After graduating from Manchester University with a master’s degree in English, Nic decided he was more interested in travel. In 1997 he embarked on a lone bike journey, from Sydney back to Manchester. Many of the roads across Asia were still unpaved, and it was a five-month struggle to simply cross China. When he finally peddled over the Karakorum Highway into Pakistan, Nic assumed that he’d left that part of the world behind him forever. Two years later, after clocking up 25,000 miles Nic returned to the UK, but it was not long before he found himself back in China, leading groups for a small tour operator.
For the next six years he planned and led specialist tours for organizations such as the Oxbridge Alumni throughout China and other parts of Asia. In 2001 he met his Chinese wife Mei, who was working in Beijing at the time as a professional guide. This was the beginning of Nic’s life-long relationship with the Chinese language. In 2006 he began working for a luxury Beijing based tour operator as a Chinese speaking tour leader on exclusive private tours. The work involved accompanying celebrities and high net worth figures on bespoke tours across China. A couple of years later Nic and Mei began to work closely with other travel agents to create a wider range of tours.
Over the past ten years they have been leading groups and working as a ground handler for tour operators based in the UK, Holland and U.S. They have worked on a wide range of tours including specialist garden, cooking, hiking and art. They have been involved with corporate off-site experiences such as private banquets on the Great Wall for boards of publicly listed companies and team building activities for large American corporations out in the wilds of North West Xinjiang. Nic is keen to focus on the regions that are changing the quickest, knowing for example that some parts of China only have a 5-10-year window before the traditional way of life disappears forever.
Q: How did you fall into tour leading?
A: Entering the travel industry seemed like a natural progression after spending two years on a bike. I took up my first tour leading position in 2000 in response to an advert. By the end of my first year I had led a group of textile collectors through remote villages in the Taklamakan dessert, accompanied the Henry Moore foundation to China and helped research new tour routes though Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. I was hooked.
Q: What do you like most about tour leading?
A: The unique chemistry created by a small group of travellers who don’t know each other always ensures that no two itineraries are ever the same. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is bridging the gap between the individuals on tour and the locals. As a tour leader I always strive to bring out the best in local guides, then fill in the blanks by providing an alternative western perspective.
Q: Where is your favourite part of the world?
A: Some of the more remote parts of South West China are amazing, but I absolutely love Iran, Uzbekistan and Indonesia.
Q: What was your biggest travel highlight?
A: Hitch-hiking from London to Damascus in the early 1990s fuelled my passion for travel, but it would have to be when I accompanied Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) for two weeks during the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I went from having no tickets to see anything, to getting front row seats at all the main sporting events and travelling across China in his private jet.
Q: What’s the craziest request you’ve ever had from a client?
A: Sightseeing - Take me to the nearest pebble bed nuclear reactor. Shopping - Take me to the monk’s robe shop. Food – Find me a dog hotpot restaurant. Drink – Where can I buy vodka at the Terracotta Warriors museum? Experience – Take me to a slum and get me lost, so that I can try to find my own way back to the hotel.
Q: What’s the one thing you couldn’t travel without?
A: If you remove the mandatory passport and credit card, I’d have to take my camera. I’m a very keen photographer, and love to record each trip, not just for myself, but as a gift for my clients.
Q: Which famous person would you most like to travel with?
A: Over the years I have personally guided some very high-profile figures around China but would love to travel with Henry Kissinger. He played an integral role in the ‘opening up’ of China in the early 70s and I think he would be the person who could give me the deepest insight into the recent innerworkings of a country that has pulled over 300 million people out of abject poverty in the last 30 years.
Q: Have you ever made a cultural faux pas?
A: Back in 2002 I travelled overland from Thailand to meet my then girlfriend in her hometown of Fuzhou. I had been on the road for three days and turned up at the front door looking rather dishevelled with a scruffy backpack. Her father appeared at the door dressed in a smart suit and her mother had prepared a huge banquet. I have never felt so inappropriately dressed for anything. My future father-in-law was so unimpressed that he made me walk on the opposite side of the road to him when we went out the following day. Now he insists on holding my hand when we walk down the street.