Himalaya Travel tips for schools from a Lonely Planet author

North Face of Everest, from Tibet side

North Face of Everest, from Tibet side

Geography

The Himalaya forms the backbone of the Indian subcontinent and extends from the remote foothills of northeast India across Bhutan, southern Tibet, and Nepal before extending to the western Himalaya states of the Indian Himalaya to Pakistan.

The Himalaya is the youngest and highest mountain range in the world. It includes Mt Everest (8850m) and all of the worlds 8000m peaks.

Flying over the Himalaya the range appears like a gigantic layer cake. The main Himalaya axis serves as a watershed from the monsoonal rains. To the north the drier almost desert like fold upon fold of Trans Himalaya extend to the vast Tibetan plateau. To the south the ranges are characterised by conifer forests and alpine meadows that descend to the north Gangetic Plains of India.

Culture & Religion

The Himalaya region reflects a rich cultural history. Over 2500 years ago pilgrims were already forging trails across the mountains in search of the enlightenment – while armies and traders were never too far behind. The Himalaya is still viewed as the ‘Abode of the Gods’ – a place of religious sanctuary and even today many thousands of Hindu devotees undertake a trek to the source of the Ganges. Indeed, the Himalaya support three of the world’s most important religions. The call to prayer is heard in Kashmir. Hinduism is found throughout the Indian Himalaya while Buddhism is found throughout the northern Himalayan regions that extend into Tibet.

Travel Highlights – what travellers must see/do

Several airlines from Australia fly to the Nepal capital of Kathmandu, while the gateway to the Indian Himalaya is through India’s capital at Delhi. If visiting Bhutan there are regular flights from Bangkok to Paro, just over an hours drive to the capital of Thimphu. There are also regular flights to Tibet’s fabled capital of Lhasa either from Kathmandu, Hong Kong or Beijing.

Once you have arrived in the Himalaya, there is much to do:

  •  Nepal: Mt Everest – be prepared to trek for between 10 to 20 days to get spectacular views of the world’s highest peak. Everest can also be approached from Tibet and its North Face can be accessed by dirt road.
  •  Nepal: Annapurna Range – another popular trekking region that can be less demanding than a trek to Everest but equally, if not more spectacular. From the relatively low elevations ascend through rice paddies and mixed forest to alpine glades for unrivalled views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges.
  • Nepal – Kathmandu Valley – Nepal’s ancient capital steeped in history and best explored by foot. Time should be reserved to visit the former capitals of Patan and Bhaktapur, as well as visiting Bodhnath, where many Tibetans live in exile. Ascend early in the morning to the ‘Monkey Temple’ of Swayambhunath and take in glorious views across the Kathmandu Valley.
  • Washing an elephant in Chitwan National Park

    Washing an elephant in Chitwan National Park

    Nepal: Chitwan National Park – for a change of pace and scenery this is a ‘must do’ when visiting Nepal. The jungle experience contrasts with those on the mountain trails – with opportunities to view rhino, species of deer, prolific birdlife and a glimpse, if you are really lucky, of the Bengal Tiger.

  • India: Ladakh – culturally more Tibet than Tibet! An opportunity to explore the mountain trails and the ancient forts and monasteries that extend to the borderlands of Tibet.
  • Tibet: an opportunity to visit the fabled capital of Lhasa and the Potala Palace as well as the important cultural centres of Gyantse and Shegar as you drive the high mountain roads linking Lhasa and Kathmandu.
  • Bhutan: a secluded country renowned for its maxim that the Gross National Happiness is more important than the Gross National Product. Combine a trek with time to visit the ancient Paro fort and Bhutan’s capital – the vibrant city of Thimphu.
  • Flora and fauna: special interests like these are served in a variety of Himalayan locations. Wildflowers in the alpine meadows of the west Indian Himalaya, while rhododendrons are in full bloom in late April early March in the pristine forests of Sikkim and Bhutan.

