Patrik Wallner has been running amok for the last decade. Under the moniker 'Visual Traveling' he’s been zig-zagging around the world in search of skateboarding in the unlikeliest of places. Afghanistan, Cuba, India, Myanmar, Madagascar, North Korea, Kazakhstan, Vietnam – the list goes on and on. Where the obvious choice in the skateboard world is to fly to Shenzhen or Barcelona in search of perfect marble plazas, Patrik’s travel plans are unique in that he’s totally content documenting guys skate a dirt road in Djibouti.
In light of the 10 year anniversary of Visual Traveling, Patrik is releasing ‘The Eurasia Project’, a 232 page book that documents his skate-travels around the Eurasian Peninsula. We caught up with Patrik to get behind the mind of Visual Traveling, his motives, talk travel tips, humanity and what North Korean cuisine is like.
Interview by Will Jivcoff + Robert Mentov
Photography by Patrik Wallner
Headline photo location: North Korea
Where are you from? Where are you based out of now?
I am from Hungary but grew up in Tuebingen, Germany as well as in New York. Now I’m based out of Hong Kong after almost a decade on the road. It feels quite nice to settle down and not have to constantly go back and forth between airports.
Where and how did your curiosity for travel begin? Is the local culture and customs of wherever you’re traveling to within this curiosity as well?
I think I was always a bit curious as a child. I used to draw maps of Europe and wonder what was happening across the borders in these various nations. It wasn’t until I hit my teenage years where traveling became a form of education for me. At first it was the desire to find untouched skate-architecture. That slowly morphed into the intense travel curiosity to try and understand geopolitical matters as well as the history between random nations in Asia where my intrigue started.
What was your first long distance skate trip?
I think my first long skate trip was with my skate-mate from Tuebingen named Armin. We saved up money from cleaning these huge machines at his father’s factory. It was 2003 and Barcelona was just becoming the Mecca for skateboarding. We flew out for a week and saw spots like Paral-lel where Jason Dill was doing his long lines in Mosaic (2003), or hung out at MACBA, the epicenter of skateboarding of Europe. Nostalgia hits me even writing about this. It was such an indescribable feeling being at these spots that one would study as a kid watching skate videos over and over again.
Explain the intersection of skateboarding, travel and culture. How does it work for you?
Being a skateboarder, of course your main tool becomes your skateboard. It’s just an extension of your feet whereas my camera became an extension of my eyes. Rolling down a hill while looking through the eye-piece of my camera would become as normal as walking down a hill taking in the scenery. Once your hometown becomes a bit boring, traveling just seems like the next logical move. The customs of these countries, the languages, and architecture are all components that can be explained by their history. So if you add up all these points, it just made sense for me to start exploring further and to try and document it in a way I thought would be entertaining for skateboarders as well as non-skaters.
How has skateboarding helped you break down barriers with people and cultures during your travels?
I must say that skateboarding is looked upon with joy by most people. Why wouldn’t it? The average backpacker has nothing interesting to offer to a local in a random country. They might be a weird white face amongst many, but their visuals alone won’t really be entertaining. Bringing skateboarding to these various nations breaks the ice right away. People can approach you, ask where you are from, what the deal is with skateboarding and generally start small talk while being entertained watching a dude jump down a ton of stairs over and over again. I must say, if I wasn’t a skateboarder, and I was just some Vietnamese guy working a nine to five, I’d have to assume I’d be pretty impressed watching skaters grind down a handrail. Of course, skateboarding can be loud and destructive, so I can understand when people ask us to leave or start throwing things at us when we don’t.
After traveling to so many countries spanning many different regions, what’s a commonality you’ve witnessed in people?
One thing I noticed is that people just can’t help talking shit about their neighbouring countries. It doesn’t matter what country you go to. From Macedonia to India to Mongolia to East Timor, you will always find someone complaining about their northern or eastern neighbour. I guess it is a bit of a nationalistic trait caused by war or tension which occurred in the past. Otherwise people just want to live life peacefully and care for their family. I have noticed that it doesn’t matter where you go, people just want a better life for themselves. We are all the same.
What is a country that you’ve wanted to go to that has been difficult to gain access to?
Turkmenistan was hard because they blacklisted most of the Visualtraveling dudes after we tried to enter while openly telling them that we were planning to film a skate-umentary called Meet The Stans (2012). It was upsetting since I knew I would want to eventually visit Turkmenistan since it’s in my path of visiting all nations in Europe and Asia. We tried a couple more times afterwards but got denied. I eventually tried with my Hungarian passport and was able to enter and check out ‘The Gateway of Hell’, a gas crater which has been burning for over five decades. It’s a natural phenomenon that’s left many scientist scratching their heads.
