James Ian has visited more than 80 countries, been on all seven continents and is the man behind Travel Collecting and Park Collecting. He focuses on doing activities and having experiences that give him meaningful and active interaction with the local culture, people and environment. James Ian helps people have incredible travel experiences around the world and in the national parks of the United States through his two websites. He’s a strong believer in fully embracing all that this amazing planet has to offer – and likes to help people do that too.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
I love India. It’s totally chaotic but so much fun. I found everyone super friendly and helpful, and the culture fascinating. There was so much to see and do. From staying in a former palace to learning how to do traditional tie and dye, taking a cooking class, riding a camel through the desert (our camel wandered off, but our guide managed to find it again hours later), buying and learning how to wrap a turban. I had such an amazing time there and can’t wait to go back.
Not a country, but Antarctica
I went to Antarctica partly just to say that I’d been to all seven continents, but in the end, I didn’t want to leave. The penguins were so cute, sliding off icebergs, waddling around colonies and stealing pebbles off each other. I soaked in hot water in a large ‘spa’ (basically just a large hole dug in the beach on Deception Island, which filled with hot thermal water) – and then accidentally fell in the freezing cold Antarctica Ocean; drank vodka shots at a Ukrainian research station; had a barbecue sailing along Iceberg Alley; saw elephant seals and leopard seals, and sailed past more glaciers than I can remember. It was mind-blowing!
I grew up in Australia but have lived in the US for the past 14 years, and I love it. The national parks here are insane. You have the biggest trees on the planet in Sequoia and the hottest place on the planet in Death Valley. There are geysers in Yellowstone, stunning mountains in Grand Teton, iconic formations in Yosemite, the incredible Grand Canyon, diving through giant kelp forests in the Channel Islands. There are moose, bison, bears, bald eagles. I started a whole second website dedicated to the US national parks because they are just so incredible.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Having yak butter tea with Tibetan monks
When I was in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan autonomous region, I wanted to get a good photo of the Potala Palace. I climbed a small hill across from it but still couldn’t get an unobstructed view. There was a small temple there, and a monk popped out of a building and gestured me to follow him. We walked up and around and then actually went through a building and out the other side to an outcrop with the absolute best view of the Potala Palace. I would never have gotten there by myself. Then he invited me inside. I sat with him and an older monk, and we drank yak butter tea (which is totally disgusting) and communicated as best we could, using a dictionary and by pointing to photos in my guidebook. It was an amazing, unexpected moment.
Diving in Thailand and seeing a manta ray
When I was in Thailand, I decided to take a multi-day liveaboard dive trip to the Surin and Surinam Islands. It was absolutely mind-blowing. There were so many colourful fish, leopard sharks, turtles, eels, etc. But the best moment was at the end of a dive when I was doing the safety stop. Suddenly, appearing out of the darkness of the big blue came this enormous creature, looking like something from the movie The Abyss. It had enormous wings and slowly glided towards me and right underneath me. It was the first time I saw a manta ray, and I’ll never forget it!
Learning to weave in central Peru
When I was in central Peru, I met up with another traveller, and we decided we wanted to learn traditional weaving using a backstrap loom. We caught a bus to a tiny village that specialized in weaving and asked at a store in the centre of town if there was anyone who could teach us. The woman there took us down several streets, then knock on the door of a house. She introduced to us Maria, who was a master weaver. We explained to Maria that we wanted to learn how to weave.
She decided that she’d earn more from teaching us for a week than she would from weaving for a week, so she agreed. We spent two weeks in the courtyard of her house weaving a couple of belts, getting to know her, and meeting her kids. We even took photos of the family for her son’s graduation and sent them to her. I don’t remember how to weave, but I will always remember Maria and her family (and the half-finished second belt makes a great souvenir).
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Mugged at knifepoint in Pamplona, Spain
I arrived for the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, without any accommodation booked. That was a big mistake. Fortunately, I could leave my backpack in a huge storage room near the train station. However, it meant I needed to sleep in the park. The city had water trucks driving around several times a night, spraying everyone sleeping there with water to get rid of them, so I headed to a park a little out of town.
After sleeping for maybe a couple of hours at most, I was headed back into the centre of town at around 5:00 am when a group of people surrounded me. One of them pulled a knife out and demanded money. When I shouted for help, they slashed my fanny pack and ran away. They got my camera and train ticket, but fortunately, I had my passport and credit card in another pouch inside my pants, so it could have been worse. I ran with the bulls at 8:00 AM the same day, so the day wasn’t a total write off.
Attempted mugging at knifepoint in Casablanca, Morocco
There’s a theme here. In Casablanca, a guy approached me and the friend I was travelling with and said he could take us to a special Berber market. I was very green and naïve at the time, so we went with him (don’t do this – it’s a classic scam!). We caught a local bus to some random market miles away. The market was nothing special. He took us from store to store, but we didn’t want to buy anything. Since he would earn a commission from anything we had bought, he started to get angry as he saw his potential commission slipping away.
