Whether it's spotting wild snow leopards in Northern Pakistan or horse trekking through Kyrgyzstan, Wild Frontiers offers travel packages that live up to its name.
Offering intrepid travelers the experience of a lifetime, travel writer turned tour entrepreneur Jonny Bealby conducts one-of-a-kind journeys for thrill-seeking adventurists.
The tourist industry's frenetic quest to satiate our ever-demanding taste for finery has upped the ante on luxury: Frette linens, signature scents, high-tech furnishings and personal concierges are just some of deluxe amenities luring well-heeled travelers to remote destinations from Delhi to Dubai.
But the truism "one man's water is another man's wine," applies to tourism as well, as a new breed of tastemaking travelers is privileging one-of-a-kind, life-enhancing experiences (such as living with a pagan tribe in Northern Pakistan, camel-riding through the Saharan desert, or following in the footsteps of Silk Road traders through the High Caucasus mountains) to 24-ply cashmere throws.
Leading this thrilling crusade is Jonny Bealby, author of three critically acclaimed travel memoirs and founder of Wild Frontiers. Turning his passion for fascinating far-off regions into an inimitable tour operation, Bealby and his team of expert guides (including former aide workers, foreign correspondents or friends he's met on his extensive journeys) lead small groups on hands-on expeditions into the most remote corners of the world. From Libya to Mongolia by way of Georgia, Afghanistan and Butan, his escorted and tailor-made holiday tours highlight the lesser-known wonders of the world, voyaging beyond the (oft-misconstrued) surface of the country or culture to the historic, hospitable and creative soul of each region through direct interaction with the local communities.
What is your definition of luxury?
Not really wanting for anything: ultimate comfort, ultimate satisfaction.
If luxury were an object what would it be?
A glass of 1963 Château Margaux.
If luxury were a person who would it be?
Wilma Flintstone: she had a fridge, a tv and a car over 12,000 years ago. That must have been pretty luxurious!
If luxury were a place where would it be?
Paris it's just my favorite city
If luxury were a moment when would it be?
Sitting in my house at 2500 meters looking out over the forested slopes of the Hindu Kush.
Tell us how you got into travel writing? Were you always an adventurous soul?
I think a lot of young men, and women as well, have a need to discover who they are. Sometimes that means putting yourself into difficult situations to learn more about yourself. Driving my motorbike across Africa [chronicled in my first book, Running With The Moon] was a first stage. I had had many adventures as a teen in Canada and Australia but for this serious adventure I wanted to put myself in a situation where I had to really struggle to come through. It was a great learning experience.
How did you go from travel writer to travel entrepreneur
The purpose of my second book was to retrace the footsteps of the two main characters from Roger Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King and find out if there really was such a place as Kafiristan, which means "land of the unbelievers." Having traipsed through a large part of the mountains of Afghanistan I came back out into Pakistan and found this Pagan tribe called the Kalash who inhabit three narrow valleys in the Hind Kush. They've managed to survive because they were on what was then the British-Indian side of the border, rather than on the Afghan side of the border where every one had been converted to Islam by the edge of the sword. While I was staying with the Kalash for three months, one of the heads of the community encouraged me to begin bringing tourists to the region, which is fascinating and relatively safe. I though it was good idea. Making a living writing travel books was never going to be easy, so that's what I decided to do: set up an itinerary based on the Kalash.
What is the difference between sharing your stories as a writer and sharing your knowledge as a tour guide?
There's no question that traveling on your own as an independent adventurer, aiming to gleam stories from the people you meet and experiences you have, is a very fulfilling occupation. Some may say that taking 12 tourists with you would kill that experience, but the truth is when you know a place really well and you have great friends in those places, the vicarious pleasure that you get by introducing people to those things easily makes up for the discomfort or annoyances of having to look after 12 people. It's like handing over a gift: seeing the pleasure that your clients gain from the experience is a fantastic privilege.
When did you get the sense that there was a market for adventure travel?
