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Ivan Dudkin, the globetrotter, interviewed
One can quite fairly say that Ivan Dudkin’s main occupation is traveling. He shares his impressions with others by showing photographs that he takes during his travels at exhibitions and by writing articles for periodicals. He climbed mountains, circumnavigated the globe a couple of times, bicycled across many countries. This inveterate traveler, even-tempered, benevolent, has turned 70 but you can hardly tell his age — he continues to be full of pep and of jest. Mr Dudkin was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor.
You are a man with a lust for life. You travel in search of beauty and perfection. Do you remember when you realized you had these qualities in you?
It must have been on September 18 1937 when I came into this world and took my first breath of air. It was in the village of Velyki Kopani, in the land of Khersonshchyna in the south of Ukraine. Life then was rather miserable but I lived in my dreams — I wanted to find out what was there, beyond the horizon. I loved flowers. At the age of eight I was the first — and I think only — person in my village who planted flowers and took care of them. Mind you, it was right after the war and people had other concerns. People came to have a look at my flowers and wondered.
You’ve been living in the city for a long time now — are you sometimes nostalgic for your countryside life?
I can’t say that I’m nostalgic but I wish I had a camera in those years to capture the landscapes in the vicinity of my village on film. It was rather an arid place, lots of sand, hill-like dunes … It looked like a desert, really, without water, almost no plants. I think I’ll go there one day and take pictures.
Did you have any formal education?
Yes, I did. First, regular secondary school and then, at the university, I majored in geophysics. Upon graduation, I worked for 25 years at the Institute of Geophysics of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
When did you start traveling?
I was a sophomore when I learned of a chance of going to the Tian Shan Mountains with a group of tourists and mountain climbers. I had no experience of mountain climbing but I am a quick learner. At first, the leader of the group, Borys Holytsky — a doctor of sciences — categorically refused to take me along, but somehow I managed to talk him into letting me go with his group. It was my first major tourist test — and I did not fail it. But in fact, I was already rather a seasoned traveler — I traveled all across Ukraine. In my student years, during vacations, I guided tours in the Carpathian Mountains. When some of the tourists began to complain that they were too tired and could not go on, I’d take their backpacks to carry and we pressed on uphill… And I loved bicycling! I bicycled around town in any weather, doing a couple dozen kilometers every day… The Carpathians — they are my undying love, in any season. It’s such a beauty! … Once, doing mountain skiing, I lost one of the skis and had to limp a very long way down to the tourist base. But I did not mind the long walk at all! I looked around and absorbed all that winter beauty around me!
When did your interest in photography begin to turn professional?
I really can’t say for sure. I began taking pictures in my adolescence and have never stopped ever since. I’ve had over 70 one-man exhibitions of my photographs which were held in all the major cities of Ukraine and abroad, America included. As a matter of fact, some of my photographs are on permanent display in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, DC… In general, I am a person who is prone to picking up all kinds of hobbies. When I was a student, I decided — after I had been to a concert of a famous violinist — I wanted to learn to play the violin. I even bought myself a good violin and had private classes with a music teacher from the conservatoire. But my progress was very slow and I gave up violin playing. I did some boxing after seeing a boxing match of Ukrainians against Cubans, and even got to be a champion of my university. I gave up boxing for dancing, then I played chess almost professionally, sang in a choir… My other hobby was collecting — I collected art albums, poems of dissident poets, African masks… But none of my hobbies lasted for too long — except photography.
Bicycling is not a hobby — it’s a life style. I never stop wondering why so few people in this country prefer the car to the bicycle.
Do you keep the count of the countries you visited?
I do. 85, and some of these 85 countries I visited more than once.
You started traveling back in the soviet times when trips abroad were accessible only to a limited number of people. How did your foreign trips begin?
Researchers at the department at the Academy I worked for did not have any business trips abroad but once I got hold of an instrument called gravimeter — it’s an instrument used to measure variations in a gravitational field, a very rare and precious thing at that time. It was used on ships on long, transatlantic voyages. Since I knew how to operate and service it, I got a job of a gravimeter operator on research ships with which I traveled to dozens of countries and even circumnavigated the globe two times.
Are there any countries in which, during your several visits, you saw considerable changes taking place over the years?
Yes, Singapore is one of such countries. When I first visited it, Singapore was a former British colony that had just gained independence. It was poor with seemingly no prospects for the future. Singapore did not have oil, gas, even drinking water had to be imported. But then, Singapore made an economic breakthrough and got to be one of the richest countries in the world! And it was done within one generation. So when I hear claims here in Ukraine that it will take several generations to achieve an economic breakthrough and attain prosperity, I can’t help remembering Singapore. I think a balance must be achieved between independent development and integration, between developing national culture and becoming part of global culture. That’s how, I think, Ukraine should develop.
Do you travel mostly alone?
I do. Many years ago I read a book about a Japanese traveler who always traveled alone — and I followed in his footsteps.
Have you ever found yourself in life-and-death situations?
