Exploring the Great Red Dragon (China)

Day 1,990 since October 10th 2013: 176 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).

Reaching China is the end of the Silk Road. Let’s keep going.

Pano1

They like to laugh. They smile. Sometimes it’s a shy smile. Two weeks after I first arrived to China I’m still in awe over the infrastructure. It is labeled a “developing country” but it certainly looks developed. It’s a massive landmass. It has a massive population. The diversity is likewise enormous across all measurable spectrums. They spit. They burp. They smoke. They also don’t. It’s China. It’s whatever you want it to be.

China and the USA are roughly the same size in landmass. Could you imagine the USA receive 1 billion immigrants? Just imagine that they did. What would be the first concerns? Space? Where would they all be? Well China has room for them and that is just mind boggling. Over 97 percent of Chinese have access to tap water and over 95 percent of Chinese over the age of 15 can read and write. Additionally, 95 percent of the Chinese population owns a mobile phone. That sounds pretty developed to me? However the China’s classification as a developing country is based off the per capita nominal GDP, and that’s tough with 1,4 billion people. Most experts would lean towards that China is both a developed country as well as a developing country all at the same time. I found this quote which I like from Björn Conrad, Vice President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies:

“It’s a developed country in its shiny cities on the Eastern coast, it’s a developing country in its poor regions in the West. It’s a developed country if you look at number of Starbucks or literacy rate, it’s a developing country if you look at the numbers of doctors per capita or percentage of the workforce that works in agriculture”.

Forbidden

Forbidden City, Beijing, 2019.

It is certainly a different country! Come to China and be amazed! Be disgusted! Be intrigued! Be charmed! Be offended! Be baffled! Be confused! Be delighted! And then press repeat. The culture and along with it some habits are vastly different from what I’m accustomed with. Take spitting for example: in the street, shops, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, hallways, restaurants, on buses and even in malls. Traditionally it has been believed to be unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Another common thing has been staring. In my experience it has been common through most of the country. I’ve been told that the staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity and almost never out of hostility. That corresponds well with my observations. Loud conversations, noise, discussions or public arguments have also been very common but I had a lot of training in India already. It still annoys me though with the relaxed attitude towards noise. Like when the guy in the seat next to me watches a movie or listens to a song on his phone at full volume? Privacy is a big part of culture in Denmark where I’m from. Sure...I haven’t seen my country for many years but I know where I come from. Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough. Also, it is not uncommon for small children (2-4 years old) to urinate in public. As recent as nights ago I witnessed a modern family smile and take photos while their toddler urinated into the drainage at a public square. Our Danish national treasure, Hans Christian Andersen, is quoted for saying: “to travel is to live”. You will live and learn as a visitor in China. It is fascinating to say the least.

Kunming1

Kunming: March 6th 2019.

I entered China from Laos on March 6th and my first stop was Kunming which I wrote about in a previous blog (find it HERE). Kunming is a very pleasant city with 10 million people. If you think it’s strange that you’ve never heard of this city with has 10 million people then wait till you hear that Chongqing has nearly 30 million. It’s China. Big numbers. Get used to it. After spending a full day in Kunming I boarded the slow train to Beijing. Two nights onboard what I thought would have been a pleasant and scenic journey. I found it a bit annoying though and certainly expensive. China can be expensive in a lot of regards while you can also have lunch for a mere $1 USD and I stay at dorm rooms for $5 USD. So that too is a mix. I had a hard time dealing with all the disgusting sounds to begin with. Loud sounds while eating, the snorting sounds, the spitting and at night the snoring and farting. And to be honest the grey skies outside along with many tunnels we went through robbed the pleasure of enjoying the view. However I feel like I adjusted to the situation and began enjoying the train ride for the final leg up to Beijing.

knives1

They let me keep the small one.

Security is something they seem to take very seriously in China. There are lots of uniformed people of various sorts, police is always nearby, security checks are normal and getting on board the train was a pretty strict affair. At the security check to get on the train in Kunming I lost two knives which I have been traveling with since the beginning of the Saga. The Israelis obviously found those knives during their super thorough check last year but didn’t confiscate them. The Chinese did! I was hoping that they could give them to some trusted train personnel and hand them back to me in Beijing? Nope! Sorry…they went into the bucket. Pretty expensive knives too. Oh well…they also confiscated a rather unique little scissor I was given in San Marino back in 2013. A truly harmless little thing compared to a bundle of keys or my shoelaces. But nonetheless my little scissor was thrown into the bucket. A week later my last knife, a pocketknife which the Swiss Red Cross gave me was confiscated. The Chinese really take it seriously. You will also see the police on the street carrying some fairly interesting equipment! They often have this poll with a large semi-circle at the end which I think can for a circle around a person. This way you can grab someone around the waist or neck without getting into striking distance. The police quite often also stand guard with a long black staff. Sort of like a tip-less spear. I wouldn’t want to mess with the Chinese police.

Snorring1

Since I have a Chinese SIM card I receive all sorts of sms messages with Chinese characters. Usually I wouldn’t bother but while on the train between Kunming and Beijing I translated a few of them and was pleasantly surprised. It turns out that wherever I have gone in China I have received welcome sms’s of various sort or informational sms’s. I thought that was a rather nice service. Here are a few:

“Welcome to the mountain park province, enjoy the colorful Guizhou! Rational consumption, be wary of low-cost tourist traps; safe travel, scientific purchase of travel insurance; legal rights protection, travel complaints and consultation, please call the travel service hotline 96972. Click http://t.gog.cn/JTsv7a to participate in the “Colorful Guizhou Satisfaction Tourists” campaign, and the Million Awards are waiting for you. For more information, please pay attention to the official website, Weibo, WeChat. [Guizhou Tourism Development Committee]”

And:

“Welcome to the beautiful Zhangjiajie! Feng Xiaogang's first folk drama "Charming Xiangxi" wishes you a pleasant trip! Tens of thousands of people witnessed together, the nation is the world! Hotline: 0744-5667777”  

Police1

dog

Beijing.

I eventually reached Beijing. Beijing is a super cool city!! And I cannot stress enough how fantastic it is to have great subway systems to easily navigate around a city. In Beijing it’s efficient, fast and cheap. I once visited Beijing before so I went out to see if I could recognize any of the sights. The city was preparing for some sort of conference so there was extra security and a few places were blocked off. I tried to make it to the Forbidden City but I guess it was forbidden ;) It was in any case blocked off. Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum also appeared to be blocked off. Instead I walked to the Temple of Heaven which is rumoured to be the most beautiful building in the world. I walked around in the large park long after the sun had set and then headed back towards my hostel while passing all the people doing tai-chi, dancing waltz, doing gymnastics, playing games or in other ways socializing and being active. I really love how parks and public spaces come to life and are being used in China. The first time I came to Beijing was in 2012 together with my good friend Pernille. We flew in (the Saga began in 2013) and did all the sights: Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Olympic City, the Great Wall of China and we had the famous Peking Duck. Good times! I remember that I wasn’t very fond of the food back then and today I cannot imagine why? Now seven years later I find the food to be delicious!

Pernille1

My friend Pernille and I in front of the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2012.

