JOHN PILKINGTON has been called “one of Britain’s greatest tellers of travellers’ tales”. In 1983, after journeys in Africa and Latin America, he made a 500-mile solo crossing of the western Nepal Himalaya and told the story in his first book, Into Thin Air. His interest in Asia grew further with the opening in 1986 of the border between Pakistan and China, making it possible for the first time in forty years to retrace virtually the whole of the Silk Road. He was one of the first modern travellers to do so, and wrote about the journey in An Adventure on the Old Silk Road. This was followed in 1991 by An Englishman in Patagonia, recounting eight months in this enigmatic southern tip of South America.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union he became one of the first Western journalists to report from the new Central Asian republics. In the 1990s he also explored the hidden Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, and investigated the deaths in Bolivia of the US outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. in the early 2000s he mapped the source of the Mekong, and walked the 1,600-mile Royal Road of the Incas through the Andes of Ecuador and Peru, one of only five people in modern times to do so. In 2006 he turned his attention to the Sahara, and joined a camel caravan carrying salt for 450 miles from the mines of Taoudenni to Timbuktu. In 2009 he spent six months in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, countries he thinks “are in the news for all the wrong reasons”. In a sequel to this dangerous trip, he made a further journey in 2011 from Georgia to Afghanistan. In 2013 he followed up a longstanding interest in the Balkans by travelling from Trieste to Istanbul, the subject of his acclaimed talk A Balkan Adventure. In 2015 he crossed disputed borders in Ukraine, Russia and the breakaway states of the Caucasus, and provides some surprising insights in his latest talk, Russia and Europe: What Next? In 2018 he’ll mark the 150th anniversary of the curiously named ‘Abyssinian Difficulty’, by exploring the route taken by Queen Victoria’s extraordinary rescue mission through Eritrea and Ethiopia.
People are always at the centre of his story-telling. His BBC Radio 4 programmes have won him several appearances over the years on Pick of the Week, and one on Pick of the Year. He has also contributed to Radio 4’s Excess Baggage and From Our Own Correspondent, and writes occasionally for Geographical magazine. But it’s for his thought-provoking, beautifully illustrated talks that people know him best. He has spoken to over 1,000 audiences in six countries, and in 2006 received the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)’ Ness Award for his work in popularising geography and the wider understanding of the world.
Among other things, John is on the judging panel of the annual BBC/Royal Geographical Society Journey of a Lifetime Award, and is a patron of the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group, which works with and campaigns for refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK, especially those based in Hampshire. He’s a past president of the Guildford Travel Club, and since 2010 has been president of the Globetrotters Club. In 2012 he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 2016 he became a patron of the Friends of Whitchurch Silk Mill in Hampshire, where his Silk Road journey began more than thirty years ago. And since way back in 1995 he’s been a weartester for Rohan Designs, during which time he’s managed to lose so many hats that the company has named one after him.
People often ask how his travelling began. “I was always mad about maps,” he says. “I used to pore over the school atlas, dreaming about romantic-sounding names like the Hindu Kush and the Mountains of the Moon.” In my twenties I got the chance to visit some of those places, and they weren’t at all as I’d imagined. So I realised that travel was about re-thinking my ideas.”
His favourite school subject was geography especially the human angle and after taking a degree in this at Cambridge he went on to study town planning at Oxford Polytechnic, the forerunner to Oxford Brookes University. Having grown up in the 1960s, he was fascinated by how planners responded to the conditions of the time. “Why did they do that?” he asks. Luckily his office work didn’t put a stop to extensive travels in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and in 1989 he gave up the day job and started doing what he does today.
Come to a talk! Read or listen to Johns From Our Own Correspondent Afghanistan piece. Listen to John’s From Our Own Correspondent Kurdistan piece. Read or listen to John’s From Our Own Correspondent Sahara piece. Listen to John’s Radio 4 programme On the Trail of Butch and Sundance. Listen to John talking about Butch and Sundance on Excess Baggage in November 2008. Mekong video
Journey of a Lifetime video
Never go abroad, its a dreadful place. (Earl of Cadogan)
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