I have, and more than once, but strangely enough mostly when I was part of a group. In Taimyr, in the far north of Russia, in winter, the group I was a member of, went in search of a place to spend the night in, and I stayed put in the snow, at the edge of a forest, with all the backpacks. Shortly after they had left, a pack of wolves came out of the forest. They must have been just curious rather than hungry — after eyeing me for some time the wolves turned and ran back into the forest… On a visit to the Maldives. When I was there with a scientific expedition, I got carried away in a small boat into the ocean, and it was a miracle I was found and towed back by a motorboat. Some time before the motorboat arrived, several sharks had begun circling around my puny boat… In the Himalayas, I was attacked by a pack of very aggressive monkeys and was rescued by a bus with tourists who happened to be traveling along that road.
Were there any pleasant surprises on your travels?
Of course, there were! Once, when I was in Paris, I went to the Moulin Rouge, the famous cabaret in Montmartre, to take pictures. Then somebody comes out, sees me with my camera, starts asking questions. I tell him who I am and that gentleman — impeccably dressed, with a nosegay in a hole of the lapel of his jacket, asks me to join the wedding party that is taking place inside. It turned out that it was wedding reception of a very wealthy businessman and a model, and the bride wanted five outsiders, the first her friend would meet outside, to be invited to join the party. A strange whim, but I didn’t mind at all getting invited… In New York, I was given a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera by a stranger in the street who did not explain why he did it… Some of the surprises were not initially pleasant but later, recalling them, I thought it was fun to have experienced them… In the Pyrenees, I was invited to spend the night in a house where an elderly couple lived. During the night, two burly men entered the house and began to sharpen two very menacing looking knives. The men kept glaring at me — as it turned out they were neighbors who did not expect to see me in that house. They came to help the elderly couple with cutting off the horns of the goats… In San Francisco, I missed a train and had to spend the night on a bench with a tramp for company. The park we slept in was close to a museum. In the morning, tourists began to arrive and they stared at us and even took pictures of us, evidently thinking I was a bum too. I saw a great surprise on their faces when I pulled very expensive professional cameras out of my bag and began taking pictures of them taking pictures of me!... When I was crossing the US-Mexican border in a bus, I was asked by the border guards to show my passport. I kept my passport in my underpants, in a special pocket with a zipper — I thought it was the safest place on me to keep it in. I had to stand up and lower my pants and the damned zipper got stuck. To get it open, I let go of my pants and everybody on the bus, the body guards included, misinterpreted my intentions… I almost got myself into a big trouble but luckily the zipper got unzipped at last and I produced my passport…
Which of the places you visited you think were the most impressive visually?
Alaska. I was there in the fall, and the display of colors was absolutely amazing. I traveled across Alaska on my bike. It’s a huge state, I think twice as big as Ukraine in territory, but very sparsely populated. I could bicycle for hours without seeing anyone or any cars. It was in Alaska that I fully understood what wilderness really is… On one of the islands of the Pacific Ocean, at which the research ship I was on, stopped for some time, the chief of the local tribe invited the captain and members of the crew to join his tribe for a party. We did, and during the party the girls of the tribe took off whatever little they had on and invited us to lie with them — probably because they felt that the tribe needed an infusion of new blood. We declined the invitation. It turned out that similar things happened at other islands too where small communities of people lived in isolation and the negative consequences of inbreeding had begun to be felt…
Which country did you find to be the most interesting for you?
Holland. I find it to be quite an exotic place in Europe…The Japanese people have made a great impression on me by their constant search for perfection and beauty.
What was the most exotic food or drink that you’ve ever had?
In Vietnam, I was treated to a local alcoholic drink with the heart of a snake floating in it. I was silly enough to drink it and eat the heart — a moment later I wished I had not done it!
Could you share with our readers some of your life principles?
I think that we all should be very grateful that we were born human rather than say, amoebas, or worms. We are given a chance to enjoy this life and I think the sense of life lies in enjoying it as much as possible, but in doing so we must do as little harm to others as possible. Also, we should look for harmony and beauty, and create them too, if possible… I think I’ve fulfilled my mission on this earth — I’ve lived a happy life, I am happily married, with my wife we have raised two wonderful sons. I have planted many trees, I have built a house… And I’ve been showing and telling others about the beauty of the world, thus encouraging others to look for it…
Is there anything you wish you could do but didn’t?
I wish I had learnt to play the violin well enough so that I could play Vivaldi… I wish I could shout so loudly that the whole world would hear me, “All the people of the world, love each other, follow the Ten Commandments!”
What would you wish our readers?
Travel, see the world. Do not let yourself be misled into thinking that it’s money and fame that will make you happy. It’s a wrong idea. Seeing the beauty of the world will keep you healthy, wise and happy.
Photos by Ivan DUDKIN
Climbing uphill on skis in the Khibiny
Ivan Dudkin in Conakry, Guinea,
Ukrainian girls posing
Ivan Dudkin, 29, tying the knot and exchanging
Women and children are what Ivan Dudkin