D day / Once Upon A Saga (massive detour)

Day 1,884 since October 10th 2013: 166 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)

Will it ever be worth it?

Pano

In my attempt to reach Pakistan via China I swiftly ran through plan A, B and C. Next comes D and here I am executing that plan. Somehow there is always a way if you look for it.

Did I get everything out of Mongolia which my heart desired? Heck no!! I feel like I spent more time on filling out forms, buying tickets and applying for visas than anything else. Did I get anything out of visiting Mongolia? Absolutely!! I tasted the food, walked the streets, met the people, visited the Red Cross, added a new country, tested my strength, pushed my limits and touched my heart... On my last night in Ulaanbaatar I even met up with Philip who is a Danish student on exchange in Saint Petersburg, Russia. We first met in Lebanon and now he was traveling in the region with a friend and happened to be in Ulaanbaatar. We met at a Korean restaurant and had some spicy beef soup. I was stressed out of my mind trying to get everything ready before my race to reach Pakistan in time for my visa aka: Plan D. It was a quick meet up before I headed back into the extreme cold on my way to my hostel. I had to finish the Friday Blog among other things. I went to bed around 4am.

savingPNG

Plan D is roughly a 14,000 km (8,700 mi) detour.

Mongolia1

The following day I had breakfast at the hostel and met two young German travelers who had just checked in. Great people with really open minds. There’s a saying that you should be careful not to open your mind too much as it might fall out ;) Their minds were still there and we had some good conversations on conspiracy theories, religion, existence, the future and a lot of other lofty subjects. Then we headed out to hear the monks chant at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery which is the centre of Mongolian Buddhist. Although that was just a ten minute walk from my hostel I had never managed to find the time. 90 minutes later I was back at the hostel making my final preparations before departure. I was staying at Top Tour Guesthouse Mongolia Under the wings of Mugi (Munkthuya) who manages it. I have met a lot of people and with that in mind I think Mugi might just be one of the kindest and most caring people on this planet. She is absolutely soft spoken, service minded, trusting, hospitable and amazing. Somehow I think her guests are far more important to her than the money.

Mongolia2

In my experience the Mongolian “presetting” is not one of a smiling face. Most people I have seen have had a stone face and observing eyes. However when they smile it melts your heart. And it happens often enough. In some ways I also find a resemblance between Mongolians and people from Greenland. There is something about the way they pronounce words, the way they look, the small population in a large country, the strong primal connection to nature, the wide open landscape... well, there are barely 60,000 people in Greenland and 3,000,000 people in Mongolia. And the differences are a lot easier to point at than the resemblances. Isn’t it always like that? I’m just saying: there was something in Mongolia which reminded me of Greenland. And with that I left. I had a 3:22pm direct train to Moscow to catch. Carriage number 7. Seat number 24. My ticket was printed in Russian and German for whichever odd reason?

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Plan D - day 1:

A lot of Mongolians take the train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk in Russia. Then they connect to Moscow by flight. It’s a lot cheaper than flying from Ulaanbaatar and a lot faster than taking the train all the way. So the isolation and solitude I was hoping for did not come on the first day. I got to share my cabin with two young students and their teacher. The students had been chosen to compete in Moscow at a Russian language competition. The disciplines include writing essays and making translations among other things. They all seemed really nice although the teacher didn’t speak any English. However he did begin to mention everything he knew about Denmark which turned out to be a lot. And he was not shy to show me photos on his phone. The two young students spoke English surprisingly well considering their age. I’d guess they were around 14. So we had a good opportunity to speak together and they also helped me communicate with their teacher.

Passengers

We crossed the border between Mongolia and Russia before the day ended which meant we had to go through customs and immigration twice that night. The Mongolian side was more easygoing. I guess there isn’t as much to smuggle out of Mongolia as in from Russia? My passports are raising a lot of eyebrows. It’s all the stamps and visas from conflicted countries. I aim at applying for new passports in Moscow before catching the connecting train to Odessa (Ukraine).

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Plan D - day 2:

I did not get out of my bunk until midday. And I was out before two of my three fellow companions. It was way past midnight before we cleared customs and immigration the night before. I was given some “star status” by customs and immigration officers upon my fellow companions revealing to them that I’m traveling to every country in the world. One of the officers even felt worried for my safely given certain countries I’ve been to. There was a language barrier so the two Mongolian students had to help with some translation. That night didn’t offer much sleep. I woke up every time I needed to turn, when the train slowed down, when it stopped, when it started again etc. Once back on my feet I washed my face and headed down to dinning area where I saw Vasali who had served me when I was going in the opposite direction. He recognized me as I did him. I have now become a regular on the Trans Siberian Railway.

Irkutsk

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At 2:30pm the train stopped in Irkutsk and my companionship got off. They were to spend a night in Irkutsk before taking the flight the next day. I also left the train albeit briefly just to locate an ATM and draw some rubles. It turned out that the train did not accept Mongolian tughrik. At this point I really hoped that I could exchange them in Moscow as I had 120,000 ($46 USD) worth of them. I got to like the students and their teacher a lot. They would often laugh when interacting amongst themselves and I had some good conversations with the students. The train left Irkutsk and I was now alone in my cabin which suited me just fine. And I noticed that my next door neighbors are a young couple from Germany and France. Chances were about 100% that I would interact with them sooner or later before the train reached Moscow.

temperature

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Plan D - day 3:

Not much to say. Sort of happy to be without internet. Got some reading done. A woman brought me a plate of soup. First I thought it was a mistake but it turned out to be an act of kindness. Not sure if she is an employee or a passenger on the train? Either way it was nice of her. The outside temperature had dropped considerably. -22 degrees (XXX). I set the clock back two hours. The train passed the halfway marker between Ulaanbaatar and Moscow. At some point into the evening we passed through Novosibirsk which looked rather impressive from the window of my cabin. Lots of tall buildings. There was a club marked with radioactive signs called “Reactor”. Somewhere in the background you could see a huge factory of sorts with a large chimney and smoke rising into the cold atmosphere...

