“Tree lover and running person,” reads his Instagram bio. The deceptively disciplined rectangles of his photo gallery are spritzed with the colour and chaos of a free spirit…hiking, diving, running all over the world. Actually, make that two free spirits. By his own admission, Milind Soman’s favourite travel partner also happens to be his partner in life, Ankita Konwar. He loves the thrill of committing to active sports in new countries, and she likes faraway places with stories to spill. Here’s how travel makes the lovers meet in the middle.
Your childhood years played out over a lot of different places—Scotland, London, and Mumbai. Do any of the places/travels stand out?
I travelled a lot because I was swimming competitively. But back then, it was never about the place. I was travelling for organised events. At that age—I could have been 13 or 14—all I cared about were the swimming pools. And my family wasn’t with me. When you’re older you travel because you want to experience something particular. As a child you don’t know enough to be interested in the place or culture or food. But what was interesting about that kind of travel was meeting new people from different cultures, from all over the country, who were doing the same as me. I met swimmers from Kerala, Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat.
When did you start travelling mindfully?
About two years ago. After I grew up, sometimes I’d be travelling for 20 days a month. But even then, I was travelling for work. Anything that I saw happened by the way.
That changed after I got married. My wife loves to travel. I mean, I do too, I’d look at those monuments, but I must also find something interesting to do. A marathon, a triathlon, an adventure sport, a hike—some activity that becomes the focal point of that trip. Jerusalem, for instance, has such an incredible energy of faith and belief. But of course, I went there to run the Jerusalem Marathon. At the end of 2019, we travelled to Japan for ‘The Last Long Run’, 120 kilometres from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji. It wasn’t even an organised public event, we created it and got other people to join. We spent 10 days there and did all sorts of other things, but these are the triggers that take us places.
A rim-to-rim hike through the stunning Grand Canyon tops his bucket list. Photo by: GUDKOV ANDREY/shutterstock
The lover of active holidays was accompanied by his partner and 81-year-old mother on a hike from Lisbon, Portugal, all the way to northern Spain. Photo by: Andrew Mayovskyy/shutterstock
Any similar plans on your bucket list?
I’ve always wanted see the Grand Canyon. But again, I don’t want to just stand there and take pictures of the sunset. We hope to do the rim-to-rim hike—start at the North Rim, go into the Canyon, go across it, and then come out of the South Rim. It’s very famous and everyone going there knows about, but not very many attempt it. If I’m travelling all the way to America, it has to be for something special like that.
So you want to run your run in faraway lands, but your wife likes to soak in the places. How does that work?
It’s a compromise I think she’d made (laughs). No, but in reality, she’s a marathon runner now and runs more than I do. Year before last we went on this walk, El Camino, which ends in Santiago, Spain. People walk there from everywhere—Spain, Portugal, France, Germany. We did that hike from Lisbon in Portugal, all the way to northern Spain, about 400 kilometres. It was incredible.
We being you and Ankita?
And my mother. She did the walk too, and she’s 81! In fact, she loves to travel. You should talk to her.
So there were/are never any conflicts of interest?
Ankita and I have met each other halfway in understanding the reasons behind why each one travels. There is some food, there is architecture, there is meeting locals as well as other travellers. We’ve found that it is most impactful when we are ready to be a part of it all. Twenty strangers, from 20 different countries, talking about this new place they are at. We don’t want to just go somewhere, sit in a bar and talk to each other.
The actor and athlete’s Lonavala house stands far from Mumbai’s madding crowd, an urban oasis framed by wild greens and cliff-top views. Photo Courtesy: Milind Soman/Instagram
Tell us a bit about food and architecture being some of the common draws?
Architecture is actually specific to me. But food is something that connects both of us. We love to eat our way through new places and we are very experimental. If I were to go back to Japan to actually climb Mt. Fuji, or to go Hiroshima, a good Wagyu beef meal at a Kobe restaurant would be a part of my itinerary. My wife loves silkworm delicacies from her hometown Assam, and I tried that. I didn’t much care for it, but it made me realise that insects are something I am actually willing to try (eating).
So did you?
Oh yes, very many vertebrates and invertebrates (Laughs). My pick would be the scorpions in Bangkok, roasted, grilled.
You grew up in Shivaji Park in the suburb of Dadar in Mumbai. What’s your impression of how the city has evolved from then to now?
For one, it was far less crowded. In stories I’ve heard from my grandparents, Juhu was a jungle where people refused to tread. Imagine how much green Bombay must have had back then—trees and trees and trees and trees! It’s not all bad. Where there was a garbage dump in Mahim, now there is a nature park. My mother loves to go for these nature walks across the city. But these small pockets of greens are getting rarer every day.
