The Favourites of James Willcox

James Willcox in Yemen.

In 2008, after years of extensive travel throughout Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, James Willcox founded Untamed Borders, an adventure travel company providing unparalleled access to some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places. James had a desire to enable other people to experience the beauty and wonders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, lands that are often described as dangerous and inhospitable, and James has guided hundreds of people in hard-to-reach destinations.

He helped introduce ski tourism to Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2012 Untamed Borders was the first international company to bring tourists to Chechnya and Mogadishu for 20 years. In 2013 he was awarded a personal commendation by Dr Habiba Sarobi, the Governor of Bamian Province, Afghanistan, for his part in bringing ski tourism to Afghanistan. He helped found both the Afghanistan and Somaliland Marathons and was awarded a medal by the Afghan Olympic Committee for his efforts to promote Afghan sport. James also sits on the board of NGOs Free to Run and The Afghan Sports Trust. He says that any trip that he organises is only considered successful if there is some benefit to both the people on the trip and the people of the regions visited.

What are three of your favourite countries, and why?

It was visiting Bamian in Afghanistan back in 2007 that really made me want to start working on encouraging tourism to Afghanistan, which led to me founding Untamed Borders. So in many ways, Afghanistan changed my life. The same things that attracted the hippies and travellers of the 1960s and 1970s attracted me. There still exists in parts of Afghanistan today a sense of beauty and timelessness. In Afghanistan, it is often described as the Noor, the light. It is a place that can be strikingly beautiful. There are some spectacular sights, experiences and monuments, but it is a country I have grown to love more and more every year as I have many friends that have grown older with me over the last 14 years.

I have only started visiting Yemen in the last few years and even then only to the Hadramut region as well as the island of Socotra. However, I have loved every minute, and it feels like a new relationship with a country. It reminds me somewhat of the feelings I had when I first visited Afghanistan. Incredible striking scenery and some wonderful, wonderful people. Despite the current conflict, I associate my times in Yemen as being with gentle, incredibly friendly people, rich with history and jaw-dropping sites. It feels like a brand new relationship and one which I want more and more of. I really hope the current conflict starts to ease soon.

I really love the Greater Himalaya region, from Arunachal Pradesh in the East to the Hindu Kush and Pamirs in the West. I really should be naming this as my favourite place, but geopolitics dictates I must pick one, and it is Pakistan partly because it contains parts of the Himalaya, the Hindu Kush and also the mighty Karakorum ranges. There is a real difference of feeling between the three ranges. Pakistan wins, though, because for jaw-dropping mountain scenery Hunza takes some beating. 

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?

Great travel moments can be for many reasons, but below are three moments when I really did not know what to expect, and the experience surpassed any expectation.

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Visiting the Sibi Mela in Balochistan, Pakistan, in 2008. The Sibi Mela is the greatest festival in Balochistan. For a week, families from across the region come to celebrate all things Baloch. As well as competitions for who has the best cow or camel, marriages are arranged, Buzkashi is played and when I was there, a 12-year-old girl was jumping over ten parked cars on a 500CC motorbike as part of the entertainment. It was the only place I have been to when a concert was literally “packed to the rafters”. There were rafters high up in the roof of the music venue, and people were sitting in them. A wild experience.

Witnessing a Sky Burial in Gansu in 2004. In Buddhism, to ensure reincarnation, the body must be returned to the earth. In India, this is done by cremation. In Tibet, where fuel for fire is a scarce resource, this is typically done with a sky burial ceremony. The body is taken to high holy ground and butchered, all traces of blood are mixed with Champa (Barley Flour), and all flesh is then left out for the vultures to eat over the next few days. Machetes, axes and even small hand mincing machines are used. Both gruesome and moving.

Reaching the Lighthouse on the tip of the Horn of Africa in 2016. For me, travel is about an adventure and for a real adventure, there must be some sense of peril. Not necessarily physical, but a plan and a trip in which the outcome is not yet fully known. There is something exhilarating about organising the first tourist trip to a region because however much planning is in place, there is always some unknowns.

This was the case when I took a small group to the very tip of the Horn of Africa back in 2016. It would be the first group to visit since the conflict in Somalia began in 1991. Due to a multitude of events, some in our control but mostly outside our control, we were on about the 20th iteration of the plan by the time we reached our destination and all the better for it. I gave a short talk about the trip here.

What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?

My first day in Osh in Kyrgyzstan in 2008
I arrived in Osh just before dusk, by the time I had gone to bed, I had had a knife at my throat in a robbery, eaten some cake which I later found had been in a shop window with rats in at and finally had to leave a bar via the staff exit to avoid a fight. I had been reading the book The Alchemist at the time, and in it, we are told that if we listen hard enough, we can hear the world telling us what to do. I felt Osh was telling me that I would be better off leaving the next day. But, in those escapades, I met a Dutch guy who is still a good friend today, so I cannot say it was all bad.

