Patrik Wallner is one of the best skate filmers out there today, and like Ty Evans, Russell Houghten, Beagle, and Thad Croskey he has style that is very much his own. In many of his videos, Patrik focuses on taking skate trips to dangerous places most of us haven’t even heard of.
In his latest video, “Meet the Stans,” Patrik, Dave Bachinsky, Jimmy McDonald, Laurence Keefe, Dan Zvereff, Стас Провоторов (Stas Provotorov), Гоша Конышев (Gosha Konyshev), Walker Ryan, Kenny Reed and Michael Mackrodt skate their way through China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and the war-torn country of Afghanistan.
Patrik has been kind enough to sit down and discuss his adventures with travel companions, police escorts, and near death experiences.
Many of the skate trips you’ve been on are to places most Westerns haven’t even heard of. They are both difficult to travel to and travel in. What draws you to them?
I guess the information I get from reading about a place or seeing it on TV isn’t enough for me. Even if we only spend a couple days going through random countries or nations along these extensive skateboard odysseys, it still feels like you are somewhat integrating in the culture to a certain extent.
The curiosity of going into the unknown, such as the ‘stans in Central Asia is my biggest motivation. Just skating through downtown Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent or Mazar-i-Sharif is something I can’t imagine until it becomes a reality. On top of that, you come across old ex-Soviet statues, which might have a perfect marble bank or manual pad below it. Finding untouched spots gives me a kick, which I’m itching for most of the time.
One of the most important aspects of any successful skate-trip is who goes on the trip; one shitty travel companion can easily ruin the whole trip. When the explorer Francis Petrarch was looking for a partner to go climb Mount Ventoux in 1336, he noted the difficulty of finding travel companions by saying, “When I came to look about for a companion, I found, strangely enough, that hardly one among my friends seemed suitable—so rarely do we meet with just the right combination of personal tastes and characteristics, even among those who are dearest to us.”
Walker Ryan, Michael Mackrdot, Laurence Keefe, and Kenny Reed have been in quite a few of your videos, what qualities do they contain that make them great travel companions?
Great question. It’s hard to explain why they’re my dearest travel mates. Maybe because they can keep up with my bullshit. What these guys have in common is respect in a foreign environment, street smarts, a good heart, appetite for local food and the same interest and curiosity for traversing random nations like myself. But most importantly, all the guys have patience (maybe besides Michael), and even if we don’t always have patience, we know how to make fun out of the situation and don’t freak out. And I almost forgot… they can skate anything, from perfect ledges to a dumpster or pipe in a back street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
When traveling to dangerous or corrupt places Shane Smith (Co-founder of Vice) always brings emergency money to get out of tough situations. What things do you make sure to bring with you to make sure you are safe?
I go on these journeys hoping nothing will happen, so I am pretty unprepared when it comes to sketchy situations. When the Converse guys and I were attacked in Mongolia in a dark alley by a taxi driver, we just had to use our feet to flee.
I guess Shane’s idea is good, but sometimes not having money is a good thing too. I had two police officers in Kazakhstan hassle me at night cause I left a club and didn’t have my passport on me. He asked for money and luckily, I didn’t have any on me, so in that case I was spared.
Instead of being in the safety and comfort of your own car or van, you spend a lot of time taking former-Soviet trains and sketchy overnight buses. This can create the opportunity to meet a variety of interesting characters. For example, in a previous trip while traveling on the Trans-Siberian railroad Laurence befriends a group of convicts that were just released from a Russian prison camp. What extraordinary characters did you meet during this trip the through ‘Stans?
It’s always surprising what friendships you develop and create on trips like these. As many sketchy people you come across Central Asia, corrupt police officers, thieves, drunks, you still end up coming across more nice & humble people rather than people who have sinister intensions.
The most unexpected person who we have met during our ‘Stans trip was definitely Abdullah. When we got denied to continue our journey to Turkmenistan, he invited us to his hometown in the Balkh region of Afghanistan. I never thought that I would be going to Afghanistan with an entourage of police officers & bodyguards put together by a wealthy young Afghani man that I just met in Uzbekistan a couple days prior…haha
How did you know that you wouldn’t be arrested or shot for skating monuments or places that may be sacred?
