Such is his contribution to adventure and exploration all over the world, that industry veteran and illustrious mountaineer Mandip Singh Soin could claim an entire school of travel to himself. He, with wife and travel companion Anita, has been to the seven continents of the world, operated an award-winning adventure travel company, and won accolades the world over for his efforts towards ecologically sensitive and sustainable ways of travel. Quizzing the man on what he had got back from his travel—our special series—was bound to have me licking my lips.
Treading lightly has been a regular feature in both his personal travel and the expeditions he has led to faraway corners of the world, but it hasn't kept him from bringing back more than just memories and photographs. So when we caught up with the ever-enchanting Soin on his travels, the sundry doodahs and priceless memorabilia he has collected all over the world in over four decades of travel, and which now adorn his Delhi and Mukteshwar homes, there were revelations and inspiration aplenty.
What was the first-ever souvenir that you carried back home from a trip? Do you still have it?
On an early expedition from college, to the Andaman Islands in 1977, I brought back a Brain Coral from a person selling it in a shack—a common name given to various corals called due to their generally spheroid shape and grooved surface which resembles a brain. This lies in our hill home in Kumaon.
On a trek in the high Himalaya in 1980, I also found ammonite fossils—frequently found in marine rocks dating from 419 million years ago) to the Cretaceous Period (ended 66 million years ago). This hangs outside our front door in Delhi.
What's your most recently acquired piece of travel memorabilia?
During our expedition to Costa Rica in 2019, we found an eco-wood chopping/cheese board with ocean resin at one end. This we use in Delhi and it sometimes doubles up as a cheese platter.
At the same time, Anita bought a Costa Rican Wood Necklace. The wood for these necklaces comes from only downed trees in the forest that have fallen naturally. There are no artificial stains used and when the pieces are finished they are only polished with beeswax. A portion of the proceeds are given back to support the planting of new trees!
In 2016, during our Trans-Siberia expedition, we went onto Mongolia to the area of the Flaming Cliffs in search of the location where the first Dinosaur egg was discovered. During our journey, we walked into a ger tent and found a lady selling a Mongolia horse stirrup and Anita picked this up and this hangs from our fireplace in our mountain home, Edelweiss.
Many of us often garner a lot of notoriety for buying the same kind of things over and over again. Is there a particular kind of object that you always carry back from a place—like binoculars, or spectacle cases, or waist packs or knives?
I personally love unusual knives that are almost art pieces but can be used in the kitchen or on expedition and some of these have been bought from a plethora of eclectic spots like a Fish & Arts market in Sludyanka near the Lake Baikal on our Trans-Siberia train journey. This is a hand-crafted wooden handle with a blade with a bear design etc. From Alaska, it's a half moon-shaped knife, with a wooden handle. There is my favourite Opinel retro-looking stainless steel knife which opens like a jackknife and has a wooden handle made of olive wood, from France. Of course it is all underpinned by the ubiquitous Swiss Army Knife from Switzerland and finally one from the USA.
Family and friends call Anita, my wife, 'the mad hatter' as she gets drawn to every hat shop we pass by and has a collection of over 20 hats from Mongolia to Peru, from Madagascar to Namibia, from Toronto to Borneo.
Our Delhi home also has one wall of masks collected on journeys across the world from Mali, Indonesia, Bhutan, Morocco, and Sarawak. Similarly, in both our homes, we have a collection of wall plates that are hand painted from Peru, to antique ones bought from Goa, Mussoorie, and other overseas countries and these hang on our walls.
Must souvenirs always be bought? We surely don't mean pilfering a chipped nose off a rock sculpture but things like deciding to pick that special flower up from the park bench or just pocketing a curious-looking little pebble from the banks of a stream... would love to hear from you, considering that you've been one of the biggest champions of responsible travel in India.
In the early days before awareness set in, one would pick up a pebble from high altitude treks and lakes visited but I now propound a serious no-no on these issues as collectively, lots would be picked up and it would be environmentally degrading.
During our treks, we have reached meadows with stunning flowers but these are all going extinct so we need to just admire them from afar but not remove them. A painting or a photo, is the way to go without plucking them.
Have you ever regretted buying something on your travels? If yes, why? What became of the souvenir in question?
On our journey in Tibet, we did a late night walk around the monastery and there were street hawkers begging us to make a purchase from them. Anita bought a prayer wheel from an old lady and it was much later that we discovered it was an antique made of silver, coral, jade, wood of the Bodhi tree and was probably very valuable but because of poverty and political issues in a country like Tibet, the locals were selling pieces like this for a very small price.
As a trailblazer and someone iconic in the field of travel and exploration, what places in the world would you say offer the best opportunities for shopping and bringing home various doodah and keepsakes?
Boutique stores will always draw travellers as they have us but the joy of finding a treasure in a local or flea market is precious and unusual.
The Medina in Marrakech or Fez in Morocco is an Ali Baba’s cave of pottery, leather, hand crafted embroideries, carpets, and other very unique items that are compelling. We brought back an unusual carpet in Morocco as we did find an Ali Baba genie orange tea pot and an antique musical instrument akin to a sarod!
Similarly, in a weekly market in Chile in the Atacama Desert, we found the most unusual bric a brac and picked up a beautiful woven tapestry that Anita has hung behind our bed in our mountain home that adds a lot of character.
During our Trans-Siberia expedition in 2016, we went via Lake Baikal to a tiny town called Sludyanka and whilst walking past a fish market and local open air market, Anita found the most unusual Celtic style silver earrings, bracelet and ring whilst I found an unusual knife.
What's your most prized possession that you got back from your travels? You can name more than one...
Being an explorer and mountaineer, I am a member of various overseas clubs such as the Royal Geographical Society, UK; the Alpine Club, UK; the Explorers Club, USA; and the American Alpine Club, USA. I am always drawn to the iconic items and limited editions and one of my early buys was a limited edition print of Mt. Everest painting by T Howard Somervell of the British 1922 attempt on Everest, from the Royal Geographical Society.
I have a limited edition beer mug from the Explorers Club. Anita also looks out for curios that tell a story and on our night walk back in Chile; she found a street pavement artist and bought a heavy metal turquoise bull which we had to carry back as our hand baggage!
During our continued visits to Morocco, Anita found tribal Moroccan Berber camel beads made of camel bone, metal and Idar Oberstein carnelian beads which is what the camels adorn in the Sahara desert and weighs about 8 kilograms and this adorns our living room in Delhi.
Has there ever been something that you or someone on an expedition you led, wanted badly—it could be mountaineering equipment, serapes, samovars, cigars? Could you share the story behind it for our readers?
On our walk down from climbing Mt Toubkal, one of our team members, Alok Shriram would stop by every village home in search for the famous Moroccan Kilim. He ended up buying several and these adorn his home in Delhi. Personally, I am drawn like a magnet to outdoor stores to add another essential item for our future adventures so from REI to Patagonia to North Face, these are some of my favourite pulls.
You are due to lead an expedition to Svalbard this year - what preparations have you been making?
Having been to the Arctic in 1989 on an Environmental expedition, called the Icewalk Students Expedition, it taught me a lot on managing the challenges of being in this icy harsh climate. In 2017, we also did a similar journey in the Antarctic via the Drake Channel.
For this journey in 2021, we are focusing on equipment details required as well as asking members to exercise and have a fitness regime to manage the cold and challenges of walking in the snow although it’s a small ship based journey and therefore not too demanding except all have to know how to read the Stars and without an app! Sitting out looking at the stars sitting in the cold in Mukteshwar is a gentle way to begin!