Russia1

Plan D - day 4:

It was still dark when I woke up. The time read 09:32 but it was pitch dark. There wasn’t a single reason on the planet to get out of bed. But I did. I had breakfast: 2 eggs, some white bread and a cup of tea. The winter landscape flew by outside. Beautiful in its simplicity. I turned a few more pages in a book I had started long ago. A book about a danish expedition which took place between 1761 and 1767. Years before the USA was considered a country. Five scientists and their waiter leave the port of Copenhagen on a perilous expedition to explore “Arabia Felix”, the “Happy Arabia” which is today known as Yemen. The expedition was paid for by the Danish King. Only one man returned alive. They traveled by land and sea. Malaria proved to be their demise. The book originally came out in 1962 and is considered Thorkild Hansen’s masterpiece. It is indeed a good read.

Russia2

Train hall

In the afternoon I asked the young French / British travelers if I could join them. They were very kind and we talked for a good hour until the train reached Yekaterinburg and they briefly got off to hunt for some food. I bought eight instant soups to bring along for the ride. The food on the train is good but relatively expensive and the portions are rather small. The British traveler is called Harriet and the one from France is Arnaud. They have both been abroad for more than a year and are on their way home from Cambodia. It’s interesting how far away Cambodia seems until you travel home overland. Arnaud has been studying in Phnom Penh and Harriet was working for a local NGO. They offered me some Chinese tea and good company. That’s what you get from good people. We met up in the dining carriage in the evening and spoke some more over a couple of Russian beers. Among other things we spoke of how internationally connected the world has become. It is far easier today than ever before to take a job in a foreign country and settle down somewhere remote from your home. I basically see that as a threat to job security as today anyone can gun for your job no matter where on the planet they live. Fortunately we have a secret language in Denmark.

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Plan D - day 5:

I set the clock back another two hours. It was again dark outside as I got up. Luxury to have a four bed cabin all too myself since Irkutsk. Breakfast consisted of three eggs instead of the usual two, a slice of semidry white bread and a cup of tea. I guess Vasali wanted to send me off with a full breakfast? I finished the last 70 pages of my book and it is quite a book! A danish expedition funded by the danish king. Those days appear to be gone? Just before 2pm the train rolled into Moscow and I returned to the city which I had not seen for five full years. I managed to get the train tickets from Moscow to Georgia reimbursed (the tickets from plan C) and has my ticket to Odessa confirmed. Then I reached the Danish embassy which was an exceedingly pleasant experience this time. I was greeted by beautiful competent employees in a spectacular building which has been the residence for the Danish embassy since 1946 but the present day building actually dates back to the 19th century. It’s a beautiful building in an old neighborhood of Moscow. The street in front of it was created in the late 16th century so you can just imagine the history.

Moscow

The media tells us this and it tells us that. Movies also tend to shape our view of what Russians are like. Moscow looked beautiful to me and I had clearly forgotten how many wonderful buildings and intriguing streets it holds. The city was well decorated and looked ready for Christmas. Back in December 2013 I hardly knew what the Saga was all about. The Saga barely had any followers and was virtually unknown. Now we are tens of thousands who bond over blogs and posts and combined we represent nations all over the world. Kind Russians helped me with directions at several of Moscow’s elaborate metro stations. A women went out of her way to ensure I got on the right train and missed her own but never stopped to smile. When I later on spilled my tea at a café a waiter was quick to wipe it up and bring me a new one free of charge. And the staff at the Danish embassy were really kind and helpful. So we’re all the people I dealt with at ticket offices and small shops. Denmark has a good relationship with Russia which also means that I get a better rate for a visa when applying at Russian embassies. The clerk at the Russian embassy in Astana (Kazakhstan) told me that. Did you know that Rurik, a Norse viking, is the forefather of the Russian Romanov Tzar dynasty? And Russian women look beautiful to me. It all adds up to a good impression. Now I almost feel like learning Russian. I revisited the Kremlin which is super impressive. I walked across the Red Square as I had done it back in 2013. Then I raced off to catch my 9pm train towards Odessa, Ukraine. Another night on a train.

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Plan D - day 6:

I may have neglected to share with you how bumpy the recent train rides can be. It feels substantial at times. It can be so bumpy that you wake from it during the night. And walking down the isle of the train can simulate a drunken man waltzing down a street. The train from Moscow to Odessa does not live up to the standards of the Ulaanbaatar - Moscow train. However it is sufficient and I was once again fortunate to have a four bed cabin all to myself. I can’t say for sure but I figure we crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine around 4am at which point I had to wake up and show my passport. Customs could not have cared less about my baggage once they heard I was Danish. It’s one of the few words I know in Russian: “Dania”. I also know: thank you, hello, how are you, good, yes and no. That’s about it. Those few words didn’t get me far at the train restaurant. And the menu was entirely in Russian. So I had to do some guessing along with the waiters willingness to help by using google translate on her phone. I ended up getting some bread, a small salad, a glass of juice, mashed potatoes and some chicken. So that worked out well although it costs me twice as much as on the previous train.