Di

Great company!! Thank you David for connecting us and thank you Di for all your kindness!! :)

While in Beijing I had some extra time on my hands before heading to North Korea. I met up with Di who’s a friend of David (who hosted me in Kyrgyzstan). David and Di used to study together in Kazakhstan. Di did her masters there in Central Asian history and now hopes to go and do her PhD in the USA. Unfortunately that has become harder under the current US administration but she keeps her hopes up. Di has a great personality and we had a great time walking around Qianhai Lake while talking about this and that. Then we went to a cat café which was a first for me. At least a dozen cats were “on duty” running about or sleeping. Very interesting concept. Di told me there are several of them all over Beijing. I have two younger sisters and at least one of them would absolutely love this concept!

DrumTower

Without knowing it I also took this photo of the Drum and Bell Tower back in 2012. I discovered it afterwards. I think my mind is filling up.

Alipay

AliPay and WeChat are preferred ways to pay in and around China.

China is pretty high tech by the way. They have this program called WeChat which is sort of half WhatsApp / half Facebook. It also hooks up to your bank account so you pay coffee, dinner, public transport, groceries...basically anything with it. I first noticed WeChat in Myanmar and I has been popular ever since. The Chinese are blocking a lot of western sites in what is jokingly referred to as the Great Firewall of China. As such there is no access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Google products and a long list of other online apps and websites. You get around that by installing a VPN which is something everyone has. A VPN is a “virtual private network” which makes your phone act as if it is logging on somewhere else. As such I can be in China where all sorts of online activity is blocked by the government. But then I simply switch on my VPN and then my phone acts as if I was in e.g. Canada. As long as the VPN is switched on I can access anything I would normally be able to access in Canada. Given that this technology exists (and is easy to download and use) I really can’t understand why any governments would block anything anymore? Alas…such is life. Anyway, WeChat is Chinese and therefore not blocked…and it is massively popular. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at people on the metro who need to have their phones surgically removed from their hands. And they are all scrolling, scrolling, scrolling down their WeChat feeds.  

metro1  

The world has long ago turned into zombie-land. 

The day came when I went to Koryo Tours for my 10:00 North Korea tour briefing. And then I didn’t return to Beijing for another week. You can read the already very popular North Korea blog here. Something I didn’t include in that blog was how I pondered on weather North Koreans would leave their country in huge masses if they could. The Mariel boatlift is a famous Cuban mass immigration where as many as 125,000 Cubans reached the shores of Florida, USA, in 1980. I wonder if North Koreans would really leave their country if they were given the chance? Let’s say the borders opened up for 30 days and anyone could come and go without any form of consequences or punishment. Would millions leave North Korea? I don’t think so. Some would naturally leave however I believe that the vast amount stay. Nobody should underestimate the comfort of home. Knowing the seasons. Having grown up in a neighbourhood. Speaking the language, being familiar with the people, the fauna and the flora. Sure many people wish for better times or easier lives. However there is a very strong will among many to stay put and wait for better times or help create them.

BeforeDPRK

Beijing does have blue skies...sometimes.

We returned to Beijing a lot wiser on what North Korea is or can be. Would I like to live the next ten years in North Korea? Probably not. However it would be interesting to live there for a year. There are a lot of crazy “facts” flying about in relation to North Korea. A persistent one is that there is only one haircut for men. It is absolute rubbish and most people should know that. However we do love a good story and to spread them. A rule of thumb in life is that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is. Back in Beijing I wasn’t feeling well. Something had gotten to my stomach the day before we left Pyongyang and I wasn’t alone. At least ten outers from the tour were running to and from the toilet. However after getting some sleep, eating some plain rice and drinking lots of water I quickly got better and managed to visit the Red Cross Society China (RCSC) which is something else!!

RC 

These talented women are from left to right: Zhang Yuan, Lin Jingyi, Chen Yue and Zhang Han.

I was quickly offered a cup of tea which is a three thousand year tradition in China so I really liked that. Then we sat down and talked for a while before taking a photo and I left. Ordinarily I would spend time on describing a few of the key humanitarian activities a National Society has. Such as ambulance services or first aid trainings. But given that China has 1.4 billion people I thought it would be fun to look at some numbers this time. E.g. the financial revenue for RCSC of 2017 based on membership fees, donations, government grants and movable and immovable property and others was: RMB 1,028,415,200.00 (USD 153,458.019)!! More than half of that was used for humanitarian aid such as Integrated Community Resilience Programs, poverty alleviation, medical assistance etc. 11.1% went to disaster relief, 3.9% went to first aid training and health education, 10.1% for stem cell donation, organs donation and blood donation, 2.1% went to the Red Cross international organization membership fee and international humanitarian assistance, 13.7% went to Red Cross dissemination, Red Cross youth and volunteers and to the pension service and the remaining 5.9% (USD 9,053,502,772.00) covered the basic expenditure such as organizational operation and personnel outlay. YEAH!!! The Red Cross is pretty hard core when it comes to its humanitarian impact!! The RCSC also has helicopters and snowmobiles but that’s something completely else to unpack ;)

FastTrain

Ready to board this silver bullet in Beijing!

The next day I left Beijing on the high speed train to Xi’an. A while ago Brittany Li and her husband reached out and wanted to help sponsor the Saga. I’m currently working on getting another crowd funding online for all of you who keep asking. But since it’s not online yet Brittany and her husband sponsored the Beijing - Xi’an train for me!! WOW!! Thanks a lot! On board I reached a top speed of 302 kph (188 mph) and was soon in Xi’an! Xi’an is a former capital of China and holds historical significance. It is also packed with interesting sights which I simply just didn’t have time to see. However for as long as I can remember I have wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors. I rarely treat myself any sights within the Saga. It’s almost all work these days and has been for years. I did however head up to Manchu Picchu in Peru back in 2014.

Terracotta11

The star attraction of the Terracotta Warriors excavation in Xi’an is “pit 1”.

Terracotta21

Terracotta is a clay-based ceramic and these lifelike soldiers were created and buried more than 2,000 years ago!! However they were only discovered in 1976 when some farmers were drilling for a well. Archaeologists have discovered around 8,000 lifelike, full-size figures including weapons, horses and horse carriages and are far from done excavating. The Terracotta Army is believed to depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China and is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife. It makes me think: if this was hidden underground from our knowledge for more than 2,000 years...then what else can we still discover?

Wall1

This is not a road. This is the top surface of the greatest city wall in the world!

PinkNight1

Xi'an by night. Former capital of China.

On my way back to my hostel I decided to walk on the great city wall of Xi’an which is the largest ancient military defense system in the world! It is ridiculously large and well maintained. The total length of the wall which today only surrounds the inner city is 13.7 km (8.51 mi). The wall is 12 m (40 ft) tall and 14 m (46 ft) wide. It is definitely an engineering accomplishment and a sight to behold. It also costs me 54 yuan ($8 USD) to walk on it. The entrance to the Terracotta Worriers costs 120 yuan ($17 USD) so it was already turning into an expensive day. I still had to eat. Fortunately my hostel was only $5 USD. Up on the wall I kept walking and walking while looking for a way down? All the staircases down lead to closed gates or locked doors. I could have jumped over the fence but given all the security cameras and my lack of desire to upset any Chinese police I kept walking. I ended up walking 7 km (4.35 mi) on the damn thing before I could get off it.

