Lithuanian globetrotter: Baltics need to exert more self-promoting efforts
“With 170 countries under his belt, Danas Pankevicius, is believed to be the most-travelled Lithuanian in the world. It took him 18 entire years of globetrotting to claim the name. With a thought that time has come to put the knapsack on the peg crossing his mind more often, he, however, may become one of the first ever to organise trips to reclusive North Korea…”
With 170 countries under his belt, Danas Pankevicius, is believed to be the most-travelled Lithuanian in the world. It took him 18 entire years of globetrotting to claim the name. With a thought that time has come to put the knapsack on the peg crossing his mind more often, he, however, may now become one of the first ever to organise trips to reclusive North Korea. “The country has changed tremendously since my first visit to it in 2011. In 2016, I saw a pretty, new Pyongyang, the capital city,” he told The Baltic Times.
Where does your huge drive for seeing the world come from?
Endless curiosity drives me. I want to see, feel, experience everything myself. Information from books or television was no longer enough to satisfy my curiosity.
With over 170 countries under your belt, you’re dubbed by some radio hosts as the most travelled Lithuanian. Do you think you really live up to the title?
There’s a great chance that I do. I haven’t heard of anyone else who visited this many countries. In 2016, I set the record in Lithuania and was officially recognised as a Lithuanian who has visited the highest number of countries. If we included such regions as Antarctica, French Guiana or Western Sahara, there would be more than 170 of them in total. It wasn’t easy to bring together documents evidencing my travels, because I’ve never collected them. This rather high number of 170 is a result of the past 18 years’ extensive travelling. And I spent some time in each country visiting the most interesting places.
How does it feel to be called that way?
I don’t give much significance to this. I always meet travellers from all over the world and some of them have seen way more than me. I’ve met some very young people from wealthy backgrounds whose goal is to visit all the countries. They travel around the world very quickly, spending only a few days in each country. I don’t have such a goal. I wouldn’t go back to the same countries otherwise. My goal is to actually get to know a country I am visiting, rather than keep the list growing. I’ve visited many countries more than once.
How did you get interested in travelling? Where was your first trip to?
In my childhood, I used to love watching TV shows and reading books about travelling. This was how I started dreaming about travelling. I went on my first trip when I was little. It was a car trip to St. Petersburg with my father. I still cherish some memories of that trip. One particular memory stuck in my head: it was when I was in two countries at the same time – one foot on Lithuanian soil and the other on Latvian soil at the border.
I’d say I caught a travel bug after my first long-haul trip to Singapore. I loved it so much that I returned home by land instead of flying. I experienced a lot during that trip. It was much more difficult to travel back then. There were no travel guides in Lithuania and I didn’t know any travellers who could help me or give some advice. There were no traveller forums and smartphones back in those days. Some locations had no Internet connection. In some, for example China, it was banned. It was impossible to buy plane tickets or book a room online, or use the Internet for automated translation. Travelling is pretty easy now; it takes seconds to find the required information.
Did you dream of becoming a Robinson Crusoe in your childhood?
There was nothing extraordinary about it. As far as I can remember, I had to play the piano instead of playing football with my friends outside. I didn’t like it much back then, but now I’m glad that I learned to play it. I recently bought a piano though and remembered what I’d learned years back, and I enjoy playing it sometimes.
Reading was something I loved to do as a kid. I used to bring lots of books from the school library and read all the time. My mother used to ask me not to read too much, so I had to hide. Sometimes, I would read at night hiding under the blanket with a small lamp attached to a battery. I used to read books about travellers as well, but I never thought I would become one myself.
Did you ever have time for studying? What are you by profession?
Of course, education is very important. I haven’t traded studying for travelling. I graduated from Vilnius University. I have a Master’s Degree in international business and used to work according to my profession.
How much of the travelling have you turned into money-making, I mean filing stories for travel mags or doing photo shoots or videos for specialized publications?