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Looking out the window observing the winter landscape flying by does at some point resemble relaxing by staring into a fireplace. I’m not sure that I see anything out there anymore. It’s just a perpetual lands which whizzes by. During my short stop in Moscow I managed to get online long enough to receive a gazillion emails, manage the social media, book a hostel in Odessa and send a few messages to my fiancée. Among the emails I found an electronic confirmation that my Iran visa has been approved and is waiting for me in Tbilisi, Georgia. That’s really good news! The Saga has taken us to Iran already two times before. And neither time did I get the electronic confirmation and on both occasions I had to visit the embassies and spend time on that. If all goes according to plan then I will reach Georgia by boat on Sunday and make my way to Tbilisi. The next day, Monday, I will get my visa and I can be on the way to Yerevan with the night train in the evening. Then Tuesday I can be on the overnight bus to Tehran in Iran arriving Wednesday morning. And if the train connection works out then I will reach the Pakistan border on Thursday December 13th. I reached Odessa, walked to my $5 USD hostel and checked in. Then I had a pizza, worked out where to get the ferry ticket and went to bed.

Plan D - day 7:

My $5 USD hostel was okay but the people I shared the dorm with were annoying. They had loud conversations long past midnight, phone conversations right next to me in the middle of the night, would turn on the room lights and storm in and out of the dorm room. Alas, this was my first night of seven in a bed that wasn’t attached to any means of transportation. I got up before 8am and had some tea. Then I created an account and booked my train ticket from Batumi to Tbilisi in Georgia. I skipped breakfast and headed straight to the office for the ferry to Georgia. The man who sold tickets did not seem friendly at first and told me that they had closed for taking on any more passengers. My next opportunity was three days away. I pushed a little and the man made a phone call. Then he returned to me and said that there was space for me on the ferry leaving a few hours past midnight. Once he saw my passport and learned that I was Danish his eyes came alive and he began speaking broken German too me :)

Odessa

I secured my ticket ($160 USD) across the Black Sea to Batumi in Georgia. Then I headed straight for a café, had a sandwich and some tea. Odessa is a great city in my opinion and Ukraine is among my favorite countries. Odessa has everything you could possibly desire from the modern world but still holds on to its past in many ways. I like an elegant city which shows its age. And not that I notice at all since I’m an engaged man...but the women are definitely something else. The voyage across the Black Sea is almost 48 hours so I scheduled some social media for all of you and discovered that for a while my emails to tcp@onceuponasaga.dk had gone straight to the trash folder (not spam). WHY THE HECK WOULD THEY DO THAT?!? I managed to fish 29 emails out of trash and into my inbox. Then I began investigating the problem? It turned out that a few weeks ago a rule had somehow been created to forward all new emails to trash. How does something like that happen?? Some sort of virus? Who knows. And why the heck did I need to spend an hour sorting that out?

Odessa hat

Roman is the Country Manager for Maersk in Ukraine. His office is in Odessa and we had not seen each other since September 2017 when Ukraine first became country number 139. So we met up for dinner together. He’s a really great guy and we had a lot to catch up on. Marina from customer care and Igor from sales joined in. Well actually we joined them because they were at a nice local restaurant with a client I regret to say I can’t remember the name of. I’ll just mention it again: I really like Ukraine! Then I returned to the hostel, created this blog for you and called an Uber to take me to customs near the ferry at 02:30am. Because such is my life. Reaching Odessa made the first 7,305 km (4,539 mi) of this massive detour. But we are on schedule and making excellent time. And you would not be reading this if I had given up at any point. Because around here we keep on keeping on! And you can too...

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - "Thunder, feel the thunder"
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

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Trans Siberian Railway, Mongolia and getting PISSED OFF!

Day 1,877 since October 10th 2013: 166 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)

When life gives you lemons…throw them at someone! ;)

Pano

I recently read the scientific community warns against trying to cheer people up with “helpful” advise as it will often (not always) make it worse. It is recommended being there for them and showing empathy. Well, thank you all for showing so much empathy lately. You ARE the best people of all time!!! Thank you so much!!

I posted a video on Once Upon A Saga's YouTube channel Wednesday night giving an emotional and frustrating status update on the current situation which could be a lot better. However I have been to 166 countries and there are also those that are worse off. I suppose this is as good a way to start a blog as any? Now you know where it is heading. Sort of like watching the Titanic movie and knowing that it will sink and lots of people will die. Go back to Wednesday morning and the future was still bright and clear. Go back before that and I was on an epic train ride between the world’s second coldest and the world’s coldest capital. That is no joke in the wintertime for someone who spent most of the year in the Middle East – and also someone who was caught in a sandstorm between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan just weeks ago. Thankfully Berghaus has been a friend for a while and I have been able to pull out my ‘Hydrophobic down 850’ which did the trick when we dropped in on Greenland back in 2014. Man the stories I could tell you. And the experience I have gained.

train out wait

Let’s start with the train ride. I guess I could write half a book on looking out the frosty windows at a white winter landscape which perpetually rolled by. However I’ll give you the short version. I boarded an overnight train from Astana in Kazakhstan to Yekaterinburg which is Russia’s fourth most populous city. That covered a distance of 1,141 km (709 mi) and offered me some ten hours of waiting time between trains for my 03:44am departure. I had the top bunk and shared it with a few friendly passengers that didn’t really speak English.

train wait

Yekaterinburg looked really pleasing to me. In fact the train brought me through several impressive cities in Russia.

