Rus Margolin is the face behind the incredible website Travel2Unlimited which has more photos of the world than you can imagine. Having joined the ‘club’ of UN Masters in late 2018 with his visit to Yemen, he continues to incessantly roam the globe and recounts some of his incredible adventures today!
Canada – Harp Seal
Rus, tell us something about your early life and how your love for travelled developed.
My love for travel (and eventually an obsession with travelling) clearly comes from my family and my grandfather. My parents took me as a 3-year old crying kid on long roadtrips in a slow-going Soviet Lada to the Baltics (then part of the USSR), requiring 5-10 hour journeys, with camping in tents and exploring new towns, museums, naturals sites and the Baltic Sea. Those were my first countries! I guess the spirit of exploration was born then. Also, my grandfather was a former forest ranger and installed in me the love of nature, wildlife, and the great outdoors – in fact I wanted to become a biologist or botanist for most of my childhood. I think I was still walking under the table when I could already distinguish poisonous mushrooms from good ones, pick medicinal plants, and figure out how not to get lost in the woods (all valuable skills in Belarus). The interest in nature only grew with age, at 11-12 years old I collected over 800 herbarium items of the Belarusian flora, which was about 2/3 of all the vascular plantlife in the country, exploring Belarus all around at the time.
Well, obviously, Route 66!
You are from Belarus originally. What are core elements of being Belorussian? How are you different from Russians
Belarus is sadly much less known in the world compared to Russia or Ukraine, albeit it is a fully sovereign nation and a member of the UN since the UN inception. When I mention Belarus, people often say “From where? Where is this? Is this Central America?”, and then I have to give a mini-geography lesson on Eastern Europe (although the HBO’s Chernobyl series made more people at least aware of Belarus’ existence). Not to sound too nerdy, but Belarusians are ethnically separate from Russians, and together with Ukrainians form three ethnicities of the Eastern Slavs. The languages are different, while words are similar, even alphabets are slightly different. Often, everybody assumes that former USSR and Russia are the same, which is absolutely not true, and to some citizens of the former Soviet Republics would be quite offensive. Belarus was the westernmost of the former USSR republics and thus the most European, although the last 26 years spent with the same totalitarian president resulted in isolation and lack of progress and Belarus is often referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe, especially since last year’s anything but democratic elections and use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators. I try to stay away from politics, but sometimes it’s impossible.
With the lemurs in Madagascar
And once we are onto your country, gives us a few of the lesser known gems of Belarus that you feel a visitor should not miss.
Most people coming to Belarus limit themselves to the capital city of Minsk or at a maximum – the UNESCO-listed Mir Castle. While both are worth exploring, Belarus has much more to offer and a lot of attractions are seriously underrated – you can easily spend weeks in the country and keep finding new stuff to do, see and experience. For history and architecture – Polotsk and Vitebsk in the north have amazing churches and religious complexes, as does Grodno in the west. But since nature is what interests me personally the most, I would say – get to Belavezha Forest National Reserve 9a UNESCO site) and you get a chance to see the European bison there, as well as bear, wolves and wild boars. The place is one of the last untouched and unlogged forests in Europe, full of primeval massive trees and tons of wildlife – from bison to lynx. Come in the spring and you will see carpets of wildflowers, perhaps brighter and more diverse then in the European Alps. Another nature reserve to visit is Berezinskiy Bisophere Reserve in the middle of the country. And the number one activity one should try in Belarus is going foraging for mushrooms from July to October, as I bet you never had this variety anywhere else, just don’t pick poisonous ones. And of course – cuisine – as I am definitely a foodie – Belarus has over 1000 recipes of potato dishes!
Overlooking the Norwegian fjords
You are the first person from Belarus to complete 193 UN countries. Did this make you ‘famous’ in your country or not really?
I try to keep a low profile and not seek any publicity. I’ve been invited on several TV/radio shows and half a dozen newspapers wrote stories, but other than that, I am keeping it on the down low. Unlike neighboring Russia or Ukraine, Belarus doesn’t even have a Guinness-like register of national records. And with the political situation at the moment, a globetrotting guy is probably the last thing people wanna hear about. I am most certainly not travelling the world for publicity or for Instagram followers, not do I want to be an influencer of anybody or anything – just trying to see the amazing world around and enjoy it day by day.
Are you in any way active on social media then?
I post about 3 posts per day on my Facebook personal page with a detailed write up about various possible points of interest – thousands and thousands of pictures. The website travel2unlimited.com has all the countries listed – UN and non-UN – with a total of over 200,000 images and all the writeups and descriptions. Finally, the are two Instagram accounts @luv2unlimited – where my girlfriend keeps an often funny and live daily log of where we are and what we are doing, and @travel2unlimited – essentially a “best of” all the Facebook posts.