I got a bit worried when we entered Kazakhstan and the locals told us that they just recently went to Uzbekistan where their filmer got imprisoned because he filmed close to a government building. Apparently, the officers tried to make him admit that he was a spy for the Kazakhs and filming the government building for higher purposes.
I questioned if I wanted to actually go to Uzbekistan. When we entered, I spread all my equipment between us, and within the country I filmed as little as possible, to avoid any conflicts with the police. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and I just wished for the best… but yeah, I don’t want to go to prison in Central Asia. I wouldn’t make it for too long in there.
You skated in some of the most corrupt and dangerous nations in the world. In fact, according to International Transparency, you skated in the most corrupt nation in the world (Afghanistan). How vital are your travel guides for being able to navigate these locations?
It was vital for us to have the help of locals in their home countries to skate without being arrested. Afghanistan is as corrupt as it can get (maybe besides Somalia). However, since we were under the wing of Abdullah in Mazar-i-Sharif and then Skateistan in Kabul, we didn’t really get confronted much with the internal corruption. We were more afraid of getting a bomb slipped into our hotel at night.
But on the other hand, Uzbekistan was corrupt as the Italian mob put together with the Japanese Yakuza. Everything is a hassle. Police officers try to fine you for anything and you can just feel the corruptness in the air. Everyone has some sort of a sketchy business, or takes part in black market dealing or purchasing.
While you were in Afghanistan you were escorted around by a group of heavily armed Afghani policemen, what was that like?
Very shocking and frightening at first, but afterwards very comforting. You can’t just go to Afghanistan by crossing the borders. Lonely Planet even wrote in their Afghanistan edition that they have actually not even been to the country, but have their info from inside sources.
If we didn’t have our bodyguards and officers watching our backs and securing locations, we wouldn’t have gotten much footage in Afghanistan. In the end we captured a minute and a half of skateboarding, which I am pretty proud of regarding the circumstances. Thanks to these young guys who have fought the Taliban a decade ago and gone through so much in their lifetime, they have made it possible.
You guys had a meeting with Atta Muhammad Nur, the governor of the Bahk Province of Afghanistan, and put on a demo for him and his troops. What did you discuss with him, and what were you thinking during your meeting?
Meeting Atta Muhammad Nur was pretty bizarre. He seemed calm, nice and had a cool manner. At first, he was curious about what we were doing in Afghanhistan. He later told us that he wanted to build more skate parks around the country for kids. Having a new activity would take the attention away from the civil war and terror. His intentions seemed sincere, but after hearing about all the corrupt activities he was involved in to become the “50th richest man on the planet,” I was quite disappointed but still glad we met him for the documentary.
Were you ever in a situation where you thought you were going to die?
Trying to fall asleep in a Afghani hotel room where people would see us come in and out of for a couple days was scary. On the last night, I went to bed thinking about how close my bed was from the door and wondered If they put a bomb in the hallway, whether I would die from the blast or from shrapnel, etc. I guess it was just paranoia in the end, but it could have happened. There were bombs going off while we were there.
I could see the hatred in some of the other Afghani guest’s eyes since we would be hanging out in the hallway where there were some sofas. We just really felt comfortable to the point where Kenny was chilling one night in only boxers, which is pretty rude in Afghanistan (revealing your skin in public). So yeah, I think in Afghanistan I was afraid for my life, but luckily nothing bad happened.
Luckily no one got hurt in “Meet The Stans,” but in “10,000 Kilometers” Michael Mackrodt fucks up his ankle pretty bad. When you’re traveling through these far off places how do you deal with the threat of injury and illness?
Overall, we have been pretty lucky. The worst injury along these trips was probably during the ‘Mandalay Express’ trip, which took us though Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.
Our Thai mate, Geng Jakkarin took a hard slam in the middle of nowhere in Myanmar and severely dislocated his elbow. We were skating an amusement park outside of Naypyidaw, Myanmar, a country that still doesn’t have ATM machines. We had to put Geng in the back of a pick up truck and drive him an hour to the closest hospital which was facing black outs, where they could put him to sleep and break his elbow joints back to place. Seeing your friend suffer in an alien environment is a horrible experience.