Ekaterinburg

The next train was far more modern than the first one and far emptier. I was literally the only passenger in the entire carriage. The train stewardess told me I could pick any bed but I still went for the top. I got some sleeping done, I read a lot, a watched some series on my laptop, took pictures, looked out the window and mostly spent my time alone. There was a dining car where I had most of my meals. That was nine carriages away from my bed so a total of about 300 meters (984 ft) to walk. Basically my only exercise. The food was good but I found the portions to be small. One morning when I came into the dining car (which I mostly had for myself) I found a man sitting there drinking from his second beer bottle. Well done. I guess a lot of people actually find alcohol to be a pleasant companion along the ride. As I walked from carriage to carriage I got to snoop a bit into some of the other cabins and it looked really local. Mostly people had brought their own food. Every carriage had a water heater (Titan) so everyone had access to hot water. The cabins were modern and convenient, the toilets were modern and reasonably clean, there were showers and the inside temperature was somewhere around 23 degrees (73.4 F). Outside was a different story as the temperature would fluctuate between -2 and -19 (28.4 and -2.2 F) in the daytime hours! You felt that walking between carriages as you stepped into some micro Narnia and out again.

train friends

Photo courtesy of Paul. Jazz and Jenny in the back.

In the long run it was a great train ride which I did enjoy although I would definitely have enjoyed it more if I shared it with someone. I naturally thought back upon Art and the other friends I made on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco (USA). We are still in touch today! That was an amazing train ride which I doubt I will ever forget. This little stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railway was also something but I did miss Art. I got a taste of some companionship when Paul from the UK and Jazz + Jenny from Aussie-land reached out and asked if I wanted to join their card game. I had been eyeing them at a few meals and actually thought to reach out so was happy when they did. I’d love to go into detail about their personalities and some of the stories they shared!! But when I met them they were under the influence of a cozy amount of wine and pink gin. So what happens on the train stays on the train. I really like the three of them. Paul is from Norfolk and had been on trains since he left the UK. He needed seemed to be enjoying his solo train adventure. Jazz and Jenny are daughter and mother in that order. Jazz has been “in the world” for the past four years and Jenny had teamed up with her for some traveling before heading home for Christmas. They are from Brisbane but Jazz spends most her time in Canada these days and pursuits becoming an actor someday. I support that life choice as it takes courage to step out of line.

train window

Having spent five days on trains and adding another 4,444 km (2,761 mi) to the Saga from the second train ride, we rolled into Mongolia and made it country number 166 in a single unbroken journey completely without flying! Choo choo!! I might just add that customs and immigration caused me no issues what so ever. I almost felt protected as a foreigner while I saw them make life harder for the locals. There is never much joy in waking up in the middle of the night to show your passport, answer question and open your bags. However it was clearly worse for some than others. Once we had cleared the border and the train was safe in Mongolia I saw why! Now don’t think I know it all. This is just what I saw and it could have been my imagination. However the train quickly became lively as staff and passengers began to move all sorts of goods around. It was as if some passengers were in on it on behalf of the staff. Pill glasses were collected from seemingly random handbags and handed back to someone with a cardboard box. It was a long train…lots of good places to hide stuff. Seemingly innocent stuff like medicine, disposable rubber gloves, food, clothes etc. Not drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or weapons.   

UB temple

Five days offline made my email account and social media look like a warzone! It took a while to get it all under control again and I had also received an email from the Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) who welcomed me and wanted to know which day I would visit. So right from the get-go I was buried in administrative tasks. I also had to prepare for my Chinese visa application. Plan A was to go from Kazakhstan to Pakistan through China. I was now in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, working on plan B which was obtaining the visa for China there and heading to Pakistan through the Karakoram Highway. That epic highway has been a prime motivator for me lately and I have for a long time been able to picture the snow caped mountaintops as they point high into the sky! The magic scenery and the incredible elevation. It is the highest border crossing in the world, over 4800 meters (roughly 16,000 ft) in the Khunjerab Pass.

UB street

Ulaanbaatar is modern and around this time of the year: cold. The locals disagree with -20 beying cold though.

Mongolia is a whopper of a country ranking as the world’s 18th largest and most sparsely populated country with only about 3 million beating hearts across it. Horse people by the way! More than other nations it seems. I was casually seated at a table with four Mongolians when the subject came up. Three men and a woman. I carefully asked if everyone knew how to ride and the answer was that technically all men should know how to ride. So what I read from that is that most know but not all. Then I asked them one by one if they knew how to ride and the answers came one by one: yes, yes, yes and yes. The only two countries Mongolia borders are Russia and China! Those must be among the world’s top five most well-known countries and certainly most influential. So it is no wonder that Mongolia has some influence from both China and Russia. However Mongolia is so definitely also its own creature! The small population compared to the land size is one thing along with the many people who still live traditional lives far from the city surrounded by seemingly endless grass steppe. More soaring eagles, more wild horses and a spectacular history of a single man’s achievement in conquering the world’s largest empire only exceeded by the British Empire in the 19th century! In fact: in only 25 years Genghis Khan’s horsemen conquered a larger area than the Romans did in 400 years! So that is something and also the pride of the nation mush like the Vikings are of Scandinavia, the Phoenicians are of the Lebanese, the ancient Pharos are of Egypt, the Roman Empire is of Italy, the Inca’s are of Peru, the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayans of Belize and so on and so forth. Us who speak of it today live long after those who made it significant passed away.

