Photo: Bhutan
On the way to the Drangme Chhu River in Bhutan, guests travel through the Dochu La pass, with its 108 Buddhist chorten (structures housing relics).

Photograph by Steve Hamilton, Bio Bio Expeditions

By Margaret Loftus

These guided tours are part of National Geographic Traveler's 50 Tours of a Lifetime for 2010 for the outfitters' commitment to authenticity, immersion, sustainability, and connection.

India: Channeling Mowgli

The tigers of Kanha National Park—the setting for English writer Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book—are best viewed astride an Asian elephant, but this wildlife-focused excursion through northern India also has you riding camels, rickshaws, rafts, and jeeps to observe leopards, rhinos, monkeys, mongoose, and more at five national parks and wildlife refuges. A highlight is a visit to a sloth bear rescue center in Agra that works to abolish the practice of dancing bears on the streets of India. Wild Planet Adventures: “India Ultimate Wildlife Multi-Safari—Leopards, Tigers, and Palaces,” 19 days, $7,198.
CULTURE

India: Meet the People

Connecting with the local people is a key component of this cultural odyssey through South India’s Deccan Plateau and Malabar Coast. Join a Kodava family on a visit to their ancestral home in the coffee country of Coorg; meet with some of the 10,000 Tibetans in the Buddhist enclave of Bylakuppe; and stay in a private home in Tellicherry, where you’ll sample Moplah delicacies whipped up by the host. Geographic Expeditions: “Secrets of the Deccan and Malabar —Karnataka to Kerala, India,” 14 days, from $7,295.
CULTURE

Laos: Remote Rivers

It’s only a matter of time before Laos’s Champasak Province—think dramatic waterfalls, temple ruins that predate Angkor Wat, welcoming hill tribes, and a handful of new chic hotels—is hyped as the next travel hot spot in Asia. For now, the only Americans you’re likely to encounter are the ones in your own party on this private trip through the country. Stays include Sala Phae, a compound of six floating bungalows on the Mekong River, and Kingfisher Eco-lodge, a small family-run nature retreat that donates a percentage of its revenue to a local primary school, where travelers are encouraged to help the schoolchildren practice their English. Remote Lands: “Undiscovered Southern Laos,” 7 days, $3,500.
CULTURE

Japan: Where the Wild Things Are

Japan usually conjures up images of the frenzy of Tokyo or the Zen of Kyoto, but there’s a wilder side to the Land of the Rising Sun that few travelers ever experience. From the thousands of hooded and white-naped cranes that flock to the island of Kyushu to the playful Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, in the mountains of Nagano, the country is full of natural splendor—best seen in the quiet of winter. Natural Habitat Adventures: “Wild Japan,” 13 days, $8,495.
CULTURE

Thailand: Asia on Two Wheels

More than motorized modes of transportation, bikes allow travelers to participate in the everyday life of a place, especially in Thailand, where biking is popular and the people welcoming. Cyclists on this circuit in the countryside around Chiang Mai are sometimes invited into schools to give impromptu English lessons, attend weddings and funerals, and learn to prepare traditional Thai fare. Pedalers Pub & Grille: “Thailand Bike Tours—Northern Highlights,” 7 days, $1,495, plus $130 for bike rental.
CULTURE • VALUE

Central Asia: Meet the Stans

Guided by veteran Asia explorer Roger Williams, this epic journey wends from Urumqi, China, to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, along the legendary Silk Road. Travel amid the towering peaks of the Karakorum Mountains, stopping at far-flung outposts, such as Pakistan’s isolated Hunza Valley. Portions of the old road here jut out from cliffs on cantilevered logs wedged into the cracks of rock. At the desert oasis of Kashgar, famous for its Sunday market, traders still haggle over everything from spices to rugs to camels. Wilderness Travel: “The Great Game—The Silk Road through the Pamirs & Karakorum Mountains,” 26 days, from $10,995.
CULTURE

Israel: Nexus of History

Though much tourism to Israel remains dominated by religious pilgrims, more travelers are exploring the country’s numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, varied geography, and culture-packed cities. Here is the consummate private itinerary that brings it all together, from Jerusalem’s ancient Western Wall to the therapeutic waters of the Dead Sea to the Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv. Artisans of Leisure: “Essence of Israel,” 9 days, $7,700.
CULTURE

China: Into the Land of the Dragon

Perform tai chi alongside locals in a Beijing park; bike through villages and rice farms on the banks of the Dragon River; spend a day at EXPO 2010 Shanghai. This private odyssey through the Middle Kingdom caters to families who crave action. Digs include a village guesthouse in the Yao minority village of Dazhai and the Li River lodge, a mountainside retreat in a traditional wooden Longsheng building north of Yangshuo. Kensington Tours: “Spirit of China Family Action Adventure,” 14 days, $4,050.
CULTURE • FAMILY

