No one has ever travelled to every country in the world without flying. It sounds like an interesting fact that many people would hear and then get on with their day, but when Torbjorn Pedersen heard it, he saw a challenge.
Mr Pedersen explained that more than 5,000 people have summitted Mount Everest. Some 550 have gone into space, and less than 200 have managed to visit every country in the world. So far, no one has managed to do so without flying, probably, Mr Pedersen said, because it is unbelievably complicated.
Mr Pedersen left home at the age of 34, at 10 past 10 in the morning on Oct 10, 2013, on a project he calls ‘Once Upon a Saga’. He has travelled to 167 countries – he stays for at least 24 hours in each one – across four continents. He has travelled on 17 container ships, 200 trains, more than 200 buses and who knows how many taxis.
“That’s 230,000 kilometres, more than halfway to the moon – which is some 384,000km, more than six trips around the planet. I spent the first 10 months of this year travelling to every country in the Middle East,” he told Dawn on Saturday, after arriving in Islamabad.
After spending on average 11.3 days in every country, Mr Pedersen knows more about the world than a person on the street in his home country of Denmark, and in some cases more than citizens in their own countries.
“The best WiFi I found anywhere on this plant was in Somalia, not the US or Switzerland,” he remarks.
Nigeria has the biggest diversity in butterflies on Earth, and the country has the highest birth rate of twins because of “something in the diet”, he added.
“Nigeria is more than scam emails and Boko Haram. All 54 countries in Africa have modern cars, same as the European states, and there are more pyramids in Sudan.”
The two main challenges in his project, Mr Pedersen explained, are logistics and bureaucracy. Logistics are a problem in conflict zones; he can either go through them, or around.
Logistics are also a problem when accessing island nations. The world has turned to flying, which is easier and cheaper, and ferries are closing down. There’s no way to swim thousands of kilometres, he said, which leaves only cargo boats.
The second challenge in bureaucracy. Mr Pedersen explained that he would sometimes be denied when crossing a border even when he had a visa. He could not get into Pakistan through Mongolia because of how long the Chinese were taking to check up on him, given his military background as a United Nations peacekeeper. Had he waited a month, the Karakoram would have closed and his Pakistani visa would have expired.
The only way from him to get to Pakistan from Mongolia was through Russia – a 12,000km detour.
“I had to go back to a number of countries I had already been to. The five-day train ride took me to Moscow, another day to get to Odessa, by ship through the Black Sea to Georgia, Armenia, all the way through Iran to reach Taftan before entering Balochistan,” Mr Pedersen said.
At one point he became a resident in one country for a year to become eligible to apply for a visa. He was delayed the longest in Lebanon, where he waited 102 days for a visa for Syria. Sometimes he turned to negotiations, other times to press coverage highlighting his project, to help him get visas.
“That’s how I got the Pakistani visa,” he told Dawn. “The Pakistan High Commission in Kyrgyzstan made an exception and issued a visa without me applying from my home country.”
Mr Pedersen’s project was sponsored for the first two and a half years, $20 a day, which is good for a place like Pakistan, where his room costs him $8 and lunch $1, but it isn’t sufficient when applying for a visa.
The sponsors, a Norwegian company sensitive to oil prices, pulled out of his project.
“Then I spent all my money. When I had no more money, I sold some belongings back home. I borrowed and spent all of that. I borrowed more and spent most of that. Then I did a crowd-funding campaign from people following my project,” he said.
He now has 36 more countries to travel to. At an average speed of 5.3km a day, he is projected to finish his journey in the Maldives on Jan 22, 2020.
“I have not been home for five years, and not given up no matter what happened. I found solutions that came from people and it’s very rare that I solve everything alone.
“I got sick, lost financial backing and missed my grandmother’s funeral, was the target of extreme racism for months. This project has been a nightmare, and I had every reason to quit but I did not. People see the strength in that and for years they have been writing to me about how they felt going back to school, finishing [their] education and [working] on personal relationships etc. People have learned to carry themselves,” he said.
While discussing Pakistan, Mr Pedersen felt that information was biased; the only information sold by the media is death and destruction, corruption, terror or poverty, as in many other countries, and not the 99pc that feels un-newsworthy.
“When people think about Pakistan, they think about the less than 1pc that the media is showing,” he said.
“I have not been to a country where people had eight arms and six eyes. I have not been on a bus where everyone was a terrorist. I haven’t been to a country where everyone was sick.
“A mother and father want the best for their child, and a better chance at light than what they had. It is the same in Pakistan, same as in Denmark, the US, Mexico, Zimbabwe, and I’m betting that it’s the same in North Korea,” he said.
“When we talk about Syria, we forget that people still fall in love and get married no matter how many bombs rain across their skies. People still remain people, who enjoy good food, safety and security, take selfies and dance to loud music, but we do not talk about it.”
Mr Pedersen turned 40 last week. He is tired, and wants nothing more than to return home. Nevertheless, he is leaving for Mumbai next week where he will meet his fiancé, who is travelling for the 19th time to see him.
Originally published in Dawn, December 25th, 2018