UB beatles

This has been paid for entirely by Beatles fans. So cool!!

Mongolia is however also a modern country. I bet in every ger (yurt (portable round tent)) you’ll find a smartphone and probably a solar charger as well. But I wouldn’t know for sure as I didn’t leave the center of Ulaanbaatar at any point. I’m just kind of drawing parallels to African round huts and how rural areas bring lots of modern accessories into the western world’s primitive and slightly romantic notions of people living in the past. Well, in some cases those notions are spot on as in the case with the late American missionary who thought it was a good idea to preach religion on India’s North Sentinel Islands. Do you know what is truly astonishing in Ulaanbaatar? That would be the amount of Toyota Prius’ on the streets!! I have never seen anything like it!! Off the top of my head I would guess that every second car is a Prius. The Toyota Prius is a hybrid car so that is almost as modern as anything gets. Driving a hybrid saves a lot of money in fuel so that is a possible reason for the unbelievable amount of them in the city. It is apparently also the cheapest car available. I thought Amman in Jordan and Tbilisi in Georgia had a lot of hybrids! Ulaanbaatar definitely blows those capitals out of the water. Some Toyota representative must be fairly happy with accomplishments so far.

UB Toyota

How many Toyota Prius do you see?

The Mongolian People’s Republic was formed in 1924 and back then the capital changed name to Ulaanbaatar, which means “red hero” in honor of Damdin Sükhbaatar, who is the country’s national hero. Genghis Khan is definitely a big deal but that was a long time ago. Sükhbaatar liberated Mongolia from Russian White Forces alongside with the Red Army of Russia and that was the beginning of the People’s Revolution. I don’t know much about this but I do know that Sükhbaatar means “red axe” which is pretty cool.

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The Damdin Sükhbaatar statue at Sükhbaatar square.

Yup, I met up with the MRCS which I believe is the 162nd National Society within the Saga? The Red Cross Red Crescent isn’t in every country in the world but it is pretty close. They are not in Oman or the Vatican which are two countries we have been too. I was unable to reach them in Yemen and Equatorial Guinea due to “regional complications”. And Mongolia makes 166 countries so I believe the MRCS must be the 162nd I met with. I was given the honor of traveling as goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross back in 2013 when the Saga began. It has been quite the humanitarian experience for me. I come from the private sector where your value is often measured in how much you can earn or how much value you can generate. The humanitarian sector is a lot different. I do ponder why having a man visit this many National Societies is not being utilized on a large scale? Imagine how it would be if I was a Coca Cola ambassador drinking Coca Cola all over the world? I guess it would be all like: “Our man is enjoying an ice cold Coca Cola in country number 83!” or “Our man just teamed up with our office in Rwanda!” My achievements within the organization are not utilized on any level I am aware of? However my visits do appear to bring a lot of joy and wonder on an individual country level. The Red Cross is the world’s largest humanitarian organization and aims to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable people across our planet. And it is on an incredibly large scale!!! Trust me on that one! I’ve seen a lot of it. It was very easy to fall in love with the MRCS. I met up with Zunjee Bayankhuu whi is a MRCS Youth Programme Officer. We met in front of the Fine Arts Museum and caught a cab to the MRCS HQ. There I met Enkhtaivan who is the Director of Administration and Coordination Department. I was guided around their museum and they presented me with some video clips of their activities and accomplishments. Then some to die for volunteers acted out the seven fundamental values for me (Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary, Unity and Universality). That was really cute, creative and fun! Then they performed a dance for me which originates from a massive flash mob event they held. They really looked like if they had a lot of fun and that is in large what the RC Youth is about: community and networking.

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The RC museum at MRCS in Ulaanbaatar.

I forgot to mention that when I walked through the door of the MRCS four volunteers chanted: “Welcome to MRCS Mr. Pedersen”. The MRCS has a long history of accomplishments behind them and are highly active in the humanitarian field. I could list it all but I would much rather if you just checked out their website which is really great: https://www.redcross.mn/ I had a brief opportunity to shake hands with Mrs Nordov Bolormaa who is their Secretary General. She was busy with a natural disaster exercise which was ongoing. Mongolia is prone to earthquakes although it has been a while since they had a devastating one. The country has extremely hot summers and extremely cold winters. Especially the winters appear to be getting worse and are costing the lives of hundreds of thousands livestock! Flooding is another disaster Mongolia is prone too. Lots of good people at MRCS!

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It is an impressive RC pin collection the Youth department has. Mine isn't that far off it.

Well, Wednesday came and that was my first opportunity to apply for the Chinese visa. They are not open every day for visa applications. There are a lot of stories about how harsh the Chinese embassies are and how often they change their rules. I don’t know if the rumors are true. I do know that they accept 100 applications per day and that only ten of them are offered to foreigners. So it is wise to come early. In the summertime overlanders on bicycles, motorcycles, vehicles or foot are said to line up the night before the embassy opens. But I reached Ulaanbaatar in the winter and all of those people were nowhere to be found. Jazz (from the train) was there with her mother. And a couple of teachers from USA and Australia were there when I arrived a few minutes before the embassy opened. It was FREEZING in Ulaanbaatar so I felt no need to come earlier and a traveler from Poland had recently obtained his visa for China and said there were no applicants anyway.

UB birds

Parts of Ulaanbaatar feel more Chinese than others.