MSK1

Thanks to these guys I had a great time with Maersk in Shanghai! A definite #MaerskMoment to remember ;) 

After a good night’s sleep another high speed train got me from Xi’an to Shanghai where I was scheduled to make a presentation at Maersk. As such I have covered more than 3,314 km (2,059 mi) between Dandong, Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai since leaving North Korea. China is such a massive country and looking at the map I feel like I have hardly seen anything. I’m certainly still missing a large chunk of the northeast of China and the entire half of western China. In Shanghai I was warmly greeted by Dana and Valentin from Romania. We all worked in Bangladesh during the same time in 2011 although for different companies. Dana had been following the Saga since 2013 and told me that there was a bed and a hot meal waiting for me once I reached Shanghai. Good stuff. And that is where the Saga is now. Having visited all these countries with my eyes and ears open for the past many years I truly believe that there is no shortage of well-meaning and often good people on the planet. Take Dana and Valentine for an example. I’m a bit biased because Romania is already one of my favourite European countries. Nonetheless they took so good care of me. I thought I was coming to Shanghai to speak at Maersk but in reality the greatest award was found in their hospitality and kindness towards a tired soul that still has a long way to go while so many of you think we are nearing the end. Yes – we are nearing the end…but on a very long journey and we still have a very long distance ahead of us. Thank goodness for Romanian hospitality in Shanghai.

Dana

Thank goodness for people like Dana and Valentin.

We’ve got another week left in China before the ferry goes to South Korea. Stay tuned and remember that if you see a Panda then it belongs to the People’s Republic of China. They all do ;)      

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - It was past 02:00am before this got online.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 2Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 3Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 4Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 5SM LinkedIn
Add a comment

Offline in North Korea - something we all need

Day 1,984 since October 10th 2013: 176 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).

Perception is reality...for all of us

Pano

Pyongyang, capital of DPRK.

I realize that I’ve spent the last week in China (country 175) and should be writing about that. However now that I’m out of North Korea (country 176) I’ll keep exploring China and have a few exiting things planed. So this entry will be entirely about my experience in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) and next week I’ll tell you all I’ve learned about in China.

Monday March 11th - DAY ONE

Contrary to what people seem to believe it is neither dangerous nor difficult to visit DPRK. You simply book yourself onto a tour and go. The leading company is Koryo Tours and they’ve got experience with taking tourists into DPRK since 1993. These days roughly 200,000 Chinese tourist visit every year in addition to somewhere around 5,000 non Chinese (meaning westerners).

Beijing1

It turns out that Beijing does have blue skies!

Koryo Tours had everyone who signed on to the ‘North Korea Budget Tour (March)’ apply before February 23rd. There were limited spaces on the tour and it takes time for Koryo to organize, prepare and arrange for visas. On February 23rd I was in Thailand and still did not have my double entry visa for China. And in reality I booked myself on the tour long before that. Fortunately I do know a thing or two about logistics and it all fell into place. The Koryo expedition consisted of two groups: those who would fly to DPRK’s capital Pyongyang and those of us who took the train. The train ride takes about 24 hours from Beijing in China to Pyongyang. The first time I met Simon of Koryo Tours was briefly before the 10:00am Pre-Tour Briefing at their office location in Beijing. Simon is a great and competent guy with 17 years of Koryo experience. The briefing was a thorough breakdown of does and don’ts prior to our four night visit. DPRK is not your standard country. It may be the only of its kind an un-similar to any other. What I knew for a fact before entering DPRK was that it was famous! How many countries in our world is known by as many people as DPRK is? Denmark? Great kingdom but not all that well known in the world...ranks okay though. Some confuse Denmark with the Netherlands. Others think Denmark is the capital of Sweden? DPRK is never confused with other countries. And for years people have been asking me: “how are you going to go to North Korea?” Interestingly only well traveled people ask me how I got into Equatorial Guinea or Eritrea which are truly hard countries to reach. DPRK? Piece of cake.

Beijing2

Breakfast in Beijing before the Koryo breefing.

After the Pre-Tour Briefing a few of us from the group began bonding as we waited for our 4:30pm meetup with our guide Marcus at Beijing Railway Station. Marcus is a calm and collected type who’s been taking guests inand out of DPRK for more than two years. The train left the station as we found our “hard sleeper” beds which aren’t hard at all. And off we went. We were all guys in our “train group”. Great guys!! Lots of good energy, games and a few beers. Who goes to DPRK? I suppose most people would go to great length not to go to DPRK? Why I do not know? It’s such a famous country by name but what does anyone really know about it? I was exited!! I don’t get exited much anymore but DPRK did the trick for me. Scared? Not at all!! Just exited and curious. I remember watching the movie “Everest” and felt that this day had been like the entry scenes where all the climbers were introduced and got to know each other. We were a band of brothers: we were the ones of the few who had decided to go and visit DPRK!

Tuesday March 12th - DAY TWO

I woke up on the train after four hours of sleep. I should have gone to sleep earlier. The train was approaching Dandong in China. It had been a peaceful night. In the bunk next to me there was a little girl...maybe four years old. And in the bunk above her a woman I presumed to be the grandmother. Good company although we couldn’t speak the same language. I had my instant noodle soup, brushed my teeth and it was time to get of the train. The group assembled on the platform and since we had some time before the next train Marcus, our guide, led us down to the Yalu River which separates China from DPRK.

field1

They are busy planting trees in DPRK.

Not long after that we were all back at the train station checking out of China and boarding the DPRK train. The landscape around us was less inspiring and showed clear signs of the winter weather. Dandong on the other hand was very impressive with tall high rises and artwork by the boardwalk. It was exiting getting onboard the train with all the other passengers. Chinese and North Koreans alike. Just knowing that the train would take is across the bridge was surreal in itself. And off we went. It was a short ride across the bridge before the train stopped and immigration and customs came onboard. It was clear that we respected them. We would be taking and joking until the moment an official appeared and then we would be silent like the grave. However the officials were just people. Everything quickly eased up and we ended up having the authorities smile and laugh a bit. It took a few hours before we were cleared to continue and in that time we had been tasting our first DPRK beers.

field3

Endless fields...

The train moved across a landscape which was quite barren. It was frankly not an inspiring landscape. It was empty fields as far as the eyes could see. It looked well organized and the sky was blue. But seeing the endless green rice fields was not a privilege for us who joined a winter tour. We hardly saw any cars or mopeds. The people we saw were mostly working in the fields, cycling or waking. There was very little farm equipment and it looked like hard manual work in the fields. On and off you’d see people being people. People in conversation. People laughing. People taking a break. People smoking a cigarette.

field2

Lot's of fields. Few trees.

The fields were endless. They ran all the way to the horizon in both directions. When villages whizzed by they appeared basic. DPRK did not look like a rich country from the windows of the train. It did however look like a well organized farmland where the people had optimized the country to the fullest. My mind was sent back to what I had seen in Poland in the 90s. Or some scenes I’ve seen across former Soviet countries. It was a long slow train ride but well worth it to see the landscape and what was in it. There weren’t much trees to begin with but they did appear as we eventually approached Pyongyang.

