The Exhilarations of History: A Conversation with Bill Jones | GeoEx
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The Exhilarations of History: A Conversation with Bill Jones

By Don George | June 17, 2020

GeoEx trip leader Bill Jones on a road in Saudi Arabia

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I became a GeoEx trip leader, and I introduced a series of short videos that other GeoEx trip leaders had made to introduce themselves and the trips they lead.

Those wonderful videos inspired me to want to know more about our different trip leaders, so I decided to interview them one by one. Over the weeks to come, we’ll be presenting some of these interviews here.This week’s interview is with Bill Jones. Born in Britain and currently based in Paris, Bill has led countless tours across the globe over the past four decades. A renowned explorer and raconteur, Bill will be leading GeoEx trips in Southern Pakistan in December 2020 and February 2021, in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley in July 2021 and September 2021, and in Saudi Arabia in November 2020, March 2021, and November 2021. Bill will also be leading our new, trailblazing trip to Algeria in October 2020 and October 2021.

I hope you enjoy our interview!

Don George: When and how did you become a trip leader?

Bill Jones: How I became a trip leader is a wonderfully serendipitous love story. In 1974, having just graduated from university, I decided to travel before starting a real job. During my final year at school, I had met and fallen in love with Janet. But I began to travel, and then she began working as a guide, and we didn’t see each other for a while. This was in the days long before the Internet and mobile phones, so communication wasn’t the same as today. Well, to cut a long story short, sometime later I was hitchhiking on the Arlberg pass in Austria. No one was stopping for a long-haired hippie type of character, but suddenly a coach full of tourists stopped to pick me up. Who should be the tour guide but Janet, the young woman I had fallen in love with!

I accepted the ride very gratefully, but we’d hardly gone more than a couple of kilometers when the bus broke down. The bus couldn’t be fixed, so Janet left me in charge of the group while she went for a replacement bus. “But what will I do with the people?” I questioned.

“Tell them about your travels,” she said, and then left me to it.

This was not the end of the story, however, for after what seemed like forever, she returned with not one, but two smaller buses, and promptly said to me, “I’ll be in the front bus and you take the other one, and tell them what you see.” And, well, the rest is history. . . . We married three years later and have been together ever since.

Wow, what a wonderful and romantic story! And truly, what a serendipitous meeting! So you’ve basically been a trip leader all of your professional life. Can you briefly summarize your experience—that is, where you have led trips, and for how many years?

This is my 45th year in the business and I’ve been fortunate to have worked in 183 countries in that time. I’ve lived in Germany, in Cologne, where I worked as a local guide in the famous cathedral. I lived for two years in the Seychelles Islands, and for one memorable year in Hollywood, where I was researching West Coast tours for a British travel company. I spent 10 years in China, spanning from the jailing of the Gang of Four to being present during the Tiananmen protests of 1989. I’ve worked on small expedition ships as cruise director and lectured regularly on Seabourn ships. I’ve trained guides in China, Bhutan, and Cambodia, and worked closely with their fledgling tourist industries.

Some of the most exciting times perhaps were in the 1980s, traveling through China as it opened, including Tibet in 1984, and the opening of the Khunjerab Highway in 1986, which I crossed on three occasions within six weeks! During those years, too, there were dramatic journeys from Cairo to Cape Town following Cecil Rhodes’s Iron Road railway route and from Bogotá to Tierra del Fuego overland. I also traveled more than a dozen times on the longest rail journey in the world—45 days—from London to Hong Kong during the time of the former Soviet Union.

When I first joined GeoEx, I led many trips to Indochina, Myanmar, the Silk Road, and many, many wonderful trips to Bhutan. During one of these trips in Bhutan, I was given the honorary name Dorji Wangchuck by a powerful shaman in the eastern region of the country. The excitement continues this year and next with new journeys to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Algeria.

To your mind, what are the qualities of a great trip leader?

Without doubt, the most important qualities are flexibility and adaptability, being able to judge the mood of the group, and always acknowledging the fact that it is the guests’ trip, and not yours.

What are your goals in showing travelers the places you love?

I love the art of storytelling, and I try to make places come alive with stories. These can help set the scene and can bring one’s imagination alive. Instead of being an observer, one becomes a participant in the experience of a place. Additionally, even when an experience isn’t necessarily a great one, it can nevertheless be enriching, so my goal is to help travelers “relish the unexpected.”

This is a related question, but for you, what are the rewards of leading trips?

There is no greater reward than sending someone home having had a life-enhancing experience, visiting somewhere that has left a deep impression on them, and yet leaving them wanting more. The world has so many facets for us to discover!

What’s a favorite story that shows the effect a good trip leader can have on a traveler or group of travelers?

One example that comes to mind was in Pakistan. Our Pakistan’s Hunza Valley trip is one of the most amazing journeys one can do, through some of the world’s highest mountains and incredibly dramatic scenery. It is the best road trip ever!

It is also, however, very rugged and not for the faint-hearted. On this particular trip, one member of our group was a very well-traveled and absolutely delightful traveler. However, about two-thirds of the way into the journey, it all just became too rugged for her. She became miserable and embarrassed at her inability to cope, and this made a negative impact on the rest of the group, too.

She didn’t want to give up but physically couldn’t do more, so I took her aside and suggested she take a flight from Skardu to Islamabad and avoid a further four days of agony. She accepted the suggestion and flew to Islamabad and enjoyed full days of relaxation and comfort in a five-star hotel, while the rest of the group continued, thrilled that she was happy and that we could carry on without worrying about her. I believe this was a good example of understanding both the individual and the group dynamic, and of dealing with one traveler in a special way so that not only did she benefit but the whole group benefited too.