During this trip, you traveled mainly through secular-Muslim nations, in “Holy Cow” you were immersed in Hindu culture, and you’ve even experienced the celebration of the Great Leader’s birthday while in North Korea. How do you think visiting these nations, interacting with other cultures, and experiencing various cultural celebrations has affected your view of America and the world?
Surprisingly, many of the places I’ve visited where people might think America would be hated, you would be amazed to see how many people just like it for being the symbol of westernization and having freedom of speech (to a certain extent). In North Korea, for example, you are not even allowed to speak to the people. Of course, you bump into people that might have a harsher opinion, but most of the time you don’t really get confronted personally. When arguments arise I try to support America, but the unnecessary involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea for personal gain and the visualization of a global police officer is hard to defend. Overall, by going to these places, I realized how spoiled and wasteful America is when it comes to wasting food and water, gasoline, and other resources which would be conserved in a more precious fashion in these third world countries.
”To some extent, we are modern day conquistadors, going eastwards seeking new treasures.”
While skate trips are one the most important aspects of our culture there are some down sides that we rarely think about. Tim Sedo points out, “In the constant search for new spots, professional skaters fly to new countries, skate their spots, and often blow them out – they take a once perfect spot and render it unskateable. If a spot is popular, it is almost certain to be blown out before long, which is one of the main reasons why skateboarders are always on the search for new terrain.”
In a sense, skaters on skate trips are neo-colonialists that seek out new skate-resources (spots) at the expense of the local skate scene. What responsibilities do you think we have to the locals when we visit their home and skate their spots?
To some extent, we are modern day conquistadors, going eastwards seeking new treasures. But like Tim says, there is a certain way of approaching the situation. In my opinion as long as you show respect to the locals by socializing, caring, & possibly providing them with boards, wheels, or trucks, there is a mutual benefit for both parties. In the end, most of the locals want to see that new level of skateboarding, but still want to be able to skate the spot after you leave. As long as you avoid pissing off the cops or security and don’t literally destroy the spot, I think it’s fine.
I think most of the countries we go to we leave a positive impression. The only spot that we kind of shut down for the locals was the white marble wave spot in Ho Chi Minh City. We bribed the cops with smokes, beers and then with money. Afterwards they kept asking the locals for money to skate the spot. I still feel bad doing that, but the greed of skating this perfect spot took over. A lesson learned though, never mess it up for the locals that may skate there everyday.
The majority of skate videos are primarily focused on the tricks skaters collect on trips, while your videos are focused around the whole trip experience. Why have you decided format your videos like this and what do you want your viewers to take away from your films?
I enjoy pure skate videos, but I always liked stuff like ‘On’ or ‘411: Around the World’ more, just because there is something to learn. I personally want the viewer to finish watching my skateumentaries and have a little understanding of the countries we traversed afterwards and maybe even spark some interest to look further into it, or even travel there. I had someone e-mail me saying he had such a desire to go to Southeast Asia after watching one of my films that he just bought a ticket and moved there. I am just glad when I can capture more than just skateboarding and make a short story out of it.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that technology, specifically the Internet, is making it more difficult to produce non-commercialized videos, do you still feel this way? How do you envision the future of the skate-video?
Wow, you did some digging…haha. Yeah, I guess I still feel that way, but there are just more opportunities now for me to make these trips happen. I pretty much just spend my own money on these trips, if I don’t have someone to support them. I want to go to these places regardless if I get the trip sponsored or not. I have to do this now before I wear myself out.
Finally, do you have any plans for your next big skate trip?
Indeed there are some trips brewing up. Going back to India with Skateboarder Magazine in February for the Kumbh Mela festival and to check out some other cities. After that possibly back to the Middle East in the spring. Iran has been a destination I’ve been eager to explore. Also, we got denied to Turkmenistan while filming ‘Meet the Stans’, so we are going to give it possibly a second try. Wish us luck.
“Meet the Stans” along with the rest of Patrik Wallner’s extensive catalog can be found at his website visualtraveling.com.