Russia: Quest for the Snow Leopard

Adapted to live in the frigid climes of the Central Asian mountain ranges, snow leopards have long, thick fur prized by poachers. As a result, their numbers have dwindled to some 6,000. Track the elusive species and its prey: the argali (a mountain sheep) and the Altai ibex. The data collected will help the conservation of the endangered cat. Base camp is at 7,500 feet amid the steep, snowy peaks of Central Asia’s Altai Mountains. Biosphere Expeditions: “Mountain Ghosts,” 13 days, $2,690.
VALUE • VOLUNTEER • WILDLIFE

Nepal: Trek for Charity

This nonprofit organizes one or more treks to raise funds for a needy local orphanage. Participants commit to raising a pre-set contribution for each kilometer they hike, not unlike charity walks. This fall’s trek—Everest Base Camp—is especially ambitious. The end of the trip coincides with the Festival of Lights and a party at the orphanage. Trekking for Kids: “Nepal Trek 2010—Everest Base Camp,” 20 days; from $2,400.
ADVENTURE • VALUE • VOLUNTEER

Malaysia: Rain Forest Warriors

The survival of Borneo’s diverse life-forms depends on its tropical rain forests, which are threatened by unsustainable logging practices, the pressure to convert to farmland, and severe droughts caused by climate change. Help the team at the Royal Society South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme record plant and animal specimens, including 2,500 species of orchids, orangutans, pygmy elephants, and rhinos. Earthwatch Institute: “Climate Change and Landscape in Borneo’s Rainforest,” 10 days; $1,850.
VALUE • VOLUNTEER

China: Giant Panda-thon

Starting in Shanghai, travel by train to Sichuan Province and the Ya’an Bifengxia Center for the Giant Panda (the largest reserve of its kind in the world). Gather bamboo for the pandas’ meals (they eat 10 to 20 pounds a day), clean their enclosures, and gather behavioral data. There’s also time for sightseeing. Planeterra Foundation: “Project China,” 14 days, $1,899.
VALUE • VOLUNTEER • WILDLIFE

Russia: Pack Your Parka

Spend a day learning about all things reindeer—herding, driving, even riding. Then man your own reindeer sled for a brisk odyssey through the heart of Siberia to the Northern Hemisphere’s “Pole of Cold” in Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited place on Earth. Rest up along the route in the homes of the indigenous Evens and in camps, where local guides share their ancestral tricks for sleeping in the open without getting frostbite. Arctic Odysseys: “Siberia–Even Reindeer Sledding Expedition,” 14 days, from $5,210.
ADVENTURE

Central Asia: One Epic Ride

After introducing a cycling tour from Cairo to Cape Town in 2003 to promote bikes as a means of sustainable transportation in Africa, this Canadian start-up has set its sights on history’s most storied route. Ride to explore or race to compete on this 2,572-mile expedition on the Silk Road, from Istanbul to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In 2011 the operator hopes to undertake the full 6,200 miles to Xi’an, China. Accommodations echo the ancient caravanning experience: yurts, homestays, bush camps, desert camps, and caravanserais. Tour d’Afrique: “Silk Route Bicycle Tour,” 44 days, $5,485.
ADVENTURE • VALUE

Bhutan: First Commercial Descent

The culmination of years of negotiation with the Bhutan government, this rafting expedition down the Drangme Chhu—the last unexplored river system in the country—promises world-class whitewater in the shadow of soaring Himalayan peaks. Off the river, thrill-seekers are welcomed for a feast and overnight at the family home of guide Ugyen Dorji and at Enduchholing, the palace of the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan. Bio Bio Expeditions: “Drangme Chhu River First Commercial Descent,” 17 days, $6,800.
ADVENTURE

Turkey: Stroll Through History

The country’s dazzling coastline and Greek, Roman, and Lycian ruins are most often explored by sea, from a cruise ship, or via traditional gulet. But here’s a novel approach: Journey on foot through the Antalyan Peninsula, Lycia, the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, and Istanbul. Highlights include the Pisidian stronghold of Termessos, site of the eternal flames of the Chimaera as described in Homer’s Iliad; Myra with its rock-cut cliff tombs dating to 500 B.C.; and a traditional lunch in the mountain village of Bezirgan, where you’ll break katmer—a savory flatbread—with locals. Country Walkers: “Turkey: The Lycian Way & Ephesus,” 9 days, $4,698.
CULTURE

Jordan: Desert Oasis

From Amman to the Dead Sea, this cultural foray through Jordan opens doors normally closed to most travelers, including a private visit to the Royal Stables outside the capital, a meeting with a shaman in Petra, a Bedouin-guided off-road excursion through the desert landscape of Wadi Rum; and a lesson in weaving cattail-reed-and-banana-leaf baskets by local women in Wadi Rayyan. Cultural Crossroads: “The Wonders of Jordan—A Cultural Experience,” 11 days, $3,424.
CULTURE

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