The Favourites of Markus Lundgren

Markus Lundgren is a Swedish diplomat who has visited every country in the world and is one of the world’s most travelled. Markus has lived in Nigeria and China during his career and went to China with a group of strangers when he was just 15 years old. In this interview, he shares some of his favourites.

What are three of your favourite countries and why?

Italy, India and Iran are three of my favourite countries. Italy because there is so much to see and experience all over the country – history, culture, food, architecture, and nature. Even travelling off the beaten track to a small village can be an experience with centuries-old architecture, excellent cuisine, and friendly people. India is one of my favourite countries because it is so large and diverse. I have visited India several times, and the different states and union territories are sometimes so different that you can easily think you have arrived in a completely new country. And Iran mainly because people are so friendly, and the culture and history of the country so impressive.

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?

Hotel in Seychelles
I normally travel on a budget and sleep in cheap hostels, in railway or bus stations, or other very cheap accommodation. However, I wanted to visit the outlying islands of the Seychelles, and the only option I could find was to book an expensive night with a luxury hotel on Desroches island. I flew there in a private plane owned by the hotel.

The hotel was very luxurious, with every amenity I could imagine, e.g. all-inclusive dining, my own private beach, massages – completely different from my normal type of accommodation. I still do not think the luxury was worth the exorbitant price, but I am happy I was able to experience being pampered for a couple of days.

Offered to stay with strangers in Esfahan
One year I was travelling around Iran by land, mostly by bus, and during Nowruz, the Iranian new year, I arrived to Esfahan. It was late, and I could not find any cheap place to stay. They were all either closed for the New Year or full, so I prepared to spend the night at the bus station, Iran being a relatively safe country for travellers.

A stranger approached me and started talking. After a while, he asked if I wanted to celebrate the New Year and stay for the night with him and his friends. I gladly accepted and had a great Nowruz celebratory evening and a good night’s sleep.

Postal boat to Tristan da Cunha
There used to be a British postal boat regularly travelling from Cape Town to St Helena. In the Autumn of 2013, the boat did a combination trip visiting both Tristan da Cunha and St Helena. After being waitlisted, I was given a bed on the boat a few weeks before departure and had a wonderful three weeks on deck, with formal dinners and group quizzes.

In many ways like I imagine travelling on a British post boat would have been a hundred years ago. I luckily got to spend two nights on Tristan da Cunha (where bad weather sometimes prevents a safe landing) and four nights on St Helena.

What are four of your worst travel moments, and why?

Military checkpoint in Conakry, Guinea
I had at this point in time travelled several months in West Africa and was exhausted with some of the many problems of travelling by land in some of the least developed countries in the world. This morning I had gotten really fed up by being stopped at military checkpoints in the communal taxi I was travelling. In most of West Africa, when travelling in communal taxis, the driver includes the price of checkpoint bribes in the price of the journey.

In Guinea Conakry, however, every passenger was forced to leave the car and hand over his/her identity documents to one of the soldiers that in turn asked for a “Cadeau” (gift, i.e. bribe) to give them back (without ever checking them). This was not a one-time thing, but something repeated every two or three kilometres along the road.

Although the bribes they asked for were small, I lost it and loudly started accusing them of being corrupt and one of the reasons for the poor development of their country. I should not have done that. The angry soldiers raised their machine guns and yelled at me. Luckily another person passing by mediated, and we were eventually allowed to continue. My fellow communal taxi passengers were upset with my outburst for causing the taxi to be held back.

Strip-searched in Russia
Once when travelling from Saint Petersburg to Tashkent, I was accused by a border agent of smuggling money. When I protested, I was taken to a separate room at the airport with both male and female border guards and told to strip naked, which I unwillingly did. After a thorough search, I was allowed to board the flight as the last passenger before take-off.

It turned out to be a good exercise. Although I was not strip-searched again on this trip, I was taken into custody four times when travelling around Uzbekistan and “accused” of smuggling drugs, money and even nuclear material. The trip took place at the end of the 90s, so both Russia and Central Asia were a bit like the Wild West at the time. My accusers most likely did not believe I was smuggling anything but thought I was a rich Westerner and wanted a bribe.