I don’t make any money from travelling. I take a lot of pictures and give them to travel magazines and news portals for free. True, I was paid once for some pictures from Afghanistan that I took in 2006, right in the middle of the war. The fee was equal to the price of the Afghani visa.
Then how do you make money for the globetrotting?
I’ve been in the international wholesale business almost all my life, selling various products: raw polymer materials, silicone products, etc. and engaged in the securities trade for 2 1/2 years. This allowed me to travel, because all I needed was a computer. I could travel and work from any part of the world, as long as there was Internet connection. Recently, it was difficult to work, because I spent much time in distant locations in Africa. Sometimes, we had no power for weeks, let alone the Internet.
Which of the countries you visited did you find the most fascinating? Why?
The list of countries I like is rather extensive. It is difficult to pick favourite ones.
Ethiopia: I’ve been there twice and I’ll definitely go back. It has wonderful nature, wildlife, ancient buildings, but tribes living in the Omo Valley left the greatest impression. More than 10 different tribes live there. Each tribe has its own customs, ceremonies and looks different from the others, even though they live only several tenths of kilometres from one another. Did you know that the word coffee came from the Kaffa region in Ethiopia, where they grow coffee?
I did not!
Antarctica is a continent least affected by humans. It is a long trip, but the sights are worth it. On the land, you’ll see large seal, penguin, and sea lion colonies. We took rides to icebergs on inflatable boats and whales would swim to us driven by curiosity. Interestingly, the animals are not afraid of humans. Maybe, they’ve never seen one and don’t consider us to be a threat.
Patagonia, a region between Argentina and Chile, is another one I love for hiking. There I could spend weeks walking in the mountains, on glaciers, admiring the beauty of nearby lakes and waterfalls. For relaxation, I would go to the Seychelles. They have some of the most beautiful beaches there. You can find many things to do both in the water and on land. You’ll find palm trees on which the largest nuts in the world grow, and Aldabra giant tortoises.
How does Lithuania and the Baltics measure up against the other world’s finest destinations? What do we lack? What do we tend to underestimate?
I think there is not enough information about the Baltic countries available to the world. We should advertise more. When tourists visit our country, they are surprised by its beauty and admit that the trip had exceeded their expectations. We should take pride in our history: we have wonderful historical buildings and monuments. The Baltic countries boast gorgeous nature: forests and lakes. Most countries don’t have this. Beaches in the Baltic countries are among the most beautiful ones in Europe. It is peaceful here: no earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, rainy periods or hurricanes. It is very safe here compared to the rest of the world.
You mingled with tribal folks in rural Africa, chased down a lion and snorkeled in shark-infested waters. Have you ever
put your life at risk? Do you think about that?
When you visit very distant locations, danger is everywhere. Imagine a trip of several days in the jungle. You have to look out for wild animals. Some can come from behind without you even hearing them, for example, pumas. Not to mention poisonous spiders, snakes, anopheles. You can’t take the required amount of clean water for the entire trip, so you have to drink from rivers, where piranha and stingrays live. You can get seriously injured by them. The water is infested with parasites that can enter your body. Sometimes, I had to sleep on a hammock in a tree. I used to look for places that are difficult to reach for animals. I had some dangerous experiences: mines exploding right next to me; I witnessed several shoot-outs and was attacked by armed men, but they didn’t take anything from me. I caught an exotic disease from a mosquito bite once. I’d never heard of it before and there is no medicine for it. Young people survive, but it is often lethal to older people. I was hospitalised several times. My last time in a hospital was in Sudan, due to dehydration, a result of the lengthy travelling in the desert. It was extremely hot (+55°C) and there is no shade, and you are short on water all the time. I wouldn’t wish for anyone to go to a hospital like that: all in dirt and poverty. Surgeries were performed right next to me. I faced some serious dangers, but everything turned out well so far. I don’t just plunge into dangerous countries, I gather information, analyse it, but sometimes surprises occur.
Which of the countries, besides the war-ravaged regions, do you find most dangerous from a traveler’s perspective?