Pyongyang

Not much traffic in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang looked like a large city. Not like a large city from a middle eastern oil rich country but not as poor as cities I’ve seen elsewhere. We reached Pyongyang train station around sunset and were greeted by our local guides who were perky and professional. The station was impressive to look at. The lights did however not come on until a few minutes after we had left the train and started making our way to the bus. Our first stop with the bus was a restaurant where we had some delicious dinner. The food was really good and plentiful. It’s in the culture to offer guests a lot of food and ensure that they do not run out. Our next stop was our hotel which was likewise impressive. So far the country had been a mix of impressive and less impressive buildings. Aren’t most cities like that? Pyongyang is a city with around three million people in a country with around twenty eight million people. It’s a big city. Rather dark in comparison to most other cities however not as dark as Antananarivo in Madagascar. That remains the darkest capital I’ve ever seen. Pyongyang didn’t look like a movie-set to me. It looked like a city with three million people.

Pyongyang3

Pyongyang as seen from the Juche tower. 

At the hotel I was given room number 11 on the 28th floor. I was sharing it with Alex from Canada who seemed like a really good guy. I had a shower before Alex and I headed down to see if the others from the group might have had the same idea (meet up for a beer). They had. So a good fifteen of us sat down in a circle and bonded a bit. That lasted about an hour before some of us headed to the hotels karaoke area. A place in the hotel where guests were offered private karaoke rooms of high quality. I quit around midnight knowing that the bus would leave at 06:30 the next day. However I could have stayed much longer singing a few more tunes and having a good night with a group of really solid people.

Wednesday March 13th - DAY THREE

We got up early again and went to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Propaganda. Isn’t that just telling people what you want them to believe? If so then there’s plenty of it to go around. In the USA the republicans have one story and the democrats have another. DPRK has its version of the events which unfolded throughout and after the Korean War. Is propaganda being spread in DPRK? Yes...I’m sure it is. However I have quickly come to believe that there is far more propaganda being spread outside of DPRK about the country than within it. When I enter a country today I do that with the experience of visiting and analyzing 175 other countries. I’ve been observing DPRK and what I have seen are just people being people. You can’t interact with the people. They are clearly not interested or maybe they are afraid to interact with foreigners. There could be consequences I imagine? DPRK is not a country which promotes individual freedom. However those who live in DPRK are still subject to air, water, gravity, fatigue, joy, disappointment, love, heat, cold, humor, sadness, innovation and a lot more which both you and I are too. People are just people. In DPRK too. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. People interacting with other people. I’ve seen general and normal human reactions. Like two people walking beside each other in conversation suddenly laughing. Sure, it could all have been orchestrated and it could all have been a scam to fool me. It could all have been an act. It could all have been staged. However Pyongyang receives tourists everyday and it seems to me that the best way to convince tourists about what life is like in DPRK is simply to make it reality. There are several capitals around the world which appear to be day and night compared to the rest of the land. In Kenya a man living a basic life on the Masai Mara might look dreamingly towards what life is like in Nairobi - or not. In Denmark life in Copenhagen is vastly different from that of a small village. In Pyongyang I believe that those taking the trolley, those heading to the metro, those shopping at the mall and those playing basket by the Taedong River, were doing so as part of their natural lives. Perhaps privileged lives but natural lives nonetheless. And if you would consider it staged then it’s a very large stage.

DMZ

The border betwwen North and South Korea runs through the small houses.

We reached the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) which is the borderland between North and South Korea. It didn’t really interest me. I’ve seen plenty of borders. Even my fair share of borders which are closed. The DMZ is a serious and sensitive place but again people are just people and the borders have been drawn for a long time. We also visited the hall where the 1953 armistice was signed but I guess you would have to be specifically interested in Korean history to find that interesting.

former capital

Once the Songgyung Academy, a Confucian school, and now a museum on the Koryo Dynasty exhibiting historical objects, statues, pagodas, and porcelain from that era.

Afterwards we stopped by Kaesong UNESCO World Heritage Site which has some beautiful buildings from what used to the capital during the Taebong kingdom and later on Goryeo dynasty a thousand years ago. The lands of DPRK are packed with history which are overshadowed by the current political situation. DPRK is undergoing heavy sanctions imposed by the United Nations and many countries. These sanctions are mostly in place due to concerns regarding their nuclear weapons program and as far as I have researched not in relation to how they treat their population. Our guide Marcus had an international SIM card and could access the internet. He said it was expensive but it was possible. The rest of us had no access to internet or the outside world while we were there. Our passports were collected on arrival and we didn’t see them again until the day we left. Koryo Tours works with Korea International Travel Company (KITC) which is a state-owned company. They took our passports to arrange for our exit permits. The entire tour was top professional and everything ran really smooth for us guests. However I have no problem imagining that DPRK is a heavily bureaucratically country in the old school style. If you are blank in regards to Koreas history then you should at least know that Korea was once one of the great powers of East Asia and ruled over vast lands. The lands were home to plenty of kingdoms and dynasties until the Japanese arrived and occupied them between 1910-1945. Back then the Koreans had to worship the Japanese emperor. After WWII ended Korea was divided in 1945 with the north being occupied by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States. Between 1950-1953 the Korean War played out and involved the two Koreas, the Soviet Union, a United Nations force led by the USA and Chinese forces. DPRK has had three leaders: President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshall Kim Jong Un who all have enjoyed cult status in DPRK. In many ways President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il are both regarded as still being alive and with the people although they have passed away. Elections do take place but only have one name on the ballot. People are not idiots in the DPRK but it would be highly unwise to stand up against the system. Much like it would be very unwise to violate any of the rules as a visitor. Generally you may find that the punishment for any violations are very much out of proportion.

Joss2

Joss Stone singing a Korean song with one of her guides.

Joss

That evening our guides took us to the cinema where Joss Stone was playing her DPRK concert within her Total World Tour. Yes! She aims to give a concert in every country in the world and just happened to be in DPRK as I was there. I like her. I think Joss is very talented, charming and connects well with the audience. She was unsure which country DPRK was on her list but thought it might have been 177 while it was 176 for me. I know exactly which number DPRK was for me because I earned it!! ;) Joss is an international star and has fans all over the world that know her songs. You can bet on that she doesn’t apply for her own visas or book her tickets. I heard of her the first time when I was in Jordan and Henrik from the Danish Travellers Club (DBK) notified me that she was playing in Amman and that I HAD TO GO!! I went and it was great. I tried to reach out to her back then but with short notice and didn’t manage to get a photo with her. This time we were very few people at her concert (and it was free). They had purchased some of their equipment in DPRK instead of bringing their own with them – pretty fun if you ask me. It made me think that if Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Bono, Madonna or any other major celebrity wanted to go to every country then they most likely could. In general the “I have been to every country in the world club” of only 150-200 people will probably grow rapidly in the future to a thousand. Without flying it will grow a lot slower.

Beer

That evening at the hotel ended up with beer again which is highly unusual for me as I hardly drink within this project. Alcohol doesn’t fair well with the workload, discipline, stress and dedication. However DPRK was very different to visiting any other country. No internet brings my workload down considerably! And I was in absolute amazing company!! In my group there was Christopher from New Zealand, Lundy from Singapore, Cloe (our only female) also from New Zealand, Alistair, Alan, Jack, Thomas, William, James and Andrew from the United Kingdom, Max and Ian from South Africa, Gudmundur and Artem from Iceland, Alexander from Australia and my roommate Alexander from Canada. It felt like the ideal group! I got along well with everyone and thoroughly enjoyed the company. However this was the third day which ended with alcohol and I’m too old for that…

kareoke1

Karaoke... 