What’s your favorite experience in each of the places where you lead GeoEx trips?

Pakistan comes very much as a revelation to most people. It’s a complete surprise and changes the narrative and perspective once one visits. Everyone comments on how friendly the Pakistanis are, how genuinely hospitable and warm; it’s the perfect antidote to what one reads. Then of course, as I just mentioned, the mountains are as majestic as can be; they rise so dramatically, almost vertically. To see this drama unfolding at sunrise somewhere like Duiker, above Karimabad, is a sight unmatched. 

Saudi Arabia is another destination where we are challenging our perspectives and broadening our horizons. On recent visits there, I have been overwhelmed with the beauty of the landscapes and the colors of the desert, and I simply couldn’t get over the richness of the ancient petroglyphs found amongst the incredible geology. Al Ula or Mada’in Saleh have to be seen to be believed. The latter, often described as Petra’s little sister, is absolutely a sight not to missed.

What’s your best travel memory?

This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many. When I worked in China all those years ago, I used to love going to the Garden of the Master of Fishing Nets in Suzhou. It was to me the most sublime combination of space, architecture, and peace.

Another favorite memory relates to traveling on the Southern Route of the Silk Road in 1986. This was a commemorative journey of the one Peter Fleming took in 1936. His book News from Tartary is from that journey. We were the first to travel this route and I traveled with Peter’s son James. This was one of the most arduous journeys one could undertake and amongst this group was one Colonel Clarence Day, who was 93 years old. At first, I was worried that I would have to bury him somewhere during the trip, but Clarri—as he became affectionately known to us—regaled us with the most amazing stories of his adventures. He had fought at Gallipoli and also on the North-West Frontier, and had served with Winston Churchill. When we travel to Peshawar on GeoEx’s Southern Pakistan trip, I relate stories of him because I know he was there with Churchill. These are but two of my best memories. There are many more—and no doubt more still to be made!

Why do you love what you do?

When I was young, my father said to me that he really didn’t care what I did, but that it was important to eventually enjoy what I do. Unfortunately, at the same time, I had a lousy history teacher, and as a result, history meant nothing to me. However, these last 45 years have shown me how history can and does come alive, and how thrilling that can be. I have witnessed changes at first hand, momentous events across the world, and I have been able to share that enjoyment of history, past and in the making, with so many travelers. Now I have friends literally all over the world, real friends whom I see regularly. I have watched their sons and daughters grow. . . . My goodness, I am so lucky to be able to share what I love with fellow travelers!

Do you have any last words for GeoEx travelers who might want to travel on one of your trips?

It isn’t always about the destination, it’s often the way you approach it that matters. It’s important to be in the right mindset. As Mark Twain said, “It liberates the vandal to travel.” I believe this recent pandemic just might change our way of travel, for I do believe there is an “Art of Travel” and it is for us to discover that together.

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To find out more about our GeoEx adventures with Bill Jones, call our travel experts at 888-570-7108.

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Do you have a question for Bill Jones? Or a thought you’d like to share? Please share your questions or reflections below. I always love hearing from you! Thanks!

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William Headley
William Headley
4 months ago

Mr. George,

Thank you for the interview. We have enjoyed several trips with Bill Jones. Traveling with Bill is like traveling with my best friend, but one that makes all the difficulties of travel and logistic seem as if they don’t happen. Walking with Bill, while traveling, is like taking an in-depth history class from your best friend who happens also to be witty, erudite, serious when necessary, normally light in demeanor, and at times refreshingly naughty. Bill gives my travels texture, taste, but more importantly fun; best guy to travel with ever.

Bill Headley

Bill Jones
Bill Jones
2 months ago

Dear Bill, It would be so great to travel with you again. What fond memories I have of Bhutan, The Silk Road, and Southeast Asia, you might be interested to know that I never did buy that house in Laos……I’d love to see you and tell you why. Keep well and keep safe! Bill

Kathryn Greiner
Kathryn Greiner
4 months ago

Hi Don. Aussies love travel as you know. I joined Bill for the North Pakistan trip and it was sensational scenery, richness of the sights and joy of the people and generosity in spades from Bill. Truly memorable and one day will be back on the road again! Thanks for the interview. Stay safe. Kathryn G

Bill Jones
Bill Jones
2 months ago

Dear Kathryn, I’m looking forward to a repeat journey sometime in the not too distant future! Stay well until then. Fondest regards, Bill

Fran Ames
Fran Ames
4 months ago

We’ve had three trips with Bill. The first was an Outward Bound invitational trip to Bhutan in 2000. We had always traveled by ourselves, so this was our first group trip. I think it remains my all-time favorite. Bill was everything you could ask for and can see from this interview – lively, sensitive, informed, exciting, enthusiastic, devilish, fun, capable, and much more. I’m glad to see he’s still guiding. We also went on the Silk Road with a party of six, during the SARS epidemic, and that was another great trip. The third trip was in Laos, Cambodia and… Read more »

Bill Jones
Bill Jones
2 months ago
Reply to  Fran Ames

Dear Fran, I was just talking about that trip in China during SARS. How we agonised on whether to travel or not, but so glad that we did. My goodness what great trips we’ve had together………it would be fabulous to repeat the experience. Warmest greetings always – Bill

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