Katherine Chan used to work as a research nutritionist before a chance encounter led her to become a host and then a Destinations Manager for specialist tour operator Panoramic Journeys. She spends several weeks a year in the field, both with groups and exploring new destinations enabling her to design exciting group trips to Mongolia and Bhutan.
The best group trip you have ever been on:
This is a tough one. I’ve been very lucky to go on some amazing group trips, but visiting the Eagle Festival in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia at the end of my first season with Panoramic Journeys stands out. This area is home to Mongolian Kazakhs, so the culture and traditions were completely different to what I had experienced in the rest of Mongolia. Watching the eagle hunters arrive on horseback carrying their hooded golden eagles against the back drop of the rugged Altai Mountains is something I’ll never forget. The colour and pageantry of the initial procession is followed by exciting and frankly, quite unbelievable games, which aim to showcase the eagles and the horsemanship of their owners. We watched races on horseback, with riders reaching to pick coins off the floor at full gallop; comedic camel races where the camels would sit down mid-race; and the game of Buzkashi, a kind of tug-of-war on horseback with the skin of a goat, which had the audience cheering one minute and screaming the next as they rushed to take cover from the galloping horses thundering towards them. There was a real party atmosphere with food and drink stalls, ice-creams (though it was -15°C) and lots of traditional handicrafts on sale. It helped that the group I was travelling with was also great fun and really got involved.
And the worst?
Joining a group trip where you do not know anyone is always a risk, and of course leading trips can be even more risky, but I have been lucky not to have had any really dreadful trips. Trips with friends or families can be a lot more difficult. Trying to navigate through families bickering, practised over years at home, is a delicate operation – whether they are your own family, or someone else’s!
Almost all set-backs on a trip will have a silver lining though. A few years ago, I was part of one of the first ever foreign groups to trek to the villages of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. Overnight, heavy snow blocked the pass between the two villages and our group were snowed-in in Merak. Although we never made it to Sakteng, it was an amazing experience, as we spent our time having snowball fights with the local children, playing cards into the small hours with the village teachers and singing songs and learning dances with the entire village, fuelled by potent home-brew!
What’s your favourite UK destination for a group day out?
Cambridge. I lived there for four years in my past life as a nutritionist. It’s a great place to bring a group all year round, but magnificent in the spring when the bulbs are in bloom along the Backs, or in the summer when there are outdoor Shakespeare performances in the college grounds, and on a really hot day there is one of the longest outdoor swimming pools in Europe. The colleges and history are the obvious attraction, but there is also punting on the river Cam, or just chilling in one of the city’s many green spaces or by the river, watching first-timers trying to punt and impress their dates! Cycle, row or wander downstream to Granchester and the wonderful orchard, where you can have a cream tea in deckchairs shaded by the apple trees. Add to that great shops and restaurants, atmospheric pubs and a few stereotypical eccentric university types and you have a great day out only an hour from London by train.
What makes a good group trip?
A good, full itinerary helps where there is something for everyone, but also enough time built in for some relaxation and for serendipitous encounters. Most important is your guide and how they deliver the trip – a good guide can make or break a journey. A good guide can make a bad itinerary enjoyable! A great group dynamic is obviously important too – it helps if there is a little bit of give and take and a good sense of humour!
What do you always pack?
My old Casio calculator watch. I’ve had it for so long that they’ve come back into fashion and it has a really good exchange rate function on it which comes in very useful when haggling!
And what do you leave out?
I don’t really like guide books. Of course they have a place, but they are already out of date by the time they are printed. Local knowledge is invaluable.
What was your favourite trip last year?
On an exploratory trip for Panoramic Journeys, I stayed at the Glenburn Tea Estate, near Darjeeling, for a few nights. It is a stunningly beautiful location with views of the Eastern Himalayas including Kanchenjunga. They have refurbished the old colonial tea planters’ bungalow so it is a luxurious place to stay and they produce some of the best tea in the world. I love tea, so it was my idea of heaven. I’ve been working it into as many itineraries as I can ever since. I long to go back, with friends this time, to share the magic and spend a good few days there exploring the tea plantation and hiking trails.