Thursday March 14th - DAY FOUR

Pretty much every day started early and ended late. Koryo did to be fair warn us on their website as they wrote: “Be warned, there will be little time to for rest on this action-packed itinerary - not that you’ll want to, though!” It was all good though. This visit was my first ever in DPRK and I would love to return again someday during a warmer time of the year to see the country green. This visit was still early spring which meant that temperatures were between -3 and +19 Celsius (26.6 – 66.2 F). DPRK has four seasons and Pyongyang can have temperatures between -13 Celsius (8.6 F) in the winter and +29 degrees Celsius (84 F) in the summer. Our first stop this day was at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun which is the resting place of President Kim Il Sung and his son General Kim Jong Il. They lie in separate halls inside glass montre’s and look as if they were created by Madame Tussaud’s wax cabinet. The embalmed bodies are lying down as if they are sleeping and serve the complex serves as the mausoleum for the two eternal leaders of North Korea. The place is treated with outmost respect and smart clothing is required. I borrowed a shirt from Alan and a tie from our bus driver. Photos are not allowed inside and souvenirs are not available. It is a place where people can come to honour their leaders and as visitors we had to bow deep on three out of four sides by each body (you do not bow at the head). Visiting the bodies was in both cases followed by a room displaying all the foreign distinguishes which had been offered the leaders over the years. We also passed though rooms showing their personal vehicles, train carriages and for General Kim Jong Il also his luxury boat. There was furthermore information on how far and which destinations they had travelled to within their lifetimes. I read that the palace was built in 1976 and was the personal residence of President Kim Il Sung until his son converted it to a mausoleum at the cost of at least $100 million USD (some sources say $900 million). It is a very impressive and awe inspiring place and definitely worth visiting.

Statues

The Mansudae Grand Monument are two enormous bronze statues of the DPRK leadership overlooking downtown Pyongyang. A presentation of flowers and bow by the group is customary here.

Later that day we visited the two largest statues I have ever seen in my life. I have seen some large Buddha statues however this was well beyond that. The statues were again of President Kim Il Sung and his son General Kim Jong Il. More bowing took place and we had to offer flowers as well before we could begin taking photos. The group continued to lunch and then out to have a ride on the world’s deepest metro. I was meanwhile collected by the DPRK Red Cross and brought to their headquarters making it the 171st National Society I have visited as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross. The DPRK RC was founded in 1946 and is active throughout the country where they have 1.700 first aid posts in remote areas. They are all run by volunteers. I was warmly greeted by Ms Solhyang of the International Cooperation Department, Mr Kim Song Il, director of the WASH (water sanitation and hygiene) department and by Mr X (regrettably I do not have his name) of Disaster Management. Together they hold fifty two years of Red Cross experience.

RC1

In front of the DPRK RC next to my guide (in black) Ms Chang.

We briefly went through their activities which include dissemination of the Red Cross, Health, Disaster Management, WASH, Youth and Compatriot. The latter relates to re-establishing connections and supporting the large diaspora which came to exists since the Japanese colonization and conflicts thereafter. In terms of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) the DPRK RC is planting trees and creating dams throughout the country. Flooding is a reoccurring event. The reason why I did not notice any trees as the train rolled through the landscape and towards Pyongyang was because DPRK went through hard times in the 90s after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. Trees were in large numbers cut to provide firewood for heat and cooking. Something the DPRK prides itself with is its free education, free healthcare and free housing. Yet the DPRK RC runs several clinics which are powered by solar power and have hot water from pipeline systems under the sun. The numbers for engagement given to me are very impressive compared to other countries as Mr Kim Song Il explained that they have 1 million members, 110,000 volunteers and 300,000 youth members. The PowerPoint presentation came to an end it became time to leave again. But rest assured that the Red Cross, which is found in 191 countries, is also found in DPRK.

RC2

DPRK RC activities.

Museum1

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Museum2

USA spy plane...or what's left of it.

Afterwards I was returned to the group and we all headed to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum which by far is one of the most impressive museums I have ever come across. Certainly in terms of display. The content is perhaps debatable but I did not get to see enough and also do not know the exact details of the war. Some of the “facts” were in any case off. Photos were not allowed inside. Our guide at the museum was very cute and bragged that it would take three days to visit the entire museum. We spent less than 90 minutes there and by the sheer size of what I saw three days does not sound unreasonable. The museum contained both a US spy plane which had been shot down as well as the famous USS Pueblo which was captured in 1968. In general the “imperialists” (USA) were blamed for much. To be fair the USA and in particular the CIA does have quite a rap sheet especially from that period. The DPRK claims the USS Pueblo entered territorial waters several times and the USA claims it was in international waters plus that all evidence of the ship entering national waters several times is fabricated. Now go and make up your own mind. What is guaranteed is that most nations if not all spy. The “Pueblo incident” took place during the Vietnam War and she sits as a trophy at the museum till this date. 82 crewmembers were returned to the USA which has the USS Pueblo as its only ship of the US Navy on the commissioned roster currently being held captive.

Museum3

The USS Pueblo...a trophy of DPRK.

Show

The Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace.

Afterwards we were taking to what was explained as after school activities for children. These were however children of special talent and most of them could have won an international competition in their separate performances! We are talking singing, dancing, instruments and performing. These were quite young children and to be that talented a lot of time spent practicing must have consumed most of their lives. I don’t know that for a fact but I would say that it is a safe bet. Also two rows just happened to be empty in the audience and the show began almost as soon as we sat down. However I was told by Marcus (our guide) that we were expected and slightly late so that would explain the empty rows and timing. Nonetheless it was very impressive and personally I figure that the remaining audience could easily be family, friends or simply people who wanted to see the show.

Show2

The Palace is one Pyongyang’s centres of extracurricular excellence with study rooms for fine arts, dance, sports, and music.

That night ended with more beer…

Friday March 15th - DAY FIVE

Basically a day of sightseeing but we began by visiting Pyongsong which is the provincial seat of South Pyong'an province and centre of specialist education. We visited a school which had received the highest honours for its results within education: three red flags. While the school looked relatively basic compared to its status it was exceptionally clean just like the rest of the country. And the class we visited was a group of very talented students. I spoke to Kim which is among the most common family names in DPRK. He was sixteen years old, spoke three languages and was very welcoming. It clearly wasn’t his first “rodeo”. The moment we were released into the classroom and I made my first steps forward he introduced himself and asked me to sit down. Then he began his routine which was somewhat interrupted when I told him that I haven’t been home for five years and five months, that I have been to 176 countries and that I’m married to a Korean woman (technically I’m engaged and she’s Danish but married and Korean worked better). That stumped him for a bit. They cannot access any social media from DPRK or even open my website…but I gave him a Saga Card anyway while he tried to gain control over the situation. Basically I like playing mind games and before walking into the class room I was thinking that it would be hard to say anything to these students which they had not heard before. Kim and I also briefly spoke about the “imperialists” which are the enemy and I diplomatically mentioned that people are just people who fall in love, like good food, seek out entertainment, spend time with family and get stuck in traffic (although traffic is hard to imagine in DPRK). I reasoned that the people of a country are hardly the enemy but that we can disagree with various governments. I wonder if any of that computed in his head. Marcus (guide) told me that saying I have a Korean wife would be enough to blow his mind.