Are you a sea or a mountain person?
Mountains, with lots of trees. The kind of altitude that allows vegetation. I like the sea too, but from a distance. Say, from a cliff, rather than from a beach. So I like heights, and I like greenery. My house in Lonavala, built 20 years ago, captures both.
Is it on a cliff?
Yes, it is. It’s on a cliff that overlooks the district of Raigad. Some days you can even see all the way to Bombay. As you can imagine, I’ve allowed the trees to grow very wild; it is lush throughout the year. You were asking me about my favourite part of the city—so that’s my favourite view of Bombay. From far away.
Do you have a green thumb?
I have tried, but they just don’t grow. There is this vine back in Lonavala, with huge purple flowers, could be azalea, I’m not sure. It’s grown all over the place and taken over everything. I have a lot of respect for it. I like plants like that, that grow on their own and don’t ask for a lot of pampering.
Spinning off from nature and wild spaces, you’ve had some curious pets over the years, right?
I love animals. A kite, a water snake from the beach, a bunch of mice, cats, dogs, rabbits, tortoises, as a child I’d get home pretty much anything. Now of course, I prefer to leave them in the wild. But growing up, they were great to have around. Of course my mother, who had to help me clean and feed them, did not agree.
Now I just have a cat. Very secure, very independent fellow, doesn’t care if I’m off travelling for a bit. As long as there is food in the bowl, the cat is happy. Like I said, I like creatures that can take care of themselves.
The glorious calm of Swiss hamlets has had Soman enchanted for years. Photo by: Visual Intermezzo/shutterstock
The Great Migration of East Africa shine’s bright among Soman’s travel memories;. Photo by: Galyna Andrushko/shutterstock
What about animals in the wild? Any sightings/spots that you cherish?
I love my safaris. In East Africa, I’ve had great sightings in Ngorongoro, in Serengeti, and in Maasai Mara. Africa is incredible in that way, just a non-stop stream of animals coming your way. Wildebeest, zebra, gazelle! I’ve been to Africa several times; the last time was last year (2019). My wife wanted to climb the Kilimanjaro. Six days, almost 20,000 feet. Coming back to animals…in India, I’ve been to Kaziranga, Ranthambhore, Corbett, and Bandhavgarh. I remember Bandhavgarh for my first ever tiger sighting, about 10 years ago. Bharatpur also remains memorable. To see all those birds hanging around together was quite lovely.
You must have travelled plush in the ‘90s, when you were modelling? Lots of jet-setting around the world and luxury stays, would imagine.
I’ve experienced all kinds of travel. When I was swimming, I’d take the train everywhere across the country, bunk in hostels, camps and government guesthouses. Then as I started modelling, it completely changed—pretty much what you said. I couldn’t take the train anymore. And I shouldn’t say this, but really every five-star hotel is the same. It still remains the same, fortunately or unfortunately. Besides, there are so many more options now, with flights and hotels and restaurants; couch surfing, backpacking, and what not. Travel today has definitely come a long way.
So what is Milind Soman’s favourite kind of travel?
Travel light. No check-in luggage at all. As far as destinations go, I have a soft spot for secluded, exclusive locales where you may not bump into even one person. I don’t want anything busy, we have enough of that in Bombay. If it’s a stay, even the service is invisible. Recently (before the pandemic) I went to this hotel called Mihir Garh near Jodhpur. Designed like an old fort, very beautiful and very isolated. And last year, an island resort in Maldives gave that same sense of disconnecting from the world. Although I did go there for the Maldives Marathon.
Okay, so no hubbub. But still, Zurich must hold fond memories because of the IRONMAN (Triathlon)?
It does. But Switzerland is so much more than Zurich. Some of its smaller villages are my favourites. Travelling all across the country by the train in the ‘90s was a beautiful experience. I’m really bad with names, but there’s just so much natural beauty in the Swiss spots beyond the big cities. I’ve been to Switzerland about eight times. Next time, I want to climb the Mont Blanc.
Feasting on insects in Bangkok made for a memorable adventure. Photo by: Luciano Mortula – LGM/shutterstock
Soman hopes to scout buzzing Japanese cities for the perfect Wagyu beef. Photo by: CK Bangkok Photography/shutterstock
Any enduring memory of what one might call ‘extreme travel’?
That would have to be diving in Iceland (2019). The dive was into a fissure, between two tectonic plates in Silfra. It was October, and the water was melt-water from a glacier, about two degrees cold. No life inside, just the cleanest, clearest water. It was very special.
Come to think of it, I’ve done pretty much everything other than BASE jumping and skydiving. I’m hoping to check out the skydiving scene in India when I next can.
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Sohini Das Gupta
travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.
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