The travel stories of Dimo – 25 Years of adventures with Penguin Travel

Dear Traveler,

I will tell you the story of Penguin Travel. But it is the story of a man, not a company. The name of the mastermind behind the fantastic journeys to unusual places is Dimiter Popov. Yet everybody calls him Dimo. I recorded a chat with Dimo a couple a weeks ago. He is talking about his passion to travel, his discoveries, what a trusty traveler should not miss. This is the 25 years story of exploration, discoveries and dedication to a passion, which turned into a business.

Dimiter Popov - Dimo, Penguin Travel
Dimiter Popov - Dimo, Penguin Travel

The Penguin: Dimo, I have the impression you create these incredible routes for yourself. How did you transform your appetite for traveling into a dream job?

Everything started when Russia became accessible and open to western tourists some 25 years ago. For someone who loves nature, the immense unexplored territories were a treasure uncovered. As a matter of fact, the first tour I organized was a three-week set biking velotour in Altai. The biggest Danish newspaper wrote a whole page about us. Of course I couldn’t sell it and it was a financial fiasco. The opening of Russia had a psychological effect. Lots of westerners rushed to discover Kamchatka. But soon the interest started to fade away, because the journey is difficult and complicated. You can see most of these things in Lapland and elsewhere in Scandinavia. Things like rafting or wildlife.

I was one of the first western tourists to visit Kamchatka. I got a ticket worth 40 USD in both directions. I dressed like a Russian “muzhik” in a typical quilted jacket and a fur shapka. I had to look like a Russian, because in one spot they check your passport, but the ticket control was on another. Having a cheap ticket for Russians and I had to look like a ordinary local guy. It was a time of adventures then.

So, everything started with Russia. But Denmark is not a huge market and in the beginning it was difficult. Now with Internet, things are different. But the basic idea remains the same – to stay away from the tracks of the mass tourist.

Dimiter Popov, Trip in Senegal
Dimiter Popov, Trip in Senegal

The Penguin:
How did it turn out that you got this emotional connection with Africa?

It was after Russia. My first visits were not for business. I had a friend, a journalist, with whom we were fishing in South Africa, in Chile, in different places. In general, he was writing his stories and I was paying the bill. We have been twice in Kamchatka, on the Kola Peninsula. We have been on a trout fishing in South Africa. And once you start with Africa – you’re hooked.

Dimiter Popov, Hippo in Botswana
Dimiter Popov, Hippo in Botswana

Few days ago I was discussing with an Englishman about a tour in Chad. It’s the most difficult and the most expensive destination. Because you need a second jeep with armed people to escort you all the time. Now I am waiting for the Ebola outbreak to fade away, and we’ll make a tour in Cameroun. And then Angola, but we’ll enter from Namibia. Congo will follow soon. Only CAR will stay for the end, because thing will never settle there. Nigeria is interesting as well.

Dimiter Popov, Okawango Delta Botswana
Dimiter Popov, Okawango Delta - Botswana

The flights to African airports are expensive. Only Dakar is cheap. All the other destinations are 1,200 – 1,300 EUR. There is no tourist infrastructure and you need to bargain hard for everything, nut in the end I manage to get good prices with the locals. Fuel is cheap in West Africa, because Nigeria is one of biggest oil producers.

The Penguin:
What about Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Lake Victoria?

They are invaded by the mass tourism. In the beginning, I started to offer tracking tours there. But it was much more interesting then, because all the infrastructure and the luxury lodges were not built yet. You just set up your tent in the Maasai village. I wasn’t even travelling with the groups back then. I was only going on the fishing tours in South Africa. Now we have big tours. But I am not fascinated by too much comfort and by the Maasai operating with POS terminals in their villages.

Dimiter Popov, Iran, Isfahan
Dimiter Popov, Iran, Isfahan

The Penguin:
I know that Iran is one of your favorite destinations? Why is it so?