Kim

Kim, an excellent student at the Kim Jong Suk Higher Middle School which is one of DPRK’s top middle schools for gifted students.

bears

Overlooking downtown Pyongyang. Those buildings look less fancy up close.

hammer and

The Monument to the Party Foundation is an iconic structure featuring the hammer, sickle, writing brush which represent the workers, farmers, and intellectuals that make up the Worker’s Party of Korea.

bowling

Golden Lane Bowling Centre.

DPRK has poured a lot of money into certain infrastructure projects. And they all look amazing! What is found between those projects at times looks like buildings from the 70s which need more maintenance. Sometimes you look out of the window of the bus and think that it might have been what life was like 150 years ago. Kim from the school pulled out a smartphone to take a photo with me before I left. Not all from DPRK have smartphones but they were also not uncommon in the landscape. I also saw a lot of smartphones in Cuba back in 2014 in spite of the lack of internet for most. Kim would likely have been the son of elite parents: engineers, doctors, lawyers, ministers or similar. Was it staged? Was it fake? I do believe that Kim attends that school and that it is one of the country’s finest schools. I also believe that for that to be true the vast majority must attend lesser schools. We all have a tendency to show ourselves from our best side. If you are going out on a date then you will shower and dress nice. If you have guests come over then you would likely clean your place up a bit. Cities remove graffiti and tidy up before large international events. DPRK has a strong culture of hospitality and the desire to show its visitors the best. We covered quite long distances in our blue KITC tour bus with our KITC guides Ms Kim and Ms Chang. There was a lot to observe through the windows and across the landscape. And yet you cannot see much further than 6 km (3.73 mi) across ground level due to the curvature of earth. We went on walking tours in both Pyongyang and Pyongsong but of course only saw the neighbourhoods and streets we were guided through. We were always shown the best and offered the best. However that is generally always what I am offered in any given country where I am someone’s guest.

Roadside3

Farmers taking a rest.

roadside1

A roadside glimpse from the bus.

Frozen

A frozen stream just to indicate how cold it was in early spring.

Saturday March 16th - DAY SIX

This was the day we returned back to China. We said farewell to those who flew and got our passports back before getting on board the train. While the food had been very good I had fallen ill the night before and spent most of the night on the toilet. I managed some sleep but generally I was very weak and not in the mood for anything. Once on board the train I went straight to sleep. It turned out I wasn’t alone. There was a group of Norwegians on a private tour which had several sick members, there were several from Marcus’ group (my group) which were ill and Koryo had a second group, Gregs group, which also had sick members. Food? Beer? Something else? Who knew? We crossed the bridge back to Dandong in China before sunset and we were much more relaxed around the officials on the DPRK side than what we had been on our way in. I thought did cross my mind though: “what if some Danish cartoonist had made a joke about DPRK’s three leaders?” Would I then have been denied to exit DPRK? Koryo Tours are top professional and have many years of experience. They made sure that everything ran smoothly for us and that we had a good experience. I have throughout my life been told of the extremities of DPRK and I am coloured by that. However I have come to learn that the craziest stories I know of DPRK never made it inside DPRK. They were completely fabricated by people outside of DPRK and quickly spread…because after all…we do love a good story.

lunch

A meal fit for a king!

departure

Pyongyang Railway Station.

roadside2

We made it to Dandong and said farewell to Greg who had been our guide on the train heading back. Greg is from Hungary and I didn’t get to know him very well but from what I know he is very kind and professional. We had said farewell to Marcus in Pyongyang. In Dandong we made the change to the Chinese train and I was feeling very weak! I had a hard time standing on my feet and mostly just wanted to lie down. As soon as I got on board the train I went back to sleep.  

Sunday March 17th - DAY SEVEN

Around eight am the train approached Beijing again and I felt pretty good although I had hardly had any food for 36 hours. More had fallen sick while others were feeling better. We said farewell to each other at Beijing Train Station and made our separate ways. I’m certain that DPRK will someday be overrun by tourists. It will come gradually. First tourists will be allowed to travel to DPRK unguided within certain areas. Later on to every corner of the country. If you doubt this then take a look at the history of Albania and Oman. DPRK is hoping for unification with the south and that too may happen. One way or the other it is a beautiful mountainous country with long sand beaches and plenty of sights to see. And as we left Beijing Station we knew that we were among the few who have actually seen it versus the many which speak of it. And perhaps someday we will be speaking of how it used to be before it opened up.

Beijing arr

Beijing Railway Station.

Perception is reality. The perception of anyone in DPRK becomes their reality. Your perception is your reality. Are you sure of your perception?

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - showing you what you haven't seen.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 2Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 3Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 4Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 5SM LinkedIn
Add a comment

Saga info! + leaving Thailand, visiting Laos and reaching China (country 175)

Day 1,975 since October 10th 2013: 175 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)

Welcome everyone new!

pano

So the Saga recently had its second largest influx of friends, fans and followers across social media. With that in mind I’ll begin this entry with some general Saga information which should come in handy for everyone new. And then I’ll head on into telling you the highlights of the week which has passed.

I suppose I should first of all say: WELCOME!! :) I hope you will enjoy the last leg of the adventures within the Saga which is estimated to end in January 2020 (Maldives). If you’re new then you should know that there is a “Frequently Asked Questions” page (FAQ) which is likely to answer many of your questions. The Saga recently gained a lot of attention due to the fantastic video which Drew Binsky made about me and the Saga. Drew is a celebrity world traveller who is very gifted when it comes to creating videos. He does a video every day, which he releases to his more than 1.6 million online followers and I think he might just work harder than I do!! I rarely work less than fifty hours a week and sometimes above a hundred when the Saga gets crazy. There’s a lot of work involved in reaching every single country in the world in an unbroken journey completely without flying. I can summarize most of it as logistics and bureaucracy. However I also spend a lot of time on research, generating content, managing social media and promoting the world’s largest humanitarian organization as a goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross. For more information about the Saga and the Red Cross you can head to the Red Cross Red Crescent section on this website. Drew spent around EIGHT hours editing his 4 minute and 44 second video that he and his camera guy (Michael) filmed of me. Drew has reached 161 countries so far and aims at reaching all of them. He’s flying so it’s easier but still not easy! He needs to apply for visas, organize transport, accommodation and do the actual traveling AS WELL as produce a video EVERY DAY! When does that man sleep? The hat comes off to you Drew. Keep on keeping on! ;)

video

 Here's the video. Click on the image or right HERE to start the video! ;)

Yeah, so I’d like everyone new to know that I’m not a tourist, I’m not on a gap year and that I’m generally not having fun. At least I don’t believe I have more fun doing this than what any of you have living your lives. I am however absorbing an immense amount of information from around the world and I fell twenty years older in life experience although it has “only” been five years and five months since I left home (Denmark). I’m traveling alone and I manage all the social media myself (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and blog). I’m not a YouTuber per se. The channel mostly features interviews and a few curiosities. My main focus has been on sharing photos and adding written words to them. These blogs also run pretty long.

 

A standard week on Facebook looks like this:

 

Throwback Thursday:

Usually a link to an old blog released in consecutive order. We are up to Djibouti, Africa, now (January 2017).

 

The Friday Blog:

You’re reading one right now. I try to have one ready every Friday.

