Mt Roraima, Venezuela
There are travellers, hardcore travellers, insane crazy hardcore travellers, and then there’s Rus Margolin. I met Rus in the Arctic Circle when we both were guests at the world’s most northerly eco-lodge. Born in Belarus, Rus had done well as a bond trader working in New York, and seemed hell-bent on visiting every country, unique region and territory in the world. A few years later I interviewed him in a popular post about his progress, and just a couple years after that, his mission has been accomplished – visiting every country on Earth (an impressive feat considering his previous year included Somalia, Yemen, and other places that don’t exactly bring in the cruise ships). With that milestone, I thought it’s worth checking in with the most travelled man I know on the planet.
Two years ago, we chatted just after you ticked off country #200. The UN has 193 members. Remind me how you get your numbers, and where are you up to now?
193 is the only well defined number, and essentially every other list is arbitrary. To be honest I never liked any of the lists, so I made up my own. For me, an entry has to have its own culture, currency, and unique geographic location. I have a constantly changing list of 300 plus or minus destinations, and I’m at 298. But the official list of 193 is now absolutely complete.
Just some parts of Iraq, and Socotra Island off Yemen, possibly territories in the Arctc and Antarctic, and some other outlying islands.
Oh, then clearly you haven’t been anywhere *sigh* . Between #200 and #300, what have been the biggest stand-outs or surprises?
I left the hardest destinations for the end, so every one was difficult to get to. Yemen, Syria, Libya, various breakaway republics… all really hard to get to places. Ethiopia’s Omo Valley was out of my comfort zone. I ended up taking pictures of other people taking pictures, it was a human zoo.
I had the same experience, the tribe watching circuit in Ethiopia was totally dysfunctional. I was reading the other day about a young lady who hopes to be the youngest female to visit all countries on Earth. Why is long term, intense travelling becoming so popular today?
Different people have different goals. I’ve run into people doing it for the check mark. Land in airport, enter, exit, fly back home. Touch and go. To me, that’s not travel, that’s pursuing a limited goal. You’ve got to get in there, explore the land, describe the people, taste the food, do the attractions. I’ve been learning so much from it. Travel is the best university you can go to.
Do you think social media makes things better or worse for the traveller?
When it comes to planning, the logistics, and meeting like-minded people, social media definitely makes it better. The avalanche of online interest might destroy some places, but there will always be out of the way and difficult to get to places that social media won’t ruin. Unfortunately social media makes people think they have to comment or have an opinion about places they know nothing about.
I was recently writing about Bali’s overtourism problem. What are your thoughts on that?
My most recent travels have been more rewarding because I’ve focused on places that people don’t visit for getaways. Nobody goes to Mogadishu for a holiday. And yet in places like Damascus, the people were welcoming and friendly tourists were treated like gods. We’ve had ten years of a non-stop growing economy, so another setback will probably set tourism back quite a bit. Everyone is travelling and flying now, but the economy is cyclical, so at some point people will slow down.
What’s the least friendly country in the world?
I’d say the US and Russia. Knock on someone’s door in the middle of the night in some parts of the United States and they’ll probably shoot you. In West Africa, they’ll offer you the last piece of banana.
You’re the first Belarusian to have successfully circumnavigated the world (and to be honest, you’re only the second Belarusian I’ve ever met). What had the biggest impact on inspiring you to travel – being a Belarusian or living in New York under the Western influence?
Growing up in Belorussia, when I was a kid, I used to collect these magazines called Young Naturalist. I used to look at them and think I’m never going to see any of this, but I wished I could. I used to make my own notebooks of places I wanted to get to. Once I got to New York, I worked hard and got the resources to actually start travelling. So it’s a combination of the two. At the end of the day, some people want to accumulate wealth, for me I’d rather look back on visiting every country in the world.
Were you influenced by any travel writers or travel shows? The new Blue Planet II is incredible.
There was a weekly Soviet show where they would highlight some country in the world. BBC’s Life with David Attenborough and National Geographic's Great Migrations gave me lots of ideas. Of course, technology has advanced so much in the last couple years. The amount of effort they put into these shows is amazing. But what you see is not what you’d see in real life.
When you strike up a conversation with people abroad and tell them what you’re doing, what are the three most common questions you receive?
What is the most amazing place you’ve seen? What will you do when you finish all the countries? How can you afford it?
How do you keep yourself busy on those long flights, trains and drives?
I travel in blocks and do my best to keep the moves short. Although this summer I did New York to Korea to Vladivostok to Japan to Southeast Asia to Somalia. Often I just sort my photos, do research, plan out the next steps. I don’t plan for more than a month forward.
Torngat Mountain National Park, Labrador
You told me in our last interview that one should strive to learn everything and anything, take on the physical challenges, be respectful of cultures and traditions and be open to other people and their views on life. I feel like I picked up the bulk of my insights in the first few months of travel, when things were perhaps the most intense. Have you learned anything new?