You currently live in the US. To what extent has your new home influenced you as a person as well as your perception of the world?
I came to the US when I was 18 to go undergrad and study finance and business down in Florida, then went to grad school for my MBA at NYU in New York, and then worked on Wall Street (it was nothing like the Wolf of Wall Street, though – the movie is absolutely unrealistic and mostly propagates stupid stereotypes). I’d say New York as the melting pot of cultures, ambitions, cuisines, personalities, and the ultimate place where the American Dream turns into reality clearly was the biggest influence on me as a person thirsty to explore the world. Sooner or later, you realize how different and unique and yet similar people are from all over the world, you learn to respect other cultures and views and religions, and the spark of adventure gets lit – you wanna go to all these other countries from which your new international friends hail from and meet and see everything. And you feel life is too short to get to see everything.
Danakil Depression in Ethiopia
Turning to travel, what were the main challenges you faced in reaching 193 UN countries? And how did you overcome them?
To be honest, I never really pursued the 193 until I was probably somewhere around 140-150. For me, nature and wildlife were the main attractions, and I was frankly checking off animal migrations (as seen in the David Attenborough-narrated NG “Migrations”) rather then ticking off countries. I went to see beluga whales in the Arctic, grizzlies in Alaska, wildebeest in Serengeti, monarch butterflies in Mexico, grey whales in Baja, orcas in Argentina, polar bears in Canada, and even emperor penguins deep on mainland Antarctica way before collecting passport stamps or ticking off UN member countries. Those were the true bucket-list items for me before many countries even in Europe.
But eventually, slowly but surely, countries started accumulating, and when I quit my full-time job and started travelling non-stop in 2013, the list kept growing. At some point, I realized – why not complete all countries? Although I decided to pursue my own list – bigger than UN or UN+ and different from TCC – countries, sovereign entities, geographic oddities, de facto unrecognized sovereigns, isolated islands, and so on. And I am at 318 now! As for challenges – it’s most often wars and visa red tape that makes it difficult to enter certain countries, but everything is doable with a lot of planning, preparation, and patience. Libya, Syria, and Yemen were perhaps the most difficult, since all three were in the middle of civil wars at the time I visited. But the toughest (and coincidentally least rewarding) was Tokelau, not even a UN member.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
What are some of the stories from your quest that have stayed with you?
Gosh, there are so many stories, and experiences, and quests – it could probably take another book or more! One of my first most unforgettable experiences was seeing the emperor penguins on the ice shelf off Waddel Sea in Antarctica. First, you fly on a massive Russian-made IL-76 cargo plain (that was used during the Afghan war in the 1980s) and literally land on ice of an Antarctica glacier near the Union Glacier close to Mount Vinson. Then you fly on a small turboprop to the Waddell Sea and camp on snow next to several large colonies of emperor penguins, including tiny fluffy babies! It’s spartan at best – you sleep in a tent in subzero temps, go to a hole-in-the-snow toilet hoping not to freeze off your privates – country snow ski for miles to the penguin colonies, persevere snowstorms and inclement weather, try not to fall into crevasses… But sitting or lying in front of thousands of penguin chicks for hours during the midnight sun of Antarctica – priceless!
Another amazing experience was gorilla trekking in the DR Congo. While Uganda and Rwanda offer gorilla watching – those are mostly very touristy and non-adventurous (gorillas are radio-tracked and you find them rather quick). In DR Congo, it’s the real deal – you start trekking the morning from the spot where they were last seen a day or two ago. You go for miles of rough terrain, get eaten by fire ants, pass strange guys roaming the woods with AK-47s, and eventually find the gorillas. And the best part – you are the only party in the group! I got to spend a good 2 hours face-to-face with a group of 26 western highland gorillas, a baby one climbed the tree above my head and then fell down on me!
One of the most unusual and otherworldly trips was to Danakil and the Erta Ale Volcano in Ethiopia, when after several days of hiking around sulphuric acid lakes and Martian landscapes, we climbed the Erta Ale volcano with the boiling lava lake. So close – it was spitting lava all around and melting shoes! Probably not worth mentioning the fact that the local tribe guides and the guides from the neighboring village had a small fight over fresh water while on the rim of the volcano – voices were raised and AK-47 guns were drawn – but I just kept focusing on the sight of boiling lava.
Another one? A couple of years ago I was on the Kuril Islands, and we were exploring the rugged coast full of columnar basalt and small river streams running down the mountains. It was the salmon run season and the fish were in the thousands, going upstream and packed as densely as in sardine cans. You could literally grab fish out of the water with your bare hands. When I did just that, I accidentally squeezed one a bit too hard and red caviar started popping out like from a machine gun. Not giving it a long thought, I squeezed some more fresh caviar “from the source” straight in my mouth – freshest ikura sashimi imaginable!
