Greg Risen is a young traveller with a huge backpack. Making money as an English teacher and teaching video editing online, Greg creates stunning videos of the places he’s travelled to while also managing an online blog about his journeys. Talking to us about his favourite travelling experiences, Greg also has advice for those with a taste for adventure!
Now that you can’t freely travel to other places, how do you feel staying in just one place? How different is the experience?
For the last 8 months, I’ve been staying in Thailand. But I don’t feel like I’m staying in one place. I’ve changed places here 3 or 4 times. Previously, I had been staying for quite a while in Shanghai, so I feel it’s normal for me to stop somewhere for half a year or even more. Right now, I’ve settled down. I’ve rented an apartment for 3 months, but I’ll extend it for 3 more months. And yeah, I’ve put up my posters on the walls.
Why and when did you decide to travel for a living, instead of taking up a typical job like most people who travel on vacations only? How did you develop your passion for travelling?
I started sometime around a year ago, full-time. For the last 5 years, I’ve been staying mostly in Shanghai. And it was kind of like my base. While I lived there, I used to go to different places, but I’d been travelling more like a tourist. In Shanghai, I kind of got sick. I didn’t want to live that kind of life anymore. I was planning to go to Thailand for diving. But one of my friends was going to India, and going to India was one of my biggest dreams. So I thought, why not? I’ll go now. What am I waiting for? Since then, I didn’t want to stop. Even now, I’ve settled down here just because of a situation like this, but I don’t want to stop. It’s made some trouble for my long-term planning; I want to start a business, and there are a few ideas on my mind. I want to start something in video production. And I want to focus on travel videos. But since I’m not attached to any place, it’s a bit harder. But it’s not a big deal in the modern world.
What do you love about travelling? What excites you the most?
That amazing feeling which I always have when I hit the road. Whether it’s by train, by plane, or you’re going hitchhiking, never mind. The feeling that something new is going to happen. That activates my brain and my feelings. When I was younger, 14 or something, in my hometown, going to places was stressful. You don’t know where you’re going; you don’t know what is going to happen. But now, I feel excited, to be honest. Even if I go to places I’ve been before. That feeling pushes me to go forward. I haven’t found anything better than travelling so far in my life.
If you could travel to any place in the world, where would you go?
When the borders open, I’d like to go to Turkey, where I have some friends and some connections. I’ll start looking for plans over there. I might stay there for 3 months or a year. Then, I’ll go somewhere like Bali. Or to Rishikesh and do the same thing over there. There are a few places where I haven’t been to at all like South America. Maybe, I’ll go after 2 years because I would like to learn some Spanish before I go. And lot’s of places in Europe I haven’t been to. I want to hitchhike to Europe. I want to go to Japan.
Of all the places you’ve been to, which has been your most adventurous trip? Tell us about the experience.
I