Getting shot at by Daesh in Iraq in 2016
As well as travelling for fun and guiding tourists, I sometimes work for professional people. Back in 2016, I worked with a documentary maker following the Yazidi people’s war with Daesh. Part of this involved visiting Peshmerga and government frontline positions and interviewing soldiers. At one such interview, we were at a part of the frontline which had been attacked by an armour-plated bulldozer trying to bulldoze the trenches the night before. There had been casualties on both sides, and another bulldozer was sitting in no man’s land. Soldiers from the Iraqi government sneaked out into no man’s land to try and blow up the bulldozer but were spotted by Daesh, and this led to a firefight beginning. Our position came under relatively heavy fire, and we had to wait until it died down before we could move on.

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Seeing Covid leave so many people I know in major financial difficulty 2020
I have had so many friends in the travel industry suffer in the last 12-15 months. In most of the areas I work, there is no such thing as government assistance for companies affected by Covid, so people have to get by somehow by themselves. On the flip side, it was wonderful being able to start sending tourists to people again after months or even over a year without visitors, being able to give people some hope that things will improve.

What are three of your best travel tips? 

I guess it makes sense to answer about safety and security since I have a lot of experience in that field. The below is not a complete assessment or an emergency plan but often areas that are overlooked.

In travel, especially to a higher risk environment, communication can be key to any plan being successful. Communication can also be intercepted and used by people wishing to harm you. Do you have or need a communications plan? It does not have to be complex, but how will you stay connected to people if you need help, and at what point do people checking in on you have to press the panic button if they do not hear from you.

Check your communications work. Will your sim work in the country you land in. Will instant messaging work? What websites and sources of information are blocked. Will you need a local sim? Sometimes you will need to buy one on the black market. Will you need a satellite phone? Can you legally have one in the country you are visiting? Will you need to download a VPN? Is this legal or not? 

Finally, do you need to be discrete about how you communicate? Should you avoid telling people you, meet on the street details of your plan. Should you avoid posting things on social media? Should you tell people, you meet you are not of a certain nationality or do not hold any particular political or social viewpoints? All things to consider before arriving.

Accommodation safety
You will probably spend more time in your accommodation than in any other one single area. It is often a place where you are very vulnerable even though you probably feel very safe in your room. Things to consider include choice of accommodation. Does it have security? Is it a likely target? Is it in a secure part of town if the really worst happens (The Ledger in Bangui, for example, is the UN evacuation point, so always handy to stay there).

Then consider what happens if your hotel is attacked. You can choose a room that is close to a secondary exit (have you ever thought about secondary exits?) or a panic room (if they have one). You might consider making sure your name and passport details are not behind the front desk and are in a safe or in a backroom (anyone coming in can quickly find the high-value targets if they check the register). You may pack a grab bag at night containing your essentials so you can leave quickly at night in the dark.

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Have travel insurance
Don’t make someone have to take a phone call asking them to pay your bills to fly you home because you did not take out repatriation insurance.

What are three of the most extraordinary travel experiences you offer at Untamed Borders?

Yemen Mainland trip
Yemen is a crossroads of trade and cultures between the Middle East and Africa. Along the narrow lowland coast, you find bustling ports and beautiful white sand beaches looking out into the Gulf of Aden. The highlights of Yemen are however hidden away in the hinterland of the Arab Peninsula. In the dry desert highlands and the narrow wadis that run off them, you can find people and cultures that have remained almost unchanged for centuries. Exploring cities of mud-built skyscrapers like Shibam, the Manhattan of the Middle East, or discovering small villages situated precariously on rocks surrounded by date palms and lush greenery. To travel now is really a special experience.

Wakhan corridor and Afghan Pamir of Afghanistan
The Afghan Pamir is really one of those remote parts of the earth that makes you understand what life is really about. To reach the land of the final few true nomadic Kyrgyz, you need to drive for 2 days, cross the Tajik / Afghan border, drive a further 2 days then trek for 5 days. Each step of that journey is a true adventure. Washed out roads, wild horses kicking out teeth, fistfights and cholera outbreaks have all been part and parcel of our journeys to this beautiful yet brutal 4000m high valley where it can snow even in the middle of summer. A real walk on the wild side.

In December, we will be organising our first trip to Baluchistan in Pakistan, travelling along the Makran coast via the Gaddani ship-breaking beaches and Mongol NP to Gwadar before turning inland towards Quetta. It will be the first commercial trip for 20 years, and any trip like that is really exciting. A step into the unknown.

Are there anywhere in the world you consider too dangerous to take guests at the moment?

Yes, absolutely. Although not as many as you might think. The world is, bar some horrible conflicts, pretty much the safest it has been in the history of humanity. There are parts of the world which have actual conflict going on which we would not think of taking guests (e.g. parts of Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya). There are also areas that are controlled by groups that are ideologically opposed to the governments of Untamed Borders and our guests, and so would be too much of a risk.

Do note that we also work with professional people such as journalists, researchers, documentary makers and photographers, and sometimes we organise things for these people in higher-risk environments than our normal guests.

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