I didn't. I have never bothered to study any market research. I had no ideas of travel companies, of prices, etc. I just though what I've enjoyed as a travel writer I know other people would enjoy as paying clients. I've never bothered to look at what the competition does, because I don't believe we have much true competition. We really do only run trips to places that we know very well and where we have great friend and contacts. What this means for our clients is that they become guests rather than tourists. They stay with our friends and us, which leads to something very different than packaged "adventure travel."
How do your friends in these regions respond to the idea of opening their homes to your clients? Do they ever get tired of the traffic?
The numbers are relatively small. We're talking about six or seven group tours a year. What it means is income for them, very important income. They understand, as I do, that these people coming are not only helping them survive and educate their children but that they're also fascinated by their culture. They like that these people are coming thousands of miles away from their comfortable homes to live in their world in a cross-cultural interactive way. What they don't like is when people staying at a smart hotel come in for a day, take their pictures, and leave. We give our clients a bit of each world, living amongst the communities and then going to a nice hotel for several days. It's all about getting the best experience of the place. If that means sleeping on rope bed with no electricity and hot water and rubbish food, then we'll do it, but if it doesn't we won't. One of the things that we're very particular and conscious of is that the people that we go to visit, and this can be shepherds or sheep drivers, or small guesthouse owner, guides, cook, or just local people, that they benefit in some way from us being their. Consequently we support local a lot NGOs that provide education, housing and electricity.
You have said that the traveler is ultimately looking to live a "good story," why do you feel that more and more individuals, and not just extreme independent spirits like yourself, are looking to live out rare and unusual "stories?"
I think life has gotten to easy for us in the West. We drink and eat only exactly what we want, drive whatever car we want to drive; we go into nice offices that are warm and pleasant. Or whole life experience in the West has become, on one level, and I'm not saying emotionally, too easy. Compared to people in developing worlds we are all well off. I think that what we start to lose is the sense of gaining real experiences that teach us more about ourselves and about the world that we live in. By taking people into these less developed regions it challenges them as individuals to survive without a hair dryer for a night, without eating food or drink that they'd choose, while looking over a high mountain pass and pushing themselves to know more about themselves and the people that they meet and come back more educated and richer from the experience. So it's about experience, it's this jargon "experience culture" that we live in, and that is what we sell. Someone said to me the other day that we sell dinner conversations; that's a trivial way of looking at it, but in a way, it's true.
How has interest changed since you began in 2002? Which regions have people expressed an increased desire to visit?
We've grown very quickly in and in various directions. In 2002 we took 19 clients to 2 destinations. Last year we took about 500 people to 29 destinations. This year we'll probably take around 700. The areas that are popular, which is surprising in some cases, are those that have been in the news for negative reasons, such as Pakistan, which is hugely popular, and India. India is becoming less daunting for people. The health issues that use to bedevil India are no longer relevant, the infrastructure is much better the hotels are fantastic and of course the culture and scenery and sights are as amazing as ever. People are also looking further a field; and with a company like Wild Frontiers the trips that we find easiest to sell are always the most bizarre like traveling into wild parts of Tibet or Southwest China or even Afghanistan, people are very keen to go there.
You travel to countries perceived as unstable and uninviting for Western tourists. Does that level of insecurity add to the adventure?
I'm not sure that many of our clients are adrenaline junkies and want to go to a place for that reason. I think they want to go to a place because they're interested in discovering it for themselves; they understand better that the dangers as not as much as people perceive them to be. If they were adrenaline junkies they wouldn't come to a company like Wild Frontiers, they'd head off to a war zone on their own.
Is your goal to dispel certain misconceptions about particular regions?