To appease him, I decided to buy some leather slippers and gave him the amount of money that he has said it would cost. Then he turned around and demanded more money. When I refused, he pulled a knife on us. I snatched my money out of his hand, and we hightailed it out of there as fast as we could. We were very lucky and saw a taxi, hopped in, and escaped unscathed, so there was a happy ending to the story.
19-hour ‘hard seat’ train ride from Shanghai, China
When I was backpacking around China, as soon as I arrived in Shanghai, I tried to book a train out for a few days later. Unfortunately, the only thing available was a “hard seat” ticket. Unfortunately for me, the train ride was 19 hours. It was a nightmare. I was crammed on a hard bench seat designed for three people with at least four people at any given moment. The aisles were so crammed that people had to climb in and out of windows at the stations to get on and off the train. People were even sleeping on top of luggage on the overhead luggage racks. It was crazy! I barely slept for the entire time. It was a very long and very uncomfortable 19 hours.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Always take a photo as soon as you see something
My golden rule is to take a photo as soon as you see something, even if the light is bad, it’s in the distance, and the weather is terrible. You never know if this will be the best photo you get to take. If you can get a better shot later, then great; you can always delete the first one. However, you should never assume you will get a better photo later, as you may not. I figure a bad photo will still capture the memory and is better than no photo at all.
Try to do and see everything a place has to offer
Variety truly is the spice of life. Don’t avoid touristy places – places are popular for a reason, and if you avoid them, you are often missing out on something really great. However, get off the beaten track, too. There are lots of less popular places that offer incredible experiences. Be open to the unexpected and unplanned moments and go with the flow. Try to do and experience a place in as many ways as possible. Learn a little of the language. Try to cook the food. Learn how to do the local handicrafts. Try local transportation. Go to the famous galleries and tiny lesser-known galleries too. Try it all.
Be safe but not paranoid
It’s easy to get overly paranoid about safety, especially in places with a reputation for being a little dodgy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions – you absolutely should. It’s just as important to strike a balance and be open to new experiences while still keeping basic safety protocols in mind. Don’t let paranoia cause you to miss out on extraordinary adventures.
Do you have any favourite cities?
Because I lived there.
The most underrated city in Europe.
How can you not love the music and vibe?.
I know lots of people love to hate it because there are so many tourists, but it’s still magical.
What is another good travel story you haven’t mentioned so far?
A couple of quick stories from the Trans-Siberian Railway: We had stopped a town along the way (I can’t remember the name). At each station, there were people selling bread, perogies and other snacks. The food on the train was dreadful, so this was a good place to get some supplies. I crossed the tracks, and just as I was about to return, another train came past from the opposite direction. It seemed endless, and to my horror, I could see through the undercarriage of that train that MY train was starting to move. My passport, money, luggage, everything was still on the Trans-Siberian (Another travel tip: Never leave your passport or money on a train.).
The train between us finally passed, and our train was still there, though it was picking up speed (it took a long time to get started, fortunately). Unfortunately, the steps had been raised, and the floor of the train was as high as my chest. I frantically tried to pull myself up, but the train was starting to gather speed, and I couldn’t get a grip. There were other passengers behind me in the same boat, all frantically shouting at me. Then my guardian angel, the conductor of my carriage, pulled the emergency brake, risking a certain reprimand, and the train stopped, and we all hopped on! So, a happy ending, but it was very stressful.
A happy Trans-Siberian story – sort of. I met a Russian couple on the train and spent a night trying to drink them under the table. They didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak more than a few words of Russian, but somehow we managed to communicate throughout the night. After more shots of vodka than I can remember, around 4:00 AM, I finally admitted defeat and stumbled back to my own cabin. I learned another valuable life lesson that night: Never try to outdrink a Russian.
If you can only choose one:
Favourite airline: Etihad. Best service ever. Followed closely by Singapore Airlines.
Favourite airport: Changi in Singapore. It has a garden and a waterfall in it.
Favourite hotel: Samode Palace, a former palace heritage hotel in India.
Favourite restaurant: Ninnikuya (literally “Garlic Restaurant” in Japanese) in Kobe, Japan. Everything on the menu has garlic in it. Awesome.
Favourite city: New York City, which is good, since I live here.
Favourite island: Easter Island/Rapa Nui.
Favourite people: That’s too hard to answer. People everywhere are amazing if you try to get to know them.
Favourite travel book: The Big Red Train Ride by Eric Newby. It may not be the best book ever, but it inspired my trip on the Trans-Siberian, so it has a special place in my heart.
Favourite travel website: My own.