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The best stories in life are usually real ones. The tale of Tashi Wangail, founder of Gesar Travel, is improbable, exciting, and of course very very real. Let’s find out how a mountain shepherd boy became a successful tour operator. 

 

Childhood as a shepherd

 

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Tashi’s parents

Tashi was born in 1969 in the village of Khardong, 4000m up in the mountains of Nubra. He is the fourth of five brothers, all men, and his parents are still farmers today, as they were then. Tashi’s childhood in the countryside was marked by the change of the seasons and the cyclic work on the fields, always surrounded by farm animals. Early on, during the summer months, little Tashi would lead the goats and sheep up to the pasture regions, where the undemanding animals could find some edible plants in the arid mountainous desert. Mostly alone, his duty included protecting hundreds of animals from hungry wolves, wild dogs, eagles, and other threats. Equipped with a slingshot, and with his faithful dog Tommy on the side, he spent hour after hour kilometers away from the nearest adult. In an age where most children on the west are hardly ever left without supervision, he was a responsible boy who not only took seriously his role as shepherd, but also really enjoyed it. To this day, he colorfully remembers this time as one of the most beautiful of his life. And yet he wanted to leave the village, go to school, and learn about the big wide world… But many years would have to pass before his wish came true.

 

The Swiss giant

One of the funniest childhood stories of Tashi is about when he met foreigners for the first time in his life. The event must have taken place at some point in the mid-70s, since access to Ladakh was not possible for foreigners before 1974. Even before he saw the first angres (modern Ladakhi term for outsiders), his mother had told him about the “hippies” (an older synonym for foreigners) that she had seen at the Hemis Festival. “Their hair was golden like the sunlight, soft as velvet, and smelled of flowers. And their eyes were as blue as the water of the river Shyok in winter.” It isn’t surprising then, that Tashi and the other kids from the village took the first foreigner they saw for a Sringpo: a monstrous giant from legend. He was a big man, bigger than the tallest men of the village, and the children were naturally terrified. To add to their fascination, the giant slept in a balloon! (Later proved to be a tent ;-)). He also looked at things and people through a mysterious machine that allowed him to paint impossibly realistic pictures (a camera, of course). Tashi and the other children brought the giant food, with the intention of appeasing him, so he would cause no problems. The other villagers brought him milk and other delicacies. At some point they figured out that he was just a man, whom the police and armed forces could deal with easily, and the fear of a giant-fueled havoc quickly faded. But soon they also realized that the “Hippie” was actually a very nice guy, and they begged the soldiers not to kill him. (The entry into Nubra was not yet allowed – only much later, in the 90s, was Nubra opened to foreign visitors. In any case, the soldiers had no intention to kill him, and simply pointed him the way out of Nubra). Many years later we were able to elicit that this Sringpo was a Swiss geologist, who by now has probably passed.

 

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Unfortunately there aren’t any pictures of Tashi’s childhood… but he may have looked a lot like the kid in the center (also from Khardong) ;-)

 

From the high mountain desert to the humid heat of the south

As childhood approached its end, the moment came to leave Khardong village behind. Tashi’s desire to go to school had to be fulfilled. Turning his back to the pastures where his sheep and goats peacefully mowed the grass, he stepped on a long, long journey. Suddenly, 2,500 km as the crow flies separated him from everything he had known so far in his 11 years of life. He was sent to Bangalore, the capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where everything was unspeakably different and strange: the climate, the people, the food, the language, the society, the rules. An 11 year old boy, who could only speak Ladakhi, and incapable of reading or writing even on that language; with next to no knowledge or instruction in math, history or science; that had lived his whole life without electricity and had never even ventured beyond the borders of Nubra, the northernmost district in Ladakh… It would have been quite a shock for a resourceful adult. For a young boy, it was an existential earthquake.

He was one of many Ladakhi children chosen by the Mahabodhi Society – a charitable Buddhist community – and given the chance (or the gift) to go to school. It was a strict but good education, and Tashi is still grateful for this opportunity.

Occasionally, he also spent some time in the Buddhist school in Ladakh, returning always eventually to Bangalore, where he worked in the hospital of the Mahabodhi Society, especially massaging patients affected with polio. At the same time he continued his studies there, until he finally completed them, graduating as the 10th of his class. Only then did he return home for good.

 

 

The tourism connection

After a few other jobs, Tashi finally landed one in the tourism field. And then he made his way. He was first hired as an assistant, then sometimes as a chef – which turned out well if only because despite his nonexistent cooking skills, he could always persuade someone else to cook in his place. Finally, he found work as a tour guide.

 

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Tashi with the famous british mountaineer Sir Chris Bonnington

 

The years as a shepherd in the mountains and the subsequent schooling in a Buddhist setting were retrospectively a good basis for his job as a guide. But the biggest school was working with the tourists themselves, from whom he learned a lot – for example, from British wildlife fans he learned about the animals (particularly birds) of Ladakh, and his technical knowledge about climbing and mountain survival skills comes especially from working with leading mountain guides from around the world.

And he also traveled with his guests: Tashi was allowed to work as a guide in almost all corners of India, and was one of the few in the region of Ladakh working all year long – in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Bhutan, Sikkim and Darjeeling, Himachal Pradesh… He has worked with guests from all around the world and to this day is still in contact with many of them.