 

RC Sunday:

The “RC” stands for Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal. Those are three emblems which all represent the world’s largest humanitarian organization which was founded in 1863 and spans across 191 countries today. Every Sunday I post about the most recent visit I did at a National Society or some general information about the organization. The last visit I made was at the Laos Red Cross.

(the Friday Blog and RC Sunday posts are also posted on Instagram)

 

Drew

It was a pleasure meeting these guys! Ric has done a few podcast interviews with me and Drew and Michael just did the YouTube video profile of me. Well travelled people like us can sit a talk for hours!  :) 

The rest of the week is simply filled up with posts from whichever country I am in. I rarely post about countries I have already been too. As such there won’t be a post from Venezuela, Cameroun or France now that I’m in China. I do however plan to post randomly from all the countries I’ve been to (every country in the world) every day after this project is completed. As such the Saga will keep going for many years after I return home. I also intend on becoming an author and making a career out of motivational speaking once I get back home to my fiancée. Yes that’s right! I’m engaged to a beautiful woman and she does her best to visit me whenever time and money allows for it. That’s 19 times so far.

Le

When my beautiful and multi talented fiancee visits it's always a good occasion to shave ;)

Now, this project exists because nobody in history has ever reached every single country in the world completely without flying. Nobody. Ever! And reaching every country is already a pretty exclusive club with less than 200 members. In perspective more than 550 people have been to space and Mount Everest has been summited by around 5,000 people. I aim at becoming the first person in history to reach every country without flying. That is purely about achievement and can be seen in the same light as when the first men reached the South Pole or similarly to setting a world record at the Olympics. It is down to the bone egoistic and something which requires a lot of discipline, dedication, focus and grit. Having said that, there are many good things in the tail water of achieving that goal. I aim at promoting every country as if it was the best in the world. In fact every country IS the best country when I’m in it and it’s up to me to prove it. This positive promotion is a counter balance to all the negativity which can be found across mainstream media every day. First of all I don’t think mainstream news is representative of the world I’ve seen but moreover the media generates fear, distance, distrust and despair for almost everyone. So I aim to remind you all that even in Syria and Yemen selfies are taken and people fall in love. And also that in my opinion people are just people everywhere. The most important things seem to be family, sports, food, safety etc. People around the world spend an awful lot of time starring into smartphones, stuck in traffic or talking about the weather ;)

podcast 

Click on the image or HERE to listen to the 2nd podcast with Ric and I and click HERE to find the 1st one. Also just check out some of all the amazing podcasts he has made with around seventy fascinating world travellers! Counting Countries is quickly becoming my favorite podcast channel! :)

I also spend a disproportionate amount of time within this project on the RC. As the organization is found in 191 countries around the world, “just” the task of establishing contact and setting up meetings is a job on its own. It takes time to meet with representatives from various countries and generate the promotion across social media. On average I spend more than a day at each National Society (Canadian Red Cross, Brazilian Red Cross, Kenya Red Cross, Qatar Red Crescent, Spanish Red Cross, Pakistan Red Crescent etc). So that’s at least 200 days of this project which is spent on that. In return this project (the Saga) has generated a lot of global awareness, has invited people all over the world to join as volunteers, has provided reason for people to donate money and has called for positive shares across social media to generate good will for the humanitarian work. And it works. I have received positive feedback from many people over the years :) As I have now visited the RC in 170 countries the Saga can easily be considered history’s greatest attempt to unify the movement in a single journey.

Thomas

Thomas works at Blue Water Shipping and wanted to help me in Thailand. So among other things he arranged for Khun Bob to drive me in the company car to the border with Laos. People are amazing!

Another grand benefit from the Saga has been all the people who feel inspired and motivated in various ways. People who have added far flung destinations to their bucket list, those who have seen countries and people in a different light...but very importantly also those who have gained strength from that I have never given up and gone home, that I have never bribed anyone, that I have always found a solution and that I can share something good and interesting about each country. That has over the years been powerful in so many lives and I have been fortunate to hear it first hand in many, many messages. For that I will never give up and keep on keeping on! Because now...what else can I do?

enter Laos

Entering Laos: country number 174.

Right...that was a 101 on the Saga. Now let’s get to what happened in Laos. It was raining as I approached the border. I had not seen rain since some time last year? It was refreshing. Khun Bob who had brought me safely to the border waved farewell and I proceeded north on foot. It was almost 08:00am and we had left Bangkok around midnight. Crossing the border was easy. I carefully filled out the immigration forms but afterwards realized that I could have written my name down as Donald Duck and nobody would have cared. It cost me $36 USD for my visa and I paid in USD. Across the border I got into a shared van and we headed into the country towards its capital Vientiane. It could have been a short 20 minute ride but it was raining, there was traffic and the van broke down. The driver called for someone else to collect us. It took its time but the other driver arrived and it all went seamlessly. Welcome to Laos. The “s” is silent: Lao. It’s one of the world’s few remaining communist countries but as a tourist you’ll hardly feel a difference. Laos is a very laidback and relaxed country. Vientiane lies on the Mekong River with Thailand on the other side. I found my hostel, checked in and had a few hours of sleep before I headed out to meet the Laos Red Cross (LRC).

RC Laos

Ko and I at the LRC HQ in Vientiane.

It was under blue skies that I set out to find the LRC in Vientiane which has no shortage of Buddhist temples and the LRC happened to be located right next to one. I sat down with Mrs Phonedavanh Sanbounleuxay (or Ko for short) who is the International Relations Coordinator. She invited me to sit down for a bit while we got to know each other a little better. She told me that they were established on January 1st 1955 and are now found in every province of Laos. Apart from first aid, heath and sanitation the LRC also promotes gender equality and advocates for the role of women in society. A really large part of their humanitarian engagement is disaster risk reduction, preparedness and response. Most people only hear about the response part as that’s what makes it into the media.

laos rc2

In Luang Prabang I found this flyer on the ground. LRC has a blood and transfusion center and promotes blood donations nation wide. It also turned out that the LRC runs a massage and sauna center in Luang Prabang.

On July 23rd 2018 a tragedy occurred as the Saddle Dam D, which was part of a larger hydroelectric dam system under construction in southeast Laos's Champasak Province, collapsed and cost more than 40 lives while 1,100 went missing. The dam collapse also lead to widespread destruction and homelessness among the local population in neighboring Attapeu Province. In the media it became known as the “Laos dam collapse”. LRC responded swiftly to the needs of the most vulnerable people and that work continues until this day long after the reporters have stopped reporting. I left the LRC thinking about what the world might look like without more than 12 million volunteers worldwide tirelessly carrying out humanitarian work?

china food

I've been missing good soups for a while. But there has been no lack of them since I reached Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

Back at my hostel I organized a bus to bring me the 12 hour ride up to Luang Prabang the following day. Then I organized myself, got a local simcard, managed social media and signed yet another document for my latest new tenant in my apartment back home. This is the fourth person to rent my apartment since I left home and it would be a sheer nightmare to organize it if it wasn’t for Home Connector. They have saved me three times before and I really mean that!! I absolutely cannot pay for that apartment being empty while I’m out here pulling of mission impossible. Thank you Rasmus and Malene!! You’re the best! Vientiane generally doesn’t get much credit for being more than a stopover and that’s also what it was for me. I however found it to be a pretty nice capital and there was lots I could have seen but didn’t have the time for. I didn’t get much sleep that night. Laos is tourist territory and very popular with the partying youth. My hostel apparently offered free vodka and whiskey between 6-8 pm. So it got pretty noisy! A curfew is imposed across Laos and starts at midnight. But it doesn’t seem to be enforced for tourists and mainly effects businesses. I left the next morning at 06:00am.

laos bus

Landslides, road construction, accidents...there's always something to delay the ride.

laos green

No matter what - it is hard to complain about the scenery.