It took another 40 minutes before the doors opened and that was enough for my toes to start complaining about the cold. Jazz and Jenny had been there for two hours already! We entered, got in line and when it was my turn I handed the lady my application along with one of my two passports. Some countries offer that their citizens can have two passports in special cases. In such cases one passport is the regular ten year passport and the supplementary passport is valid for two years. Apart from the validity and the separate passport numbers there is no difference between the two passports I have. It is handy to have two passport in several cases. One important factor is that you automatically have twice the pages. You may remember that I have a slightly torn page in one passport which made the Russians reject it. So I applied using the other just to be on the safe side. The lady couldn’t find my Mongolian visa which was in the “torn passport”. So I had to reveal that I had two which is not always a popular thing to do as it sometimes creates suspicion. At this point the lady said that they had to put my visa in the passport with the Mongolian visa in it (‘torn one”). I was okay with that as it would fill up that passport which only has one empty page left. However she wasn’t happy about the tear. Also in the application I had to list which countries I had been to within the last 12 month which involves a lot of conflicted countries. I would rather avoid that but they could obviously see the stamps and visas in my passport so the smart move was to list the countries from the passport I was applying with. But now she had access to see the countries from both passports. Combined they included South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. So I guess it was fair for the embassy to raise some suspicion. I would.

UB food

It turns out horse meat tastes really good!

I could go with the entire “I am traveling to every country without flying” story. However to my knowledge China is somewhat careful with people who hold social media and a blog. So I avoided that. The lady told me she had to check what was possible with the torn page and requested that I would come back at 4pm. I was not given the option to pay. Everyone else was sent to the bank. I returned at 4pm as everyone else came to pick up their visas. A fellow from India was ahead of me and was told that they needed to do some extra research in Beijing and that it would take at least a month. He could choose between holding on to his passport and not apply or leave his passport with the embassy at which point they needed AT LEAST a month before he would hear from them. His friend, also from India, got his visa. Then it was my turn. The lady walked behind a counter, found my passports and returned to me: “you are in the same situation. You can leave your passports here and wait for AT LEAST a month or forfeit your application and keep your passport. What do you want to do?”

UB poster

You've got to wonder what this show is about?

That was basically the worst outcome I could imagine! If I had been rejected then I could try with a new application. Or if she needed something extra I could try to get it for her. But wait for a month or leave? What would you do? I asked if there was anything I could do and she replied no. I asked if I could set up a meeting with the consular and she was not helpful. Then I took my passports back and left the embassy defeated. Earlier when she discovered the tear on my last page I told her that the Russian embassy had issues with it but neither the Mongolian nor Pakistan embassy saw it to be a problem. She replied to that with a cold voice: “this is the Chinese Embassy”. That it was.

So now what? In a landlocked country which only borders China and Russia. That leaves Russia. It is pretty simple math. Could I have done anything about the Chinese Embassy? Possibly. But getting the connections in place, having meetings, weekends, evaluation and more would most likely cost me a lot of days. My Pakistani visa would expire on December 19th and the only game plan that looked somewhat accomplishable was to arrange for all the documents I needed to apply for another Russian transit visa. Head to the Georgian border, backtrack through Georgia, Armenia and Iran until I reach Pakistan. Can that be accomplished before December 19th? We are talking about more than 12,000 km (7,456 mi) overland though four countries of which I need visas for two of. Money? Logistics? Bureaucrazy? Stamina? Motivation? The airport and a ticket home looked mighty tempting!!!

Marco Polo

I was steaming!!! However the actions you take in the face of situations like these do define you in life. And who the heck ever achieved anything by giving up and not trying harder? Not Ibn Battuta, not Marco Polo, not Vasco Da Gama, not Roald Amundsen, not Edmund Hillary, not tensing Norgay, not Elon Musk, not Bill Gates, not Neil Armstrong, not Ernest Schackleton and certainly not Genghis Khan! So I began collecting everything I needed for plan C: Russian insurance, proof that I do not need visa for Georgia, paid train tickets for entire journey, visa application…then I shouted a bit and walked about in some furious circles for a bit. Afterwards I drank a lot of water and got back on track. I began the Iran online application for collection in Tbilisi Georgia. I liked the guy who worked there when I last got it. You might remember him? He approached me in the office by saying: “Hello. It’s me…” He was efficient and I got the visa fast after talking to him. I know the busses in the region. I know the cities. I know people along the route. It can potentially be done fast if I just blast though the countries. That day ended late…

video

 

Click HERE or on the image to view the video. It has been viewed 3,400 times already in less than 48 hours. Quite surprising to me.  

The next morning, yesterday, I was ready at the Russian embassy when they opened. They were super kind and abnormally helpful. However they also had to inform me that if I wanted to cross the border between Russia and Georgia then they needed ten days to access my transit visa. Some “stuff” is going on in the region. The clerk who assisted me offered to share a hotspot from her private phone so that I could search for alternative options. What to do now? Tickets in my hand for departure the following day. Money spent. Irani visa applied for based on Georgia. Could I go through Kazakhstan and across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan and onward to Georgia? Well, I would need a visa for Azerbaijan which is not hard to come by. When does the ferry leave? What about my ticket to Moscow? No…stick to what you know when you don’t have time to mess around. How about going across the “Stans”? Nope! The snow was already closing up various roads as I left the region and I am not keen on heading back through Afghanistan and I am furthermore unlikely to get another Turkmenistan visa in a hurry. That goes for Afghanistan too but I’m more concerned with my safety. How about going east across to the Pacific and make it to Japan? Well, I would lose my $200 USD ticket to Moscow and potentially stuff up a logistical plan I have been working on realizing for the past five years. No, the solution had to be to continue from Moscow to Odessa in Ukraine. Plan D was born.