Let me tell you about our Travelers Club in Copenhagen. There are lots of clubs like this. We are not explorers, who traveled along the Amazon River or climb the Himalayan top peaks. We are just enthusiasts, a guild of travelers. The rule is that the number of countries you have visited should be equal to your age, but not less than 30. A "visit" means at least 24 hours overnight stay. We had a SAS pilot who felt insulted by this principle and left the club, because he had lots of countries visited, but for only few hours. We have a café in the center of Copenhagen and a quarterly magazine – “Globen”. The club is a benevolent organization of enthusiasts. Our company is sponsoring the club. We gather in the café and everybody is telling stories about their journeys.

There is this man, Claus, who has visited more than 160 countries more than once. He got himself arrested in Afghanistan. He has been incarcerated several times in the Middle East, but always manages to get out of trouble. He is a great photographer and a fan of fishing. When I asked him, what his preferred destination is, he said that in Europe, with no doubt this is Italy. But the No.1 in the world is Iran. It has everything. There are so many cultural monuments there. When you visit Isfahan, you loose sense of time and place. Iranians are so curious about the world and they have a remarkable level of education. Persians are so different from the Arabs. They have stunning nature. Like the Mount Damavand – the highest volcano in Asia, which we have in our programs. They have ski resorts. But Persian culture is perhaps the most interesting treasure to discover. If you consider yourself a traveler, you should visit Iran not once, but several times.

Dimiter Popov, Detwah Lagoon, Socotra, Yemen
Dimiter Popov, Detwah Lagoon, Socotra, Yemen

The same is with Socotra, the tiny island in the Gulf of Aden, South of Yemen. Yemen itself is breathtaking with Sana’a and its old city, one of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But Socotra is a place out of this planet. There are still so many fantastic places to see and discover.

The Penguin:
Tel me about the Trans-Siberian Express. What is this adventure about?

For a person who travels it’s a must-see. After graduation in high-school kids get presents from their parents – a car or money for college. In Denmark most parents buy round the world ticket an give their kids a small amount of money to travel for a year. The youngsters start with the Trans-Siberian, reach Beijing and make a tour of South-East Asia. Then they go to Australia and eventually New Zealand. From there they fly to the West Coast of the USA. And either with Greyhound or by rent-a-car travel across America to Boston or New York to fly back home. This is almost obligatory. Some stay for few months to work in an Australian farm, for example or somewhere else. They work and stay in hostels to save money. But this is how they earn unique life experience. Which Danes consider important before they start their study in a university or find a job back home. And this is valid not only for Scandinavians, but Germans and Dutch as well.

This is why we started the Trans-Siberian Express. With the time we got older clients. It was something new on the market. People in Scandinavia often travel to sunny destinations like Thailand or Cuba in the winter. Older clients have already visited every standard tourist destination. And Siberia is something new an unexpected for them. Even in the magazines it’s promoted like the “journey of a lifetime”.

Dimiter Popov, Transsiberian Train, Russia
Dimiter Popov, Transsiberian Train, Russia

The Penguin:
How long is the trip? Two weeks or less?

It is a week of traveling. But you have stops. From Moscow to Irkutsk it is four days. And you realize what is the scale of Siberia. Four days and four nights the only thing you see is the taiga, the snow-forest. From Irkutsk to Ulan Bator is 24 hours. And another 24 hours to Beijing. This is the Trans-Mongolian track. If you take it through the end of Siberia – to Vladivostok, it is a bit longer. This is the real Trans-Siberian. But we don’t do it too often, because you have to either fly back to Moscow, or take a ferry to Japan or to South Korea. It is quite difficult and uncomfortable. So most people take the train through Mongolia to Beijing.

But it is not a constant journey by train. We stop in Yekaterinburg or Perm. Then, after reaching Irkutsk, we spend 4-5 days visiting the Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal or the village Bolshie Koti. Baikal is quite an interesting place.

In Mongolia you can stay from couple of days up to two weeks. You have the Gobi desert, the Altai Mountains. You can visit the Kazakhs to admire their skills in hunting with golden eagles, the traditional form of falconry in Altai. Mongolia is also one of my favorite destinations. I’ve been there four times. They call it: “The land without fences”.

I love difficult tasks. Trans-Siberian is hard to organize and to sell, but is one of my favorite products we offer.

Well, dear Traveler, Dimo has much more stories to tell about the more than 80 countries he has visited and explored for the last 25 years. And you will find them all in this blog.

The Penguin

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