Laos is remarkably green and very beautiful to look at. It could have been the setting for the Lost series, for Jurassic Park or any of the King Kong movies. There are rivers, hills and mountains and it’s all covered in green. However twelve hours in a bus is definitely twelve hours in a bus and I was tired when we rolled into Luang Prabang. It is a beautiful city which lies in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was inhabited for thousands of years and was the royal capital of the country until 1975. Luang Prabang is known for its many Buddhist temples, including the gilded Wat Xieng Thong, dating to the 16th century, and Wat Mai, once the residence of the head of Laotian Buddhism.

laos buddha

Laos is predominantly Buddhist however also with a large population that adhere to animistic beliefs. 

In fact the city was so nice and relaxing that I opted for an extra night there to set my mind right. Contrary to what many might think there is a lot of stress which goes along with pulling off this project. There is indeed much which goes on behind the curtains of this show. As an example we are approaching North Korea (DPRK) now and that is not the kind of country you enter unprepared. In fact I had to set everything in motion more than a month before I intended to enter the country. I booked and paid for everything through Koryo Tours while I was still in India (end January). Back then I knew I would need to reach Beijing (China) on March 11th for my briefing and train ride into DPRK. So back then I already knew I would need to master the logistics of...wait for it...getting into Bangladesh, making it back to India, crossing into Myanmar, covering great distances, getting into Thailand, applying for the Chinese visa, head up into Laos, get inside China and cover further more vast distances in order of reaching Beijing on time. Keep in mind that I was meeting with the RC in all these countries, made presentations at Maersk in three of them, wrote several blogs, did interviews, kept social media updated, met with people, handled the bureaucracy and remembered to eat, sleep and breathe ;)

laos bridge

laos orange

Rebecca Carlos

Fun running into Rebecca and Oscar. If you have an Instagram account then why not check them out: @travelevers

However while in Luang Prabang I saw that I had made excellent time and could afford an extra night at the hostel. It was a nice hostel and I was by far one of the oldest guests. Tourists posing as travellers in their late teens and early twenties were showing off their perfect bodies and sharing stories of sex, drugs and spirituality. Fortunately my dorm room was a quiet one. While out and about exploring Luang Prabang I met Rebecca from Sweden and Oscar from Spain who both live in Barcelona and were on their third six month journey. I noticed Rebecca was waiving at me and I first thought she wanted me to help her take a photo. But it turned out she had been following the Saga for a long time and simply recognized me. Yes! I’m a big superstar!! That reminds me about something which happened while I was still in Bangkok with Drew and Michael. Drew is actually famous as his videos have now accumulated over a billion views! So while they were filming me, a kid (no more than ten years old) shouted: “Hey Drew Binsky!!” I asked the kid how he knew him and he replied: “from YouTube”. It was clear that it was completely normal for Drew. It rarely happens to me ;) Back in Luang Prabang Rebecca, Oscar and I got to talk a lot about the world, traveling and what the future might hold. They have both been to 51 countries and you can find their amazing photos on Instagram as @travelevers.

laos flag

Laos is one of the world's five remaining ‘communist' countries. After the civil war ended in 1975, the communist government over threw the monarchy and has been ruling since.

laos tuctuc

The tuc tuc's in Laos look like something out of a Mad Max movie!

laos night market

The night market in Luang Prabang is quite interesting, very varied and it goes on forever.

I am getting old. I’m not much for being around teenage tourists and I frown when I see them disrespects religious sites in their sheer appearance or in achieving the “perfect selfie”. And I’ll use that as a segue to a thought I’ve recently had about age. Are we measuring age in the right way? A trip around the sun and then you’re a year older. But how is that useful? Someone might have been in a coma for that entire year. Someone else could have lived a thousand lifetimes. I’ve met people in their thirties who are not mature enough to vote while I’ve also met children in their early teens who were competent behind the steering wheel of a car. I have a friend in his 60s who’s barely been outside of his mountain village and yet he speaks as if he has seen the world. I don’t know...I feel old...and when I look at these teenage tourists I wonder: “what are you traveling for? Content for social media and partying?”

laos teens

These tourists are "enthusiastically" waiting for the sun to set from a holy Buddhist sight. 

My next bus was a 24 hour journey from Laos to China. In Laos the roads were narrow and curved. Some of my fellow passengers fell sick. It wasn’t like in Myanmar though. I figure I was the only foreigner in the bus. Most were Chinese I think? It was beautiful outside the bus. The rural roadside villages appeared similar to the ones I knew from Nepal. I was leaving Laos far too early. Laos is a brilliant country with an abundance of adventure, ancient temples, good food, kind people, nature, waterfalls and picturesque villages. I found the prices to be a lot higher than in Thailand and much higher than in Myanmar. But I still managed to stay at a $6 USD hostel with breakfast and Wi-Fi included. So everything is relative.

laos dust

Approaching the Laos/China border.

bus stair

Here I'm mostly wondering about why the bus smelled SO MUCH of feet?

china enter

No mans land. Approaching China...

Crossing into China was easy. The Chinese side was state of the art and had scanning equipment similar to what I had only seen in Israel. The side of the border I just came from was more basic. In Laos a huge construction project was ongoing which to me looked like a casino/mall/hotel sort of arrangement. And possibly a large artificial lake under construction? Lots of dust to say the least and plenty of dump trucks. Once in China the roads turned wide and smooth. The infrastructure was massively impressive. Everything appeared well thought out and efficient. I doubt I’ve ever been to a country like this before? And I’ve been to China before. I once visited Hong Kong on a solo trip (on a mission to try every ride at Disneyland). And I’ve once been to Beijing with a good friend. Back then we saw the Olympic Park, the Forbidden City and walked on the Great Wall.

china metro

The metro in Kunming was impeccable! And even in China people on metros are just people ;)

china city1

Kunming is one of many Chinese cities with ten million people the world doesn't know.

china city 2

Kunming.

china city3

China is indeed a country where the old meets the new.

This time the bus brought me to Kunming which is known as the "City of Eternal Spring". Kunming lies at an almost tropical latitude but its 2000m (6600ft) altitude gives it a very temperate climate. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Kunming before I began planning my detailed route through China? And yet it’s a city with roughly 10 million people!! That’s China for you. The spitting, yawning, grunting and burping when some of these people eat has been unreal!?! How different cultures can be. If I did that as a kid my mother would smack me over the head!! Well...now we are well into China and still have a great distance to cover before I reach Beijing. China is roughly the same size as USA which I think most people understand is large and diverse. Well China has a BILLION more people than the USA!?! It’s that just mind boggling? And China has a very diverse population with many vastly different ethnicities. Oh well...I’ve just arrived...for now I’m simply awestruck in terms of how well everything seems to function…I like China…

final

Off to Beijing on yet another train.

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Happy but so tired!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 2Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 3Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 4Photo Mar 23 10 20 21 5SM LinkedIn
Add a comment

More Articles ...

Once Upon a Saga
Made by Kameli