James, tell us something about your background before you got involved in travelling.
Before getting in to the travel industry, and starting to travel a lot more, I used to work as a Software Engineer also managing a couple of more junior programmers. I’d always liked to travel quite a lot but just on your standard trips, you know, mini-breaks in Europe and a trip to South East Asia. I’d also played in a few punk bands back in my early twenties and found that I was enjoying the touring aspect of that a lot, even if it was just confined to the UK and a couple of European shows!
So what led you into the travel world? And what attracts you specially to quirky destinations.
The bug really bit after becoming fascinated with North Korea and booking myself on to a trip there with the company I’m now a partner in. At the time the company also ran trips to places like Chernobyl and Turkmenistan, the latter of which I’d never even heard of at the time. On the tour to North Korea, the owner of the company happend to be on the trip and we hit it off. After dinner one night in Pyongyang, and a few beers, we pretty much decided on the spot to go backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan together, which resulted in a new tour.
Around this time I really begun to get the urge to travel extensively and to lesser visited places, but didn’t have a huge budget. I begun to read about bicycle touring as a cheap means to get around and, after my employer in London went under, I decided it was as good a time as any and set out for a year to cycle from London to Shanghai via Iran and Central Asia.
You are now a partner at Lupine Travel. Tell us something about the company and your specific role in it.
The company originally started out offering budget group tours to destinations that required you to be in a tour group i.e. North Korea, Turkmenistan, Chernobyl, Iran for some passports as well as low cost bespoke Trans-Mongolian trips. Very much targeted at people that would travel independently, except for the destinations where that would not be possible.
It’s expanded massively over time to include anywhere with a tricky visa (Libya, Saudi..), break-away regions (South-Ossetia, Somaliland), places with varying security situations (Afghanistan), or making expensive places more affordable to visit than other companies (Chad).
On top of being a partner I manage all our tours to North Korea, the North and South Caucasus, some in East Africa and also our “Remote one-offs” to places like Oymyakon and Pitcairn Island. On top of this I have the pleasure of leading 5 to 6 of our group tours a year.
What are the most popular trips at Lupine? And which ones are the most challenging to organise and execute?
For a long time it was always North Korea that was the most popular, but more recently Central Asia and the African tours have been getting much more popular. Usually states in Africa with the least infrastructure have posed the biggest challenges to organise, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau in particular.
Do you have any fascinating new destinations in the pipeline?
Dylan, the founder of the company, is working on a bunch of stuff in Africa currently. El Salvador should be launching soon and our new trips of Algeria and going very well too.
We really want to keep going with the success of the more exotic trips like Oymyakon and Pitcairn. Jan Mayen being one big idea, Palmyra Atoll another and possibly Bir Tawil depending on permits.
Of the places you have been to, which ones have impacted you particularly and why?
It’s a cliche answer in the travel world I guess, but my first visit to Iran was particularly eye-opening. I knew it wasn’t going to be anything like the media make out, but being a bicycle tourist, the hospitality extended to me was unreal. On my second night someone invited me in to stay, asked me for my planned cycling route, and then set me up with 5 days accommodation at his extended family’s homes along my journey. It blew me away.
You have met many ‘extreme’ travellers through your job. What, if anything, sets them apart from others?
For the people at the real end of the extreme section, I tend to find that the planning and execution of a complicated and difficult trip tends to bring just as much, or even more satisfaction, than going on the trip itself. I know for sure I sit in this camp, sometimes spending days agonising over perfecting a possible 3 day section of a personal or tour itinerary.
You are from the UK and Ireland. Do you feel that this influences the way you see the world, and how so? And how do locals in your various destinations perceive you depending on where you are from? Is there a difference in travelling depending on whether you are going on your UK or your Irish passport?
I don’t know if being a dual national changes my own perception but, I have really noticed varied responses from border guards based on which passport I’m using. I’ve entered Russia several times on both passports and have received suspicion as a Brit, and smiles and jokes about Conor McGregor with the Irish passport. On the other hand, a surprising thing is the number of people that have never heard of Ireland. I once was almost denied entry to UAE at Sharjah airport as the immigration official had not heard of Ireland. She asked if it was part of England, I considered explaining the deep level of offence that that question could cause, but decided to just say yes and was admitted to the country!
Any hidden gems you have discovered anywhere in the world which are not widely known but you would like to share with our readers?
Bangladesh might be too broad an answer but sticks out to me here. People tend to put it quite far down their “to-visit” lists, but I personally loved it. Dhaka is a hectic city but you don’t seem to attract too much attention as a foreigner, just the odd “Hello” and a few people asking for selfies. If you enjoy portrait photography as well, it’s an amazing place. Almost everybody I asked happily said yes, tidied themselves up and struck a pose with a smile!
For something more niche, in the small town of Takster/Hongyacun in Qinghai province, China, you can visit the birthplace of the Dalai Lama. It can be a little tricky, as some tour guides and some taxis don’t feel comfortable taking foreigners there, but it’s worth it to see the locals sometime flaunting the laws of displaying his image. If you’re in Xining, you could visit in a half day, or whilst enroute to Tongren or Xiahe.
So what trips will you be taking in the next few months?
Not too much left for this year, I’ve just got back from Central Asia and Afghanistan, but I’m off to do some scuba diving in Sierra Leone before leading a tour through the country and on to Liberia. Algeria in January and a journey to Pitcairn Island via French Polynesia that I’ve been dreaming of for over a decade in February!
I’m gradually preparing to sail the Atlantic soon, I’d love to row it but the boats are very cost prohibitive!
Finally, our signature question – if you could invite four people to dinner from any period in history, who would you invite and why?
The book and film Papillon always stuck with me as my favourite adventure story, despite being a blend of fiction and non-fiction. I’m stupid enough to have a tattoo dedicated to the book. The guy would have plenty of stories beyond the ones filling his two books, and I imagine even more from spending time with Steve McQueen on set.
Always been impressed by her ability to enact considerable social change in the UK. Convincing a country to begin to reform prisons seems like an incredibly tough thing to do in the 1800’s. Plus I’m sure she and Henri would have a very passionate chat about the conditions of the labour camps in French Guiana…
Second man on the moon who once assaulted a moon landing denying conspiracy theorist on camera. On top of that he’s regularly seen sporting 3 Omega watches simultaneously, what’s not too love?
Loved virtually all of his TV programs and writing, he certainly went a long way to make visiting unusual destinations seem less crazy to people. I also love to use food as way to learn about culture, as well as a country’s geography and economy. Hopefully he wouldn’t critique my cooking though!
The photos in this interview are from James’ personal collection and we thank him for sharing them with us at NomadMania!