Mikhail Zarubin and Alexander Zhdanov are travellers from Russia, now relocated to Australia. They both visited all UN 193 countries quite young but they continue to travel and explore together. “A friend is needed in travel”, as they say, so we invite you to explore deeper how their special connection brought them to their travelling goal and beyond.
Meeting the predators is always a great time spending for both of us, South Africa
Hi guys, please tell us something about yourselves and your early ages, especially how the dream of visiting all the 193 UN countries evolved.
Mike: Hi! Well, first of all, thank you for your incredible idea of gathering together all the famous travellers from around the world. We feel so proud to be a part of such a society! My name is Mikhail and I was born in Siberia, in the town of Tyumen and had literally no opportunity to travel anywhere, even to the neighbouring town.
My parents were doing their best but, obviously, it was only enough for everyday life. But I’m still grateful for that little I had. Perhaps, that was the reason why I started dreaming eagerly, from the bottom of my heart. All those films and all of Jules Verne’s books were pushing me towards the first-ever trip.
And after went to the first one, I understood that I can do more. Step by step, I faced challenging trips, distant islands and abandoned destinations. And nowadays, this feeling still makes me happier every single day.
Alex: Hi, guys, I’m Alexander, but everyone calls me Alex. Since my childhood, I knew what my family wants for me. They were always telling me about finding a «nice and reliable» profession, getting my place in life and becoming a good specialist. But I… I always wished the opposite for myself. I decided to start as a photographer to find my way to visit as many countries as I could.
But at some point, I got involved in show business, where I started my career working with some of the most famous celebrities. It was extremely interesting for 16 years old teenagers. After a few years, I realised that I wanted something different and my passion is pulling me somewhere overseas. So, one day when I met Mike, I felt that it was a sign. We started our journey to every single country in the world which was finished in August of 2019, just before the pandemic.
The highest pub in Africa, Lesotho
You both visited all the UN countries at a quite young age. Were you in a rush? Do you feel that seeing the world at such a speed may give you less experience?
Mike: Visiting all the countries never was the main purpose of my travels. I started my way by following a dream of a young boy who wanted to see the world. He always thought that Disneyland was there for other kids only, not for him. And the day, when I stepped into Disney Park, was very significant for me. Later, I was choosing my destinations by looking at the airline deals and the availability of visas for a Russian passport.
And sometimes, just because I liked the name of the country (or territory) from my childhood. I used to know all the flags, capitals and maps around the Globe. I think that after a hundred countries passed, I and Alex have decided that we probably should plan further list and try to visit every corner of the world. Were we in a rush? I am not sure, maybe. But we both are really fast.
When we were on any group tours (which we both don’t really like), I knew everything even before the guide would tell us. So, we can visit a museum in half an hour. A dozen of the sites over one day. We never rushed to «tick» the countries and always strived to see the maximum we could. We just have our own way.
Alex: Yes, Mike is right. We have never been in a rush. Of course, if you look at our map, it seems that we haven’t covered everything. But it was never the plan. I personally like Africa. People, traditions, endless opportunities to have as many pictures as I can. And sometimes, when you are not a part of the guided tours, it was hard to reach a certain destination there.
But we did. As much as we could. And I should remind you that we had to work during our journey as well. Since a particular time and after I left the show business, we both were working remotely to cover the expenses of our travels and to put some aside for the future. And, yes, we both are fast. In a good way. We both have such an amount of energy that allows us to do more than any average traveller at the same time. And I’m quite happy with that. Speed is life!
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan Da Cunha
What are the pros and cons of travelling together?
Mike: I remember a nice proverb from my childhood: «A friend in need is a friend indeed». But I want to rephrase it as «A friend is needed in travel». Yes, travelling together is the best and quickest way to get to know the person next to you, especially if your journey goes through some difficult destinations. And I’m so glad I met Alex at the beginning of my journey.
We are so different but together, we make a perfect team. I can rely on this guy in absolutely everything without any doubt. Together, we’ve done a lot and I’m so lucky to have him on the next bed to me in every single hotel, train or ship cabin around the world. There are no cons. I can assure you.
Alex: Pros and cons. Hmm. It is a tricky question for the person who travel along with someone for over fifteen years. I guess, our secret is in creating a team. Everyone has his own function and is flexible if needed to make any changes quickly, especially in some hard places. From the very first day, we have divided all the responsibilities.