The first trip to a destination is usually an introduction, the second trip you go into more depth, and you’re more prepared, and you may be looking for something in particular. In my experience, it gets richer and more rewarding the longer you do it. Each new destination opens your eyes.
You recently visited a few war zones and hotly disputed regions. Have you had to hire bodyguards, or use any cover stories? Are you sure you’re not a Russian spy?
I’m sure I’m not a Russian spy! In Somalia you have to have bodyguards. You can’t really go anywhere beyond Mogadishu. I had four armed guys in a truck in front me jumping out at intersections to protect me when the car stopped. The hotel I stayed at is in the Green Zone. Two weeks after I left the hotel across the street was attacked and 40 people were killed. There’s only one company on the ground that arranges everything for NGO’s and business people. Tourism is not such a big thing though. In Mogadishu, you don’t really have choice in terms of what you can see, it really depends on your guide and the situation. We went to places that have barriers and are safe, like the incredible fish market, and the beach. Often when I’m flying to the destination I think I’m crazy, especially going to places like Tehran, Tripoli, Damascus, and Mogadishu, but nothing happened.
You’ve had opportunities to see more and do more than 99.9% of people on this planet. Has this emboldened you with any special skills or abilities, and if so, how will you use them moving forward?
I’m definitely a professional traveller, so I can probably navigate any destination, and take people anywhere. Perhaps one day I could take people to harder to access places and show it to them. The difficult places discourage people because of safety, legal, and cost…so if twenty people or more visit there it won’t be much of an impact.
Some people do holiday in Mogadishu after all
I often wish I could have collected fridge magnets, or beer coasters, or something small and light from every country I’ve visited. Are you a collector, do you have boxes of souvenirs back home?
Yes, I’ve always been a collector. Stamps, toy cars, all sorts of things. My apartment is a museum, I should charge money for it! There’s something from every country in the world. Plates, cups, different alcohols, shells, masks, coins and currency. I’m trying to sort it all out. It’s getting to the point where I look at a souvenir and I wonder where the hell I got it! I have about 50 different hats. On the other hand, my website has over 140,000 pictures, which describes everything.
What do you think of bucket lists? Are they a fad, do they inspire people or make them miserable with unattainable goals?
It depends on each person. Trying to visit every country is a bucket list, as is trying to see every animal migration, or climb every mountain about 14,000 feet…for every person who wants to do that there will people who don’t care. There’s an audience for everything. Bucket lists are not a solution for everyone and not everyone will follow them, but it’s a great way to draw attention to things.
Visiting every unique spot on the world is a formable bucket list. What kept you going? How do you keep it interesting?
The same motivation from the beginning; the immense satisfaction of seeing something new and feeling good about it. An idea gets born, you dream it, plan it, do it. I got bored doing the same thing for a long time, and my attention span is short. So I seek contrasts, one day I’m looking at modern skyscrapers, the next I’m in Somalia, the next I’m in Oman. To keep things interesting I also try to alternate climates on the same trip, for example switching from Asian heat to Russian cold, and changing the cuisine along with it.
And now that you’re coming to the end of that goal, what’s the next step?
The more you travel, the more you find out the places you haven’t been to. It becomes a never-ending expanding universe. I wish I could clone myself into 6 Rus’s. Travel is a known, everything else is an unknown.
Over the years I’ve found that I’ve become really good at guessing what a place is like. Is that the same with you?
Not really. My expectation is rarely the reality. I thought Yemen would be destroyed and it wasn’t. I thought Chernobyl wouldn’t be very interesting and just a bunch of ruins, but it was incredible.
And the food has been good?
The food has been fantastic. So few tourists visit these off-the beaten track places, the meals are cream of the crop. I always aim for authentic local food, prepared with the same fresh ingredients people cook for themselves. You get sick from the shock of something different, not necessarily from the food.
Can you answer those top 3 questions everyone always asks you? Kicking off with what is the most amazing place you’ve seen?
There’s no answer. You have to create 100 different categories, such as the most amazing mountains, churches, festivals, people, food - I can’t prioritize one over the other. There’s no easy satisfaction, and it’s lazy to expect one answer. Some people think ‘here’s this guy who has travelled for years, so I’ll just ask him for that one special place and he’ll tell me what it is.’ It doesn’t work like that.
What will you do when you finish all the countries?
Well, I’ve basically done that now. But every country has places I haven’t seen, especially India, Brazil, Russia… there’s lots of places still to see. There’s another list out there. People, wildlife and experiences will always be different when you return anywhere, although the buildings tend to stay the same. There are also many ideas that come out when I look back all these countries and places I’ve visited.
And finally, how can you afford it?
I’ve found travelling is cheaper than living at home. Look, I worked on Wall Street for 13 years, the stock market performed well, that all helps. But there’s ways to do it on the cheap, you can accumulate miles on cards, and I seldom use agencies and packages. In India and Southeast Asia you can travel for a week with what you spend in NY on a single day.
Check out incredible images from Rus Magolin's journey at his Travel2Unlimited Facebook page
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After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.