Shagzil Khan Q&A: A Tour Leader’s Kerala
Asked to name a favorite travel memory, Shagzil says, “There are too many.” With 15 years of experience, he has led tours throughout India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. He is best known for leading historical walks of cities, academic group tours, and guiding small and large special interest photography and wildlife tours. “The best way to experience a country is through its history with an understanding of its present,” he says. Shagzil lives in Kerala, in the southwestern part of India, sharing its western boundary with the Arabian Sea. His intimate knowledge of this especially lush region of the country he loves makes him uniquely able to share insights and experiences only a destination specialist can unlock. Shagzil has led tours not only for luxury travelers but also for international, Embassy and High Commission delegations.
For travelers to Kerala, what are the top things they absolutely must experience
The state of Kerala is tall and narrow. On the west is the coast on the Arabian Sea. One the east is the Western Ghats, a continuous mountain range 450 km long. So on the one side you have beautiful beaches. And on the other side you have national parks, tiger preserves and forest reserves among huge mountains.
Top highlights of Kerala include safaris to see wild animals such as tigers and elephants, the many pristine beaches, fresh-caught seafood, relaxing at one of the famous Ayurveda spas, traveling the rivers by houseboat to sightsee the peaceful countryside, and visiting the tea estates which are a big honeymoon destination.
What makes Kerala unique from all other parts of India?
The mountains of Kerala are the highest places in India outside of the Himalaya. This range has created the Nilgiris Biosphere, a vast area of nature some 5,520 square kilometers that spreads across several different national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site for its unique diversity of wildlife as well as its rare endemic and endangered species.
Among the exotic plants here are medicinal varieties that have long been used to treat illness in Ayurveda and an even older system of medicine called Siddha, a very specialized system of medicine that utilizes metals and herbs that only grow on these mountain ranges.
There is also a circuit one can travel of between three to five days in Kerala where one can experience many of the highlights of India as a whole without traveling to multiple states. You can visit the tea estates which grow Darjeeling tea on steeply graded steps carpeted in plants. The mornings are incredible in this very romantic area. At 6,000 feet above sea level, the clouds are below you in the morning as you look out at the undulating mountains.
From there you can easily tour the nature preserves to visit the big cats, rhinos, hippos, elephants, monkeys, deer.
Then you can unwind at one of the Ayurveda spas, which are renowned for their restorative treatments.
You’ve said the best way to experience a country is through its history? What are some of the key insights about the history of Kerala and South India that help to unlock the experience of visiting?
India was known to be a land wealthy in resources since the very beginning of the old trade routes, the Spice Route. I like to tell people that Christopher Columbus booked the wrong tour company. He wanted to go to India and meet the Indians. Instead, they took him to Bahamas.
The Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty, and all of the lands they traveled and exported to–every civilization that flourished through trade can trace some connection to India. The Portuguese established churches in Kerala. Jewish families also built praying houses here some 2,000 years ago. History is the connection that binds us. When you ask a person where they’re from, the answer is not only their history but also the present that binds us.
What would you say are the primary differences between North India and South India? Differences in culture, in food, in the historic sites?
The rough horizontal line created by the Narmada River and the Mahanadi River forms the traditional boundary between northern and southern India. If you are looking at a map, this valley is the place where India—if you could take it in your hands—folds in half. Looking at a Google Earth map, you can see that southern India is comparatively greener. The southern peninsula is bordered by the Arabian Sea on the west, the Bay of Bengal on the east. Precipitation from these waters keeps the land lush and green.
But this is only geography. What sets the two apart can be discerned with the five senses. We taste it in our food. We hear it in our languages. We feel it in the air. You see it in the changes in dress and the styles of architecture.
Throughout all of India—not only between north and south—as you pass from one region or state into another, you will experience changes in the food, culture, religion, dialects, the colors of the turbans and the ways in which they are tied. As a guide I am able to share what each of these things means, to make the people and the places come more alive.
India is a birder’s paradise. What are a couple of the best places to see birds in India? And what are a few of the exotic species people can expect to find there?
You actually don’t need to go to one of our national parks in order to see many different varieties of birds. Even without visiting a sanctuary, you may happen to see 60 to 70 species within a few days.
For birders who wish to see the more endemic species, yes they are living in the rich and dense forest habitats of the parks. But just staying in a beautiful resort or aboard a houseboat coasting the backwater rivers of Kerala, you can see innumerous birds on a morning walk.
What defines a Nomadic Expeditions tour and makes it well worth the journey?
Nomadic Expeditions itineraries are very personal. You will be traveling private or with a very few other people who are also serious about encountering India. They will want to not only see top attractions but will want to connect to authentic India. For this, the journeys are beautifully thought out, and I am also able to make suggestions depending on time of year and knowing the areas and the people. I can enhance the journey through my knowledge and introduce places and information to make a memorable experience.
What is one of your favorite personal travel memories?
A personal favorite travel memory?
I would say being in a forest on a morning safari, surrounded by 10 to 20 elephants, helping guests to experience these elephants, thinking to myself how lucky I am to have this depth of connection with nature.
The break of the sun in the Ladakh Valley.
Bringing a guest into the kitchen of a local villager’s home and putting a cup of rice beer in their hands. In these kinds of moments, there is no language barrier. We all speak the same language of hospitality.
A favorite travel memory? There are too many. That’s the most difficult question.
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