaya, “abode of the clouds;” and Assam, home to celebrated Kaziranga National Park and one-horned rhinoceros, elephants and tigers.

The Old Favorite
The company’s classic and long-popular India tour is its India Wildlife Safari, an intensive survey of India’s most prolific wildlife sanctuaries, led by guide Allen Bechky. The trip includes visits to Ranthambore, famous for tigers and forested Rajput ruins; Kanha, crowded with herds of deer and an abundance of predators; and Kaziranga, where grass jungles hold wild elephants, Indian rhinos and gibbons. The 23-day trip also takes in that must-see, the Taj Mahal.

The trip is scheduled during the most likely months for seeing wild tigers. On Bechky’s 2004 safari, clients observed 11 tigers. In 2001, there were nine tigers, five leopards, sloths, otters and 182 varieties of birds spotted.

Some of the travel is by train, some by jeep and some by foot. Accommodation is in hotels and game lodges.

A newer wildlife-based trip is the Southern India Wildlife Safari: Lions, Tigers & Bears, which has already had its one 2005 departure, but which is scheduled again for January 2006. (Yes, we’re already talking about next year.)

Bechky also serves as guide for this trip in which he’ll take clients in search of Asia’s last lions in the Gir Forest, tigers at Nagarhole and sloth bears at a sanctuary near the ruined city of Hampi. The 23-day trip also features visits to Hindu temples, Jain holy places and the royal palace of Mysore.

This is the kind of travel the company exists to provide. As Savage said: “Our clients are not looking for a bus tour. They’re looking for a tour that involves them in a destination.”


At a glance: New for 2005

Royal Rajasthan: Explore the desert cities of Jaisalmer, Jaipur and Jodhpur. Includes a camel trek and camel fair. (18 days; departs Feb. 12 and Oct. 30; from $4,990)

Zanskar Traverse: Discover the ancient kingdom of Zanskar, which has had little contact with the outside world. (22 days; departs July 16 and Aug. 27; from $3,190)

Southern India Wildlife Safari: Lions, Tigers & Bears: Look for Asia’s last lions in the Gir Forest, as well as a visit to the ruined city of Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (23 days; departs January 2006; from $7,990 in 2005)

India’s Forbidden Northeast Frontier: Visits the newly opened territory of Nagaland, as well as Meghalaya, “abode of the clouds,” and the hidden tribes of Arunchal and Paradesh. (21 days; departs April 6; from $5,190)

My travel Story: Mysore Palace

“The Royal Palace at Mysore, built in 1912 for a Raja, is one of the most incredible and ornate sites in all of India. I’ve been to the palace, although I was a bit younger when I visited there than MTS’s average age and I was traveling solo.

The story that stands out in my mind is not actually about the palace, but is about getting there. I hired a horse cart near what seemed like the palace’s front because the entrance, it turned out after I’d left my taxi, was nearly a mile away, around the back. It was an adventure, clopping along the hot dusty city road along the palace wall. It cost less than a dollar.

As I dismounted and walked to the ticket booth, I passed vendors selling sandalwood carvings. The scent was entrancing, a perfect welcome to the stunning palace of gold and excess of all kinds.

I realized then that India can be a trying place, but it yields incredible wonders.”


Insider Tip: Don’t Fear the Food

I’ve traveled extensively in India and Asia and here is one of my favorite and surprising tips for off-the-beaten-track travel in India: Eat the food on the train. Throughout India, food sellers will climb aboard a train during a station stop and quickly walk down the aisles announcing their delicacies. I’ve had some of the most scrumptious, inexpensive meals of my travels this way.

At dinnertime on an overnight trip from Bombay to Goa, an old woman climbed aboard and sold me three vegetable samosas, still warm from the fryer, potatoes tender and steamy, for a few pennies.

In the morning, stewards on the train prepared hot chai sweet, spicy milk tea and served it in clear glasses. At a stop another old woman appeared selling a breakfast pastry, a rice pancake with dhal inside, wrapped in parchment.

Standing in the open air at the end of the car as the train began chugging south again, sipping the chai and eating the pastry, I felt wonderful the sun dancing, the world a place of surprise treats lavished on the open heart. I’ve never had a finer breakfast. And no, I did not get sick later. I have never once been ill in India. Perhaps thanks to another tip: Look at the person selling you food.

I didn’t invent this rule, but I have found it to be infallible. One can assume the waiter or the guy running the kiosk eats the same tasty grub he or she is selling. If they look healthy and clean, the food being sold is probably fine.

It seems highly unscientific, I know, but I swear by it.