He loved to be a guide and even today he speaks of that time as one of the most light-hearted in his life: to have no home, being always outdoors, sleeping on rooftops, hotels or at friends’ houses, always ready for new adventures, the wind of freedom blowing in his face. At some point though, he realized that life as a tour guide is not really compatible with that of a romantic partner or a loving husband, so he decided to take a step back and settle. But he didn’t abandon his passion completely: he saved a piece of the cake, a part of that world that he loved so much… and that’s how Gesar Travel, the child of his love for tourism, was born.

 

 

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Something that not many know: Tashi played one of the two main roles in the Australian short film Tau Seru

 

Trailer: Tau Seru (by Rodd Rathjen)

Tau Seru Trailer from Rodd rathjen on Vimeo.

 

More private stuff? The story of Daniela & Tashi
It is fun to know more about the people behind a company, isn’t it? So read also the story of Tashi & Daniela, the woman, for whom he left his job as guide.




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Companies have facades instead of faces; logos instead of eyes. It’s easy to get lost in a labyrinth of products, services and impersonal business conditions. Like the Wizard of Oz, they appear lifeless and artificial. But behind the curtains everything is quite human. Let me tell you the story behind Gesar Travel. It all starts with two people: Daniela & Tashi.

By Daniela Luschin-Wangail

 

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a girl from Austria who had an idea for her research thesis. The girl was I, only 24 years old, then a student of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna. I intended to write a thesis about the young people of Ladakh. What did they think of marriage, what had changed compared to their parents’ generation? I wasn’t expecting then that the theme of love and marriage would occupy myself all of a sudden, and in such a personal manner.

But already during my first flight, looking down into the barren alpine desert of Ladakh, where the inhabitable areas are scarce and hard to find, revealed just by a few green spots in the landscape, I was overcome with a strange feeling that this would be my second home. It was something that I couldn’t explain.

 

Fate caused me to play Postwoman, since I had to deliver a package from Austria. The receiver was the man who was to change my life from scratch. He was not big, but good-looking. I liked Tashi from the first moment, but the alarm bells were ringing like crazy, because he was not only handsome, but also a guide. And just as ski instructors in Austria, many guides in Ladakh have a reputation as gigolos and heartbreakers. And I really didn’t want that. So I kept my distance, even though he was very charming and every smile melted my heart a little more.

But the walls I had built began to crumble eventually, and under the rubble was love.

First some obstacles, then the wedding bells began tolling

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Our wedding in England

Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that after the first major phase of falling in love, the real work begins. Tashi and I also had to face some obstacles. The largest for both of us was the different origins. Many situations that are usually not a problem for couples with the same cultural background, were in our case a source of tension and sometimes prompted fights and discussions. But this also came to pass, after we both agreed to adapt, make several compromises and increase our mutual tolerance limit.

Afterwards, many years came in which I spent the summer months in Ladakh and Tashi discovered the magical beauty of the Austrian winter ;). Four years after our first meeting, the wedding took place. We didn’t want to rush. We got married in 2005, in England. The attempts to do it in Austria and India – two countries that excel at bureaucracy and have an uncontrollable tendency to demand documents that simply don’t exist in the other country – had failed miserably.

And I had made the decision to go with him to Ladakh. I quit my job, left my apartment, sold or gave everything away and canceled my bank account. Our first apartment in Ladakh was very traditional: outside toilet, no running water – we had to walk every morning to get it from a public fountain down the street – and hardly any electricity. During the cold winter nights, every visit to the toilet and every (bucket)-shower required a lot of careful consideration and was delayed as much as humanely possible. Even doing the laundry (by hand, of course) was a challenge in itself 😉

Tashi’s family took me from the start with open hearts and arms. Not only did they treat me well, they actually treated me too well! Almost like a princess! There was always a cushion at hand, so that I could sit comfortably. And sitting I should, because no one was willing to let me work at all! (At least at the beginning)

The Birth of Gesar Travel and 1, 2, 3 little Tashis

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Tashi and Daniela in front of the Gesar Travel office in 2005

Already in 2004, Tashi had left his job as a tour guide and fulfilled his dream of owning a travel agency. I helped him from the start, and also especially during the move to Ladakh in 2005. At the time I had basically no idea about the travel business. But thanks to Tashi’s years of experience in the field as a guide, and my basic knowledge in office management (thanks, Handelsakademie!) we were able to create a successful agency from scratch. Just as it is today, our close contact with our guests was a very important component in our enterprise. We are still in contact with some of our first clients J.

 

The name Gesar
The name Gesar reminds Tashi of his grandfather, who liked to tell and sing the great stories of the mythical hero Gesar. King Gesar is a common mythical figure throughout Central Asia and Mongolia. To this day, on cold winter evenings sitting around the fire drinking tee, many enjoy the retelling (mostly in the form of songs and poems) of his legendary adventures, rich in supernatural feats and fantastic creatures like giants, gods and demons.

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The Wangails: Luis, Tashi, Emil, Daniela & Elvis

In 2007, our first son Elvis – Ladakhi name Konchok Gyaltsen – saw in Delhi the light of the day. And as Tashi Junior grew and developed, so did my longing for home. After the 2007 season, I went back to Austria with Elvis, while Tashi shuttled back and forth. Then in 2011 our next son arrived: Luis Thayas, born with a small extra chromosome (Down syndrome). And finally, in 2015, Emil Khenrab, our youngest son, came to complete our Ladakhi-Austrian family. We still spend the summer months in Ladakh and, just as it was at the beginning, we take care of our guests personally during this season.

 

… And after many years in Austria our yearning for Ladakh has grown to a healthy size and who knows, maybe one day we dare to step all the way back to India once again J

A glance at our private gallery from the early years

(The quality of some images is sadly not so good)