What’s been your favourite place to return to and why?
Georgia, the country. Somehow I fell in love with this nation that usually gets confused with the state in the US. The geography is just stunning. It’s right at the foot of the Caucasus mountain range,has an interesting language and it’s tradition for males to dance around like ballerinas. The cuisine is unique with oversized dumplings and cheese-filled bread known as Khachapuri. There are two breakaway states known as South Ossetia and Abkhazia which makes Georgia even more mysterious. The architecture is run down but in a beautiful way. It’s photogenic and you might AirBnb a room from a grandmother where your balcony is held on by a thread. It's just a beautiful country where the wine flows like water because it is actually the birthplace of wine, not France or other nations one might assume.
What’s the strangest food you’ve had on the road?
I didn’t want to be rude and felt adventurous, so I tried dog soup in North Korea once. It was actually 'cold' dog soup (cold soups are quite popular in the DPRK), so pretty much the most depressing dish one could think of. I never tried it again and felt pretty bad but I also felt it was fair in the sense that it’s pretty inhumane for us humans to be eating cows, pigs, ducks, fish and chickens.
What qualities do you look for in the people you’re traveling with?
They have to be open for adventure, have patience, have a good sense of humour and if it’s a skate trip, of course they have to be able to powerslide and 360 flip.
What happens if you show up for one of these adventures and there’s absolutely nothing to skate.
That has happened but we somehow made spots skate able. I remember Madagascar, Yemen, Djibouti really lacked spots, but Bangladesh had almost nothing. Luckily I travel with dudes who don’t mind skating on dirt and love piecing little lines together that don’t need a huge handrail or stair set.
Why bother with the obscure places? Why not go on a trip somewhere that’s been proven to have good skateboarding?
Skateboarding is sometimes secondary. Our hunger is to explore these lesser-known nations and skateboarding is the tool that gives us a reason to go and make a film out of it.
Which country surprised you with how many spots it had?
Kazakhstan was a bit surprising. I knew they gained wealth from natural gas and an underground oil reservoir but the Soviet-style architecture with China-like plaza's really made it a playground for the team I was out there with in 2016.
How did the ‘Eurasia Project’ book come about? Did you ever foresee this happening when you started the Visualtraveling series?
I initially wanted us to do a clockwise trek around the Eurasian Peninsula. After a bit of research I knew that crossing from places like Myanmar to India or Pakistan to Iran are impossible or a nightmare to get visas for. So, that dream had to be put on the back burner. After slowly traveling through a bunch of pockets in Asia, it just made sense to at least try and visit all the recognised and unrecognised nations on the European and Asian continents.
What are the countries ‘The Eurasia Project’ was shot in? Who are we going to see in there?
The Eurasia Project is a compilation of my travels from 2007 to 2017. I made it my personal mission to visit all the 101 nations within the two continents, so you’ll find photos from A, Afghanistan all the way to Y, Yemen. Not in any specific order. The photo book takes you through visuals that I captured from skaters like Kenny Reed, Michael Mackrodt, Laurence Keefe, Kiril Korobkov, Walker Ryan and many more.
When you look back on your travels, are you surprised by all the places you’ve been? Has this been an early dream of yours or did you just play it by ear?
It all happened so unexpectedly. I never really liked sitting on planes much but after a while, the travel bug’s venom took over and all I could think about was getting on a flight to keep exploring, shooting photos and piecing together a visual piece.
Top 5 tips for traveling the road lesser-known.
-Respect the local people and traditions. Make an effort to learn a bit about their history, political dilemma and their language to bring out a smile when you try to buy a snack.
-Thinking of flying to Europe to skate cities like Paris or London? Nothing wrong with that. But why not go a bit further and see what Tirana, Albania or Pristina, Kosovo has to offer? It might be the same cost to fly there and you’ll save more on food, hotels, etc. You’ll gain respect for a culture you would have never come across before as well.
-Before arriving at a random airport, always check online what the fair price is for a cab ride from the airport to downtown. It’s an ongoing battle with taxi drivers where you don’t want to get taken advantage of.
-Check if the country has an ATM machine. I’ve been in situations before where we got stuck because we thought our Mastercards would work but the country didn’t have an ATM.
-Bring small gifts like pens, crayons, or small packs of shampoo incase you get hassled by street kids. This way you’ll have something fun for them without having to give them money.
What are three essentials you bring on every trip?
- Google Maps
- Sometimes a fake thumb with which I do a magic trick in making a napkin disappear. Always a good ice breaker(laughs)
Where to next?