Later, we adjusted our jobs into one teamwork to act more efficiently as well as to achieve better results. Also, when you cross distant time zones, it is good to have someone with you to feel safer: two guys; two men will barely be a target to anyone even in tough places. Also, I’m very good at communication and can get along with literally anyone. Regarding cons… Well, not much to say.
Being together 24/7 could be a bit annoying because Mike is too smart and always right, lol. Seriously, sometimes you need your private space and we get each other on that point as well.
Replica of a traditional village, Johannesburg, South Africa
So, what are some of the compromises you both had to make to fit each other’s travel styles?
Mike: Oh, well, as I’ve mentioned before, we are quite different. Of course, you have to be very patient when you have someone next to you all the time. Just joking. Alex is great and a perfect example of a human being who can be a really good friend to someone worthy (but he judges that in his own way). Regarding the travel lifestyle and the travel beat, we have matched perfectly.
Well, almost. He doesn’t really like certain things like exploring till late hours. He needs some proper rest while I can torture him, leading him further into a non-stop mode. Also, he needs some basic comfort, while I’m quite indifferent to it. But there were not many things to fit into each other’s lives, we didn’t have to think about it at all.
Alex: Oh, he is a strong man, as I could see, reading his answer. I’m totally different. I love to get up late and work during the night. He doesn’t Let’s imagine the guy that opens the curtains at five in the morning with that smile and tells you to wake up to start the long day full of exploring. But you just fell asleep though. I was lucky, I could have a snooze during the afternoon breaks. I like cities, I like nature.
And at the same time, I don’t need to make sure that every single day I’ve been ticking all the places. I just love to enjoy the moment and don’t really care if the place was listed in some important touristic catalogues or if we have to visit it by schedule. I love when I love it. And I like when I like it. No need for a special reason or to pay an additional stop for that.
Soccer match in a small Greenland village
Ok. Can you give us three of your favourite places and why you love them?
Mike: Oh, that’s a challenging question as I love so many places around our Planet. Okay. Let’s skip Australia which is always number one for me. The first one is Patagonia. An absolutely stunning region. All the way to Tierra del Fuego, one of the «Ends» of the world. Their nature is different, very fragile, extremely sensitive and strong at the same time.
After my second trip, I decided to learn Spanish and a few years later, I couldn’t be happier when I was able to freely (well, almost freely) speak in Latin America. The second place is Tristan Da Cunha. A very special point on the map of every traveller. The most distant inhabitant land in the whole world. You maybe know that it is quite a challenge to get to it, the only way is to join an expedition ship, freight vessel or have your own yacht.
And it is even more complicated to land there. Because of the strong wind and high swell, the chance is only 40%. Sometimes landing is impossible for days. Number three is Japan. The country that we will never fully understand. But if you will keep coming back, you will find a treasure. Very interesting, maybe weird, but definitely worth staying and exploring deeply for weeks. Vibrant cities, quiet villages and national parks. The opportunities are honestly endless, you just need to plan your trip and enjoy it.
Alex: My first visit to Africa that I remembered was to the country of Namibia. And, for sure, I think this is an awesome start to exploring the continent for anyone wishing to see something extraordinary. The sand there meets the ocean and it is just a miracle how two elements live next to each other, fighting gently for space and loving each other. Also, the superior night sky, where you can see every single star and the Milky Way at its best. The second. Well, I would like to mention Sierra Leone.
Generally, Western Africa is underrated and it is believed that people there are aggressive and crimes happen everywhere. Not in Sierra Leone. Fantastic hospitality and strong people. They overcame the Ebola outbreak and I could see tears in their eyes when we arrived. We were the first visitors after the border was opened and for locals, it meant that the horror is over.
The third place is Iran. Doubtless, the most interesting country in the area, but not really close to the world because of the sanctions. Beautiful mosques, rich in history, and delicious food. You need to make sure that you have enough memory on your phone to take a lot of photos!
Rhino 911 centre at a secret location, in South Africa
And what is the funniest travel story that still makes you laugh?
Mike: Lol, there were always a bit of confusing or exciting moments that made me smile. I still remember my visit to Svalbard. For sure, it was a trip that I will never forget. On the last day, we have a landing on one of the most remote islands of the archipelago. How it usually works? Someone from the expedition team climbs up the hill and looks around for polar bears. If he cannot see any, it is «fine to land» for the rest of the group. So.
There was one nice and warm, sunny and quiet day. Lazy walk down the shore. At some point, I could see something moving straight ahead, at about two hundred metres away. I had to get a pair of good binocular eyes and, here we are. A huge polar predator was staring at a dozen of us! He was just looking at us.