I believe that dangerous countries are those in which crime and drug trafficking flourish, where it is easy to buy a gun, so robberies take place in broad daylight. Most of such countries are in South and Central America. They include Guyana, some parts of Brasil and Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. Terrorism and kidnapping are a major problem in Somalia, Southern Sudan, Northern Mali, Southern Algeria, Nigeria, and Yemen. These are only a few of the dangerous regions; there are more.
What about North Korea? Why do you find amazing about it? How much have you been able to see it first hand?
I’ve read a lot of books about North Korea and was very curious to see how people live there. I went there for the first time in 2011 with my daughter Daniele. It was a very closed-off country back then and they wouldn’t let many people in. We managed to contact the right people and they helped us to get permits. I arranged our trip, so that we could watch the Arirang Mass Games. It’s an extremely interesting event with as many as 100,000 participants: acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, athletes and musicians. Thousands of people stand holding up coloured cards and using them to create different pictures. Unfortunately, they no longer hold the event as of 2013. I visited the country for the second time in 2016. I really wanted to see the changes introduced by the new leader. The difference was obvious: I had much more freedom, more opportunities to see how people actually live there. I tried to spend more time in public spaces surrounded by locals, rather than in museums or bookstores. This allowed me to see how they have fun, play games, sing and have picnics in parks. I even had the opportunity to walk the city streets at night. Pyongyang underwent numerous changes: it has a new airport, circus building, shooting range, and blocks of skyscrapers. There are new subway cars in the capital city, and more cars on the streets. I even saw taxis. When I visited North Korea for the first time, I saw only a few cars during a given day, and those were cars of government representatives. I saw only several bicycles back then.
Now I see from your post on Facebook that you’re in the midst of arranging a new trip to North Korea, and furthermore, you claim to be the tour guide during it. How many people have already signed up for it?
I would like to organise trips to the most unusual locations least visited by tourists. There is no other country like North Korea in the world. There are many people interested in the trip, and several have already confirmed their trip. I will organise some trips to other interesting and distant locations in the near future. You can find the information on my Facebook account Danas Around The Word.
What would be your three key tips for those ready to set out?
For beginners, I’d recommend trips to developed and safe countries. It will be easy to organise the trip and you won’t experience any cultural shock. Be sure to purchase health insurance from a reliable insurance company. In case of an accident, you may find yourselves helpless if you have no insurance or enough money to pay for treatment. Don’t take risks. Pack appropriately, depending on the type of trip. And don’t pack too much stuff; take only the essentials.
What is the cheapest way to travel?
You’ll spend less if you organise your trip yourselves. Opt for street food instead of eating at a restaurant, and sleep in cheaper hostels or stay with locals. Use public transport or hitchhike, instead of renting a car. Expenses also depend on the region. Asia is the cheapest.
Does your mum always approve of your daredevil travel plans?
My mum chooses not to ask too many questions about my travel plans, in order to keep her peace of mind before I leave. When I return, I tell her where I went and what I saw. Usually, I leave out bad experiences from my stories. My mother is already used to my travelling and no longer worries that much, I think. When I call her, she asks what country I’m in first. If my answer is Lithuania, she is often surprised, because most of the time I spend travelling.
Will there come a day when you will put the knapsack on the hook and settle down? Where will it be?
To be honest, sometimes I think I should stop. I get exhausted from years of travelling, all the impressions and experiences, but… when I’m back home, I want to be on the road again after several weeks. I feel alive when I travel. It’s beyond words. I would like to be doing this as long as I can. When I’m old, I’d like to live in Lithuania and some Asian country. Maybe, Indonesia or the Phillipines, but it has to be somewhere by the sea.
A monument to North Korea’s former leaders
Danas Pankevicius at Djenne mosque in Mali
North Korea’s Arirang sport event
In Japan’s Hiroshima at the only building left after the nuclear attack
Ovahakaona tribe in Namibia
Fitz Roy Mountain in Argentina’s Patagonia
In Tanzania with Hadzabe tribe hunters
A Himba tribe beauty in Namibia