UB visa

In front of the Russian embassy. First phase of plan D accomplished.

Just to give you some idea here. I am currently 7 time zones east of home (Denmark). Going to Odessa to reach Pakistan will bring me back to only 1 time zone east of home and then Pakistan (4 hours east of home). People sometimes ask how I deal with jetlag and it has never been a problem within this project because of the speed I move in. However this might have me a little jetlagged. I proposed plan D for the embassy and had it approved. I just needed to return to my hostel, fill out a new online application, print it, secure a ticket from Moscow to Odessa, print it, print proof that I do not need a visa for Ukraine and return to the embassy. I had my Russian transit visa within three hours of first approaching them.

I will be back on the Trans Siberian Railway starting today (Friday) and will reach Moscow on Tuesday December 4th in the morning. My next train leaves in the evening so it gives me enough time to approach the Danish Embassy in Moscow and apply for two new passports. Passports 8 + 9 in this project. Then I will reach Odessa on the 6th (Thursday) only two hours late for the ferry to Georgia. Could I make it around the Black Sea by bus through five countries in time for the Iran embassy on Friday 7th? Not likely. Next ferry to Georgia? It departs two days later reaching Georgia on Sunday December 9th. I can visit the embassy the following day and hopefully be on my way through Armenia to Iran. The train across Iran takes about 24 hours. What can go wrong…

I’ll finish with a short story from the day I applied for the Chinese visa. While walking in Ulaanbaatar I observed a mother holding her young daughters hand while crossing the road. The little girl turn her head and saw me. She then smiled and waved franticly. I was in no mood to smile but she changed that. I smiled back and waved to her. Then she turned her head back and disappeared across the road with her mother. She could have been an angel if there ever was such a thing. There are small gifts in life you only get from children and animals. I had a tear in my eye…

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - feeling old
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

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Kazakhstan – one of the world’s great countries

Day 1,870 since October 10th 2013: 165 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)

Where the eagles soar

Pano

I used to work in this country. Just three weeks at the Caspian Sea shore. That was back in 2009 and I was just in Atyrau and Aktau. Since then I have dreamt of visiting Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Aral Lake. I can keep that dream for more years to come.

The Saga is pretty intense for me these days and I’ll try to keep this entry short. I arrived on November 15th at night and I left on the 21st in the evening. So if you are reading this on Friday 23rd then I have been on a train for a few days. There is a tiny speck of land between Kazakhstan and Mongolia which belongs to Russia so I required a transit visa through Russia. That ran me $100 USD. For a transit visa?!?! Well it was an express visa… So I showed up at the embassy in Astana which is the capital of Kazakhstan. The Russian embassy is open for visa applications for two hours twice a week. I got there on time, waited in line and when it was my turn I presented all my documents which I had prepared in advance: insurance, online application, train tickets etc. The clerk looked at my passport and brought it to his superior. Then he returned and rejected it based on a small tear on the last page. That page tore because another embassy added an administrative sticker to the back page and when it was removed that left some glue which made the last page stick to the back. Great stuff? So my application was rejected. I had 70 minutes until the embassy closed and made the best of it. Ran out to the street, caught a taxi back to the hostel, filled out a new online application for my second passport, printed it, called a taxi, made it back and my second application was accepted. Who needs this stuff in their life? Bureaucrazy.

Passport

But of course I should not be able to receive a visa because of this tear?

Well, I reached Kazakhstan days before that. I said farewell to David in Kyrgyzstan and boarded a minibus to Almaty which is the former capital of Kazakhstan. That was a REALLY COLD bus ride!! And walking across the border was even colder!! OH BOY! Winter has arrived. It was late before the bus made it to Almaty. I don’t need a visa for Kazakhstan by the way so it was super easy crossing. I reached my hostel late at night and had some sleep before meeting with the Red Crescent Society of Kazakhstan (RCSK). have a long proud history of humanitarian work which began already back in 1936 when the Red Cross Society of the Kazakh ASSR was established. Their volunteers are amazing and we had some good fun together. When they are not doing Q&A with an old tired adventurer from Denmark then they keep themselves busy with first aid, presentations, trainings and fundraising just to mention a few things. RCSK has a huge impact within Kazakhstan! There’s social support, emergency response, blood donations, international humanitarian law, disaster risk reduction, disaster response and that list just goes on and on!

RC

The volunteers all over the world are the BACKBONE of the movement! They are simply amazing! :)

Victor Tsoi

I walked past this Viktor Tsoi monument in Almaty. Personally I think it’s one of the coolest monuments I’ve ever seen? Tsoi and his group, Kino, were extremely popular in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. His songs stand as symbols of the hopes for freedom and political change.

I caught a train to Astana that night. That was a real shame because I really liked Almaty and wanted to explore it more. However the snow won’t wait for me and that Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan is bound to close. Almaty was a prominent city on the ancient Silk Road. And famous for trade. Especially for its apples. Almaty literally means “grown on apple tree”. The train to Astana was comfortable and I had a top bunk in a cabin which I shared with a woman and her mother. The woman spoke very limited English but they were both kind to me. Sharing tea with me and stuff like that.