You quite often remember the most recent experience, and one of them was visiting Victoria Falls last November at the height of the COVID pandemic. Zero tourists in Zimbabwe, and we stayed at the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel absolutely alone and had the entire Victoria Falls the next day just to ourselves. Even the Queen of England didn’t have it this good!
Another good story happened later on the same trip in Tanzania, when my girlfriend and I nearly ended up in Tanzanian jail. While in Zambia, we picked up some shiny volcanic rocks near a waterfall in the west of the country and had it lying around our luggage. In Tanzania, flying from one national park in the southern part of the country to another, we had a brief stopover in Iringa town. An ex-president was visiting that day and the security chose to triple check our bags (unlike on the previous 3 flights within the country). They “found” the Zambian rocks, confiscated them, took us of the flight, arrested us, took us to the Iringa police department, interrogated for hours in separate rooms (“what is your tribe? what village are you from?), and sent the rocks for chemical analysis to the country’s capital. After a sleepless night of imagining months in the Tanzanian jail, the analysis came in as “junk rocks” and we made it away with an apology. Don’t carry any rocks in Tanzania!
And last but not least – is the experience as fresh as today – we rappelled down the Cave of Swallows, one of the deepest caves in the world at 376 meters vertical. First, it was about a million swifts that flew out in a spiral out of the cave (which is more of a giant sinkhole then a cavern), and then we descended down to the bottom with a long 15-minute rappel – to an absolutely surreal view of something akin to a science fiction flick. Getting up was also an adventure – the rope spins at about 2 complete rotations per second and it takes 20-25 minutes to go up, so you develop serious vertigo. But nevertheless – an amazing experience, another bucket-list item. Dream it, plan it, do it!
Close to a gorilla in Rwanda
What was your last UN country? How did it feel to get there? Did you have a celebration/party?
My last country was Yemen. I entered over the land border with Oman when a very short window opened in late 2018. It was the 193rd UN member for me, but no celebration followed really, as I immediately continued to Somalia (I did Somaliland before) and then Chernobyl in Ukraine. I revisited Yemen last spring of 2020 on Socotra.
So, what are your travel aims now that you have finished 193? Do you feel you will continue to travel intensely for a long time?
I think the more you travel, the more you discover and the thirst for travel becomes even greater with every country or region explored (it almost sound like a drug addiction). I definitely never sought to just check off countries and proclaim I am a big traveler (as many others have done, often spending an hour or two at some airport or claiming North Korea via DMZ or Syria via Golan Heights). To me, every trip opens up a destination more and creates dozens or more interesting opportunities to explore deeper and better. I probably have enough travel plans in my head for a couple lifetimes.
And what are your travel plans, if any, for the next few months? Do they depend on the pandemic somewhat?
My girlfriend Natali Velychko (who is a Ukrainian and #58 in Ukraine now on Nomadmania) and I have been travelling together since early last year despite the pandemic. We never stopped for more then a week or so despite all the lockdowns and restrictions. While we observe all the rules and most certainly recognize COVID as reality and a pandemic, we think responsible travelling is possible and is even more amazing when the tourists have all but disappeared. We went to Socotra last March, and it was the last week before the island shut down. We then got stuck in Ukraine for 3 months, when all the air links were cut, but rather than sit at home and slowly get fat, and crazy and depressed, used this time to fully explore the country of Ukraine from A to Z – we did 22 out of 23 regions from north to south and from east to west – tons of absolutely amazing sights and experiences that many never even heard of. At this point we realized that country-hopping is probably impossible during all the covid border closure, but very deep in-country exploration was doable and probably very rewarding. So then last summer we did the entire continental USA – every single state out of 48 – by car, putting on 26k miles – the ultimate road trip of lifetime – 37 national parks! We then did the same with Turkey in October, doing a massive roadtrip through every possible region of the country. And then we did almost the same with the eastern Africa – from Zimbabwe to Zambia to Tanzania to Kenya. We are now doing an in-depth Mexico exploration (so far we’ve done 25 out of 32 Mexican states and going aggressively).
And finally our signature question – if you could invite 4 people from any era to dinner, who would your guests be and why?
The four people would be Mikhail Gorbachev, Ferdinand Magellan, Armin van Buuren, and Margot Robbie. With Gorbachev, the first and last President of the USSR before it all collapsed, I’d really wanna know if it was really his intention to reform or he just wanted to loosen the system up a bit and then it all blew up and fell apart. With Magellan, I’d wanna know if he was searching for gold and spices, or maybe secretly checking off destinations, hoping to be the number one country counter of his times. Armin van Buuren would be the deejay at this dinner, and Margot Robbie would once again explain to everyone the basics of mortgage-backed securities as she did in “Big Short”.