Best school group experiences

Trekking in the Himalaya

  • Take a fully supported trek along the ancient foot trails including the route to the base of Everest, the Annapurna foothills, Sikkim, or the Indian Himalaya including Ladakh.
  • Aim for a minimum of a week on the trail. It takes time to adjust to the trekking routine while the necessity of proper acclimatization is imperative.
  • Savour the quintessential trekking routine with a full support crew and with help to access remote villages and communities beyond the popular trails.
  • Align school holidays with the ideal trekking season. Nepal is ideal from the end of September until the following May (although be prepared for low temperatures in the winter months of December through to February). At other times consider the wealth of possibilities offered in the Indian Himalaya.
  • Round off the trekking experience by allowing time before and after the trek to savour the cultural highlights of Kathmandu or even time out in Delhi including an excursion to Agra to view the Taj Mahal.

Community Project Work

After completing a Community Project in Nepal

After completing a Community Project in Nepal

There are many remote communities scattered throughout the Himalaya region that receive little to no government funding and as a result the basic infrastructure around health, education, as well as access to water and electricity is very poor. A highlight of a school group trek in the Himalaya is to stop for a few days in a nominated village and have the students assist in a community project, such as upgrading the local school or health clinic or perhaps improving the access to clean water. No matter what project your students undertake, good planning and research, started many months beforehand, is crucial to the success of the project – both from the viewpoint of the students and the local community.

There are a number of points for both teachers and parents to consider to ensure that the students make the most effective use of the time they spend working on a community project in the Himalaya, including: –

  • Undertake background research on foreign aid. Check out the Australian Aid program to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development. Also consider the importance of the Millennium Development Goals and see how they ‘fit’ with the intended project work.
  • Consider what constitutes a quality project development, and in the light of this review, question whether your intended project is sustainable and if it will have a long term impact on improving the lives of the community.
  • Research the region and the communities’ cultural history well before departure and assess what impact your project may have, particularly on communities that may still be weeks away from the trail head.
  • Some of the most enriching moments on a school group community project are those that involve interaction and shared learning experiences between the visiting students and the host community, such as sharing a game of cricket with the local children or conducting a class in English and having the local students test you out in their language.
  • Education focused projects seem to work well for school groups since there is a meeting of minds between the visiting students and local students. Consider the lack of education materials and how you can possibly help by purchasing textbooks and materials in Delhi or Kathmandu to take with you to the school. Alternatively if you want to get your hands dirty consider helping to construct a volleyball court or playground.

Responsible Travel

Taktsang Monastery in Bhutan, built on the side of a mountain

Taktsang Monastery in Bhutan, built on the side of a mountain

In order to ensure that you school is travelling in a responsible manner, minimising the impact on the natural and cultural landscape, please critique the travel operator you use to ensure that they adopt the following principals and methods:

The porters and local trekking crew carry efficient kerosene or other liquid fuel stoves. This will add to the costs of the trip but will maintain a minimal impact policy, ensuring that your trip does not contribute to deforestation and associated erosion or loss of biodiversity in regions that are struggling with these serious threats.

  • A good local employment policy, with high standards of training in first aid leadership, communication and high altitude trekking to ensure you’re your students receive the best possible care during your trip. Their employment policy should take into account: –
    • There is no better person to teach you about the landscape and culture than a local person. Employing local people ensures that your students receive credible knowledge and treatment.
    • Employing local people ensures a good proportion of your trek fees remain with the people who are custodians of the places and cultures visited.
    • Employing local cooks who are highly trained and always conscious of health and hygiene when preparing three hearty meals per day for your students.
    • A high regard for the well being and health of all porters and their families ensuring that they have a good working wage, food throughout the trek, life insurance cover as well as emergency helicopter insurance and adequate equipment while on the trails.

Garry Weare is a Himalayan consultant to World Youth Adventures, director of the Australian Himalayan Foundation and has written all editions of Lonely Planet’s ‘Trekking in the Indian Himalaya’.

THIS ARTICLE ALSO APPEARED IN ACTIVE EDUCATION MAGAZINE.

IMAGES OF THE HIMALAYA

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