There are often very misconstrued ideas about certain places. Most people are only gleaming their information from newspapers and websites, but the reality is usually very different. Pakistan is a portrayed as a hugely dangerous place, which in parts it undoubtedly is, but there are many parts that are operating completely safely, where there is very little crime and no real dangers. I've been running trips to Pakistan for ten years and have never had any trouble at all. And yet if you ask someone on the street if they'd like to spend their holidays in Pakistan they'd think you were mad. Most people don't really know much about these places. They don't know that Pakistan has the most stunning mountains anywhere in the world and that is filled with different cultures, people to see and things to do. A lot of my job is explaining to people that their conception of danger in traveling to these places is very skewed. The chances of dying as a tourist, pretty much anywhere, are very, very small and probably no more so than dying in your own city. People often take things totally out of context and often make judgments that are neither fair nor right.
What measures go into ensuring that the trip is safe and secure for each group?
We have an enormous security apparatus in place that gleams information for us and delivers it to us so that we can act on it appropriately. We have local contacts in each place. For instance, we have a consultant in Kabul who was the head of the ICRC security and who knows all of the warlords in all the areas. A lot of the dangers in a place like Afghanistan are all very local and parochial and it's important that you know what warlord has annoyed what agency and vice versa to know which roads to go down and which to avoid. Therefore it's important to have local people are the ground. In Pakistan if I think that is situation, say in a city like Peshawar, we know the chief of police there and I'll call him up and explain that we need extra security for our travelers and he would provide it for me. However, I am very reluctant to do that because I feel that it has the opposite effect: it draws attention to yourself. This would be a decision that I'd make normally by something happening while we're on a trip, because if I though we needed it beforehand, I would never run the trip. We always have briefings with the British Embassy whenever we go to these countries so that they can give us the low down on what they now, and conversely, we tell them what we're know because we're actually traveling through these parts.
How does contact with members of the local communities impact the overall experience?
It's what Wild Frontiers sells—it's everything. If you're simply taking people through pretty scenery and staying in nice hotels there's no real benefit. For me as a travel writer, the only you can write stories is by talking to people, finding out what makes them tick and conversely, them finding out about you. It's a two way street. If you can't spend time with the people, you wind up leaving a region feeling hollow because you haven't really touched upon what makes that region special, because it's always the people.
You have a home in Hindu Kush and have been exploring the region for over a decade. What do you find draws you most to the region?
It's the warmth and hospitality of the people that draw me back there. Of course there are stunning mountains, the people who live there have a fascinating history and culture but more than anything it's the friendships that you go back to. I have a little home there, it's beautiful, it's perched on the side of the mountain overlooking on one side Afghanistan and on the other down into the valley of Pakistan, it's surrounded by pine trees and is absolutely idyllic. It provides a very basic but peaceful existence.
What have been the most memorable journeys in your career?
Once I was bet by a friend in Delhi that I couldn't get back from Delhi to London overland for the same price that he could by flying. I had 229£ to do it. I did it in 12 days and lost the bet by $50. It was a brilliant experience and a very different kind of travel. When you go across one of the world's major migration routes in a very quick period of time you see thing very differently: the shapes of the domes of the mosques and how they kind elongate as you get further East; how the bread stretches and changes form from country to country and the faces as well. It's like looking at a flipbook.
Which of your programs do you feel are the most unusual and unique?
I've just done a trip to Northern Pakistan, where we were the first tourists to see a winter pagan festival and to spot the wild snow leopards. I like to think that most of our trips are unique in one way or another. I know that we're the only company running trips to see the Jeykundo Horse Festival in Tibet, and to offer horse treks through Kurdistan or journeys across the Saharan desert.
What are some of the itineraries that you are currently developing?
We're looking about doing some more journeys, so for example we've got one that we're calling "Raiders of the Lost Ark" which from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, via Samburu, Lake Turkana and the Omo Valley. We're doing another extension of the Silk Road through central China, we're doing some new trips in tribal India and some new trips through parts of western Mongolia which are rarely visited and another new trip from northern Vietnam through into southwestern China which is a very untraveled area. We're also looking into parts of central and West Africa.
Which areas would you like to explore in the future?
I'm quite drawn to Mainland China. I know that it's become less off the beaten track now but I think it sounds fascinating. I'm also drawn by central Russia, where there is very little tourism. We are starting to go into some parts South America next year. I've never been there and I'd love to go.