Robbed at knifepoint in Tirana and wrestled two thieves to the ground in Dakar
Strangely enough, I have only been robbed twice, probably because I do not drink and stay indoors at night in countries with security issues. The first time I was the target of robbers was in broad daylight in Dakar in Senegal. I walked down an empty street when two young guys walked up to me and tried to wrestle me to the ground. I fought back and called for the police, and after half a minute, they gave up and fled the scene.

In Tirana in Albania, a young man walked up to me, also in broad daylight, with a knife drawn and asked me for my money. I instinctively ran away and managed to outrun him in a few minutes. I know I mismanaged both cases. If I had time to think, I would probably have given the robbers my money (at least from one of my stashes) to hopefully avoid unknown repercussions.

Postponed flight from Tarawa to Fiji
I am usually quite good at planning my trips, but there are instances when a delayed flight can have severe repercussions. When I was travelling around the South Pacific one summer my flight from Tarawa in Kiribati to Fiji was delayed by more than 24 hours, which meant that I missed my connection to Los Angeles by half an hour, which meant I missed my flight to French Polynesia, which meant that I missed the ship that would have taken me to Pitcairn Island. Luckily for me, the Pitcairn island trip organizer offered me a bunk on the same ship a year later, free of charge, so I eventually made it to Pitcairn anyway.

What are three of your best travel tips? 

If travelling on a budget like I do – never bring more than hand luggage when travelling, never display anything valuable and divide cash, passports, credit cards and other important items on at least two different parts of your body in case you are robbed. If possible, travel with two passports, two credit cards and always bring cash.

On a trip to Switzerland, I travelled without cash and with only one credit card. The bank was unable to establish a connection to my home bank, but luckily a hotel agreed to pay the taxi driver and the next day the connection to my bank was up and running again. After that, I always try to travel with both a Visa and Mastercard, as well as cash, since some countries do not have ATMs, or are sanctioned by the international community. USD and EUR can be exchanged in most countries.

Travel even if you do not know all the details. Absolutely most practical things work out. On my first trip to China in 1994, the airline lost all of my luggage, and I realized that I had no problem travelling around the country for a month as long as I had my passport, money and tickets. Everything else can be bought locally.

Avoid all kinds of demonstrations and crowds forming. This is especially important in developing countries where mob justice is often the only form of “justice” available. In Nigeria, I was an election observer in a Northern region in 2011. When it became clear that the Southern and Christian candidate Goodluck Jonathan would win an angry mob started attacking people thought to have voted for him, mostly Christians from the South, including by necklacing, whereupon the other election observers and I hurried to our hotel and stayed away from the streets for more than a day.

On another occasion, in Western Ethiopia on the border with South Sudan, I was caught between angry demonstrators and the military when eating in an outside restaurant. Luckily a passer-by offered me the opportunity to hide in her apartment for a few hours until the bullets had stopped flying and the military had dispersed the demonstrators.

How did you manage to finance your travels?

I have financed all of my travels with my own income, so when I was a university student, I concentrated on travelling around Europe. I have also always travelled on a budget, preferring cheaper overland transportation to flights, and staying in guest houses or on coaches to expensive hotels.

When getting my first full-time job, I started going further, e.g. spending a summer travelling around South America or South East Asia. I have also had the privilege to live for a longer period of time in seven countries in addition to Sweden, so when based on a new continent, I focus on visiting countries and regions more easily reached from my new home base.

You have lived in China, USA, Guatemala, Switzerland, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and, starting in August, also India. What is your favourite country to live in?

There are things I appreciate with all countries I have lived in, and every time I move, I notice how used I have gotten to the culture I am leaving. If having to choose a country to live for the rest of my life, it would be Switzerland or Sweden, but if the stay would be limited to five years I would choose to live in China as the pace of life in the country is very high, everything seems possible, and there are many places and things to see and experience.

Do you have any future travel goals?

If possible, I would like to travel to the remaining self-governing areas I have not yet visited. While living in India, I would also like to visit all of the remaining Nomadmania regions I have not yet been to. Being a father of three small children, I am much more limited now in where I can go and for how long, so most of my travels in the next few years will probably be limited to longer weekend trips or family-friendly destinations. 

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