So, I guess, he wasn’t hungry. I looked at the people from our group and instead of staying calm, they all rushed back. It was so funny. I don’t know why, but I and Alex were laughing for three more days remembering their faces!
Alex: Love and smile when I think about my trip to South Georgia. All those little creatures! Penguins and newborn seals. They are so funny! Especially babies of fur seals. They protecting their territory, jumping toward you, barking or even kinda roaring at you, awesome creatures. It looked like they were chasing us off their land. And, of course, king penguins.
You can’t approach them closer than five metres, but they easily can. Penguins love to come closer. They are shy but curious. If you lay somewhere down and patiently wait, there are no doubts, that a few of them will come to sniff you. Move slowly and you’ll get some of the best pictures ever!
With local boys, Vanimo, Papua New Guinea
Have you ever been in danger?
Mike: Well, if you travel a lot and your journeys run through some troubled or distant countries, you can’t avoid all the mess of being somewhere where tourists don’t come. Regarding our team, we have divided the duties from the very beginning. I’m always in charge of the preparations (which I love equally as the trips themselves!
All those tickets, connection flights, festival dates, using points and miles… I hope you understand what I am talking about?) and safety after a certain number of visited countries. Yes, I felt myself in danger when we were entering Libya and had to go through an interview with the guys from, you know, special service at border control in Tripoli. Russian passports weren’t really popular there.
They looked at us, then at our invitation (which was legit, by the way) and fifteen minutes later, we were told that «these two young boys cannot be here for such a serious matter». Another thirty minutes, several calls and they finally let us in. As we found out later, we were the first Russians in nine months who visited the country after the war worsened.
Even Libyans were surprised that we were allowed in. After we returned home, we read the news: «Two Russians detained in Tripoli». It wasn’t us. But your freedom there is very-very unsubstantial.
Alex: Yes, Misha is right. He is Mike, but Misha is in Russian. I call him by this name and he always tells me it sounds like a baby name, lol. So, I like to poke him. Yes, Libya was tough. Another problem we’ve got with Afghanistan.
After the visit there, we even had to change our passports because every single border control become suspicious once they see the visa from there. Even in our own country when we came back. It was so annoying! And difficult sometimes. Afghanistan is a beautiful country and it is very hard to see how the people struggle there.
On our way back, we had to pass all the block posts and all the checkpoints before and inside the airport. The guy at the border control started asking for «registration», which we didn’t even need. Of course, he wanted money, but as we have our own non-bribe policy and the knowledge that it could be even worse if you pay something there, Mike refused him (and surprised him as well).
So, we called for the head of border control, he arrived, pretended that he doesn’t understand anything and left. But Mike was brave enough to bang his fist on the clean cabin and in an instant we had our passports back. Trembling moment, indeed. But we had to pay the price to visit every country.
Content for our social media is never a priority, but we found it interesting enough, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
We will now dare to go slightly political. You are both Russian, right? But you moved to Australia. What do you, as Russians, feel like in the current conditions? How do you two feel in Australia?
Mike: To be honest, I have never felt bad because of my nationality. Anywhere in the world. People in most cases judge you because of your personality, but not because of your passport. Moreover, people from at least two-thirds of the developing countries are glad to meet someone from the biggest country in the world.
I like my family, my heritage, my food and my culture. And I’m indeed hurt because of the current situation. I would love to belong to a country that is loved by everyone around. Initially, we came to Australia for our two-month trip: the plan was to visit Cocos Islands, Christmas Island, Australian and New Zealand territories in the Pacific as well as Pitcairn. Enormous trip. But three days after our arrival, the virus had worsened and the territories started to shut their borders one after another.
So, we became Western Australian residents and, so far so good, it is the best thing that happened in my life. Not even a single Aussie told me something against my nationality. All I feel is a huge support. They support me in the situation we appear to be in. Huge love. And I feel the same.
Alex: Yes, I arrived there to visit some of the most distant territories. And fell in love. Western Australia is an incredibly friendly, absolutely wonderful city of Perth, where plenty of things to explore around. Fantastic beaches, nature at its best, cute animals (well, some of them are a bit poisonous, I would even say a lot). And people. They are amazing.
Even with those who never heard about me before, we quickly became friends. Very generous people. I have never felt myself in trouble here because of the support. I feel like I can move forward here and show my respect to the country by doing something nice and special. I and Mike were always dreaming to open our own Museum. He brought hundreds and thousands of artefacts, pictures and souvenirs from around the world and this might be the place where the Museum will open its doors.