Kazakhstan

Pushup

I've got a challenge for you next month if you are up for it? More about that later ;) The Baiterek Tower (behind me) in Astana is the national monument of Kazakhstan and measures 105m (344ft) in height. It is known in the city as the “Chupa Chups Tower”. The design is based on a folktale about a mythical tree of life and a magic bird of happiness. In the story, the bird, Samruk, lays its egg between two branches.

In the morning we reached Astana which literally means “capital”. How creative they are those Kazakhs ;) Astana is known as the world’s second coldest capital. So I’m glad I’ve got my warm Berghausaus jacket with me. On arrival the woman from the train helped me get a taxi at the right price and then she left. I reached my hostel, checked in and fell asleep. When I woke up I began with my mile long to-do list. The administrative workload of this project is unbelievable. I mean that. You wouldn’t believe how much work this project is. And it is basically because I won’t settle for less than my standards. I want to promote the Red Cross and Red Crescent, I want to promote every country, I have not turned down an interview so far but we are getting to the stage where I might have to do that, I have all the logistics, all the bureaucrazy, the social media, the research, the Friday Blog, my friends, my family, my fiancée, my health and so much more. I find solace in knowing that this project is enormously rich in content and that it will serve me for many years to come after I return home. So many photos. So many stories. So many friends.

Friend

This amazing woman is more proof that a stranger is a friend you've never met before :)

David arranged for me to meet with his friend Satanat. She is a real pearl. She has a cute smile and a good soul if there ever was such a thing. We met up at a local mall and made a plan for my city tour. Then she guided me around for several hours in the snow. Astana does not have any Silk Road history. Astana was a planned capital and it boasts a lot of spectacular sights. It is nowhere near the mountains and for the most part Kazakhstan is a beautiful flat pancake. It is famous for it. The wide open landscape, the horses, the nomads… It gets unbearably hot in the summer and ridiculous cold in the winter. But the people are kind and generous. Hospitality is at large and it is a severely historic country!

Horse

It is believed that Kazakhstan was the place where the horses were first tamed to ride. It is also said that Kazakh means ‘a free rider’. And on that note its worth remembering that Native Americans did not have horses until after the Spanish arrived. Satanat noted that they have sheep too ;) In fact you’ll find camels here as well. And the soaring eagles. The Soviet Union thought that an area near to where Astana lies today would be suitable for a camp called: Akmol Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland. That was a horrible place and a dark chapter for these lands and now that I have mentioned that I figure I should lighten the mood a bit by mentioning that there are more than 150 nationalities living in harmony in Kazakhstan today. The geographical location along with the movement of people during the USSR has made Kazakhstan abundantly international.

Ferris W

This ferris wheel is still spinning so someone up there has a beautiful winter view of Astana.

Kazakhstan is a landlocked county and borders both China and Russia which must be interesting for the defense ministry.  It however also borders the Caspian Sea which might as well be considered an ocean. You certainly cannot see across. And Kazakhstan is a very recourse rich country! I don’t know…I seem to have a lot of extra heart for countries I have worked in. I certainly have a lot of heart for Kazakhstan. Did you know that Baikonur Cosmodrome is the world’s first and largest space launch facility? It is leased by Russia until 2050. For years now NASA and other space agencies have been sending their astronauts to space from it. And the first manned space flight was made in 1961 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome by Yuryi Gagarin, world famous Russian cosmonaut. I loved seeing that rocket take off from Cape Canaveral in 2014. I’ve never seen anything leave earth before. It was just….amazing! Everything stays on earth. Everything dies here. Nothing really leaves: rockets, airplanes, birds, fireworks…it all comes back. That rocket I saw in Florida just kept going and going and going….it is not coming back.

Architecture

This building is, among other things, the location of the KazTransOil Company. Kazakhstan is one of the world’s greatest providers of oil and natural gas.

You know…sometimes I need a time out! This project is all consuming and I live and breathe it. It’s there when I go to bed and it’s there when I wake up. It has been like that for five years and then some. I can get completely absorbed in a movie. I can completely forget where I am and anything around me. So I worked out where I could find a cinema which featured movies in the original language and they happened to show the new Fantastic Beasts movie so I was game. Popcorn, bottle of water and a VIP seat with adjustable footrest and backrest. I picked a seat in the middle on the second last row. And what do you know…I was the only one there so I had it all to myself. She has done well that J.K Rowling. I enjoyed it.

Movie

Map

Well, we are on schedule according to the new plan. I got the Russian transit visa ($100 USD) and my train tickets to Ulaanbaatar ($300 USD) and my insurance and off we go. Ulaanbaatar is coincidently the world’s coldest capital so that will be fun. You know that I knew I would hit this region when I was in the Gulf during the hottest season – right? And you know that I don’t plan this kind of crazy – right ;) Well – train is the way to go. You don’t want to be out on the roads in this part of the year in the wintertime. And trains are nice. And I will be at least three days on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway so that is definitely something! And you know I will be back in Kazakhstan again someday. The land of the Kazakhs. I’ve got to see that cosmodrome!! :)

Lamppost

So…I’ve been listening to a song by Sia lately which is called “The Greatest”. It goes a little like this:

"Uh-oh, running out of breath, but I
Oh, I, I got stamina
Uh-oh, running now, I close my eyes
Well, oh, I got stamina
And uh-oh, I see another mountain to climb
But I, I, I got stamina
Uh-oh, I need another lover, be mine
Cause I, I, I got stamina

Don't give up, I won't give up
Don't give up, no no no
Don't give up, I won't give up
Don't give up, no no no" 

GOT

Who else would end up on this throne? ;)

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - I won't give up ;)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

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