Bodulan Islands, Papua New Guinea
Night Market, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
Tell us a little about your social media part in the current situation.
Mike: Oh, that’s tough. After my first stories on Instagram, where I tried to support people because of the ongoing, I was overwhelmed. In a quite bad way. I have 1.15 million followers on Instagram and 1.4 on TikTok. According to Russian law, if you have more than 500k followers you are equal to the media. And there is a brand-new law.
If you tell anything that doesn’t suit the authorities, it subjects you to up to 15 years in prison. So, you can’t freely say what you want. And having in mind that all social media are now banned in Russia, I’m really devastated. But, no matter what, I have sent and I am still sending a lot of our support to the people who struggle every single day. My heart is always on the side of the innocent.
Alex: I used to work in media. So I can imagine how difficult it is to defend your position in the current circumstances. I don’t have such a large social media presence as Misha has, but I still feel the pressure. I have seen him very upset every single day since February. Cannot even describe it. But also I know that many more are devastated. All my thoughts are with the victims of the conflict.
Wildlife park in Pretoria, South Africa
NomadMania’s response to the war in Ukraine drew considerable reaction – both for and against. How do you feel about it?
Mike and Alex: We talked about that a lot. Obviously, we both have a lot of friends in Russia and Ukraine. Two nations have been living together for hundreds of years. There are dozens of wonderful travellers in Ukraine and some of them became our friends. Best friends. We do know a lot of people – generous, incredible people, who now fight in those tremendously challenging circumstances every single day along with their families.
We do believe, that one day, this horror will be over, truly believe the world can be better than what we have had over the last months and years. We saw some wars, some long-going disruptive wars. Wars of people, but, most importantly, wars of hearts and souls. We wish it ends everywhere. For good.
Class 4 rafting, Balsa river, central Costa Rica
So what are your next travel plans?
Mike and Alex: We still travel extensively. Our state, Western Australia or WA as everyone calls it here, has a lot to show. There is plenty of land and a huge territory. Yes, we slowed down a bit, which may be even good after years of distant travels. Wild nature and endless sky-blue waters. We definitely feel happy here.
The borders of the state were shut for the rest of the country and the world for almost two years and we lived pretty much normal life without any virus cases. But since it opened, about three months ago, we travel interstate now. We are visiting the most remote part of the country, the Kimberly in the North, with some places only accessible by sea.
The finest Aboriginal rock art, wild rivers with banks occupied by slates, saltwater crocodiles, amazing landscapes and sunsets. We also have a lot of plans for the next two years. There are still nine UN+ territories to visit. So, one day, we should tick them as well.
Fish market, Conakry, Guinea
And the last one. You need to answer our favourite question: If you could invite any four people for a dinner from any period of human history, who would it be and why?
Mike: I love this question. Okay. The first invitation I would send to Jules Verne. As I am now the author of two novel books, based on real travels and three fairy-tale books for kids (about travels, of course), I have a couple of questions to ask him. The second would be Sir Ernest Shackleton, an amazing traveller and pioneer explorer of the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic.
I visited his grave in South Georgia and paid my tribute to his braveness. The third would be Mister Lee Iacocca. His biography is deep inside my heart. An awesome manager and a great inspiration for others. His book «A Manager’s Career» was my desk book for years when I was a teenager. And the fourth, but not the least is Alf. Yes, Alf from the famous TV series. He is just fantastic. I love him.
No doubts. He is my idol. I guess we finished here, right? Thank you very much for this lovely conversation.
Alex: Well, let’s think about that… The first person is, for sure, Mikhail Bulgakov. He is brilliant. His «The Master and Margarita» is something more than just a book. It is a pure story of what is true and false, it is very sensible and even turned me into someone who does only what he really loves to do, not what he has to do.
The second who would sit next to him would be Queen Elizabeth II. I’m jealous of people from the UK. Russians also used to have a monarchy in the past. It probably was one of the best periods. During the rise of the Russian Empire, when the national currency, the golden rouble, was guaranteed by the supplies of gold. The third one. When I was a kid, I loved Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s TV series.
And I still love them. Very brave nature lover, and it could be a great honour to have him next to me and talk a little bit. And the fourth would be Norwegian Roald Amundsen. The great Arctic explorer from the pages of my geographical books. The perfect example of a modest man, who achieved a lot. I would ask him about many things. That would be a perfect set of people for me. Thanks for having me today!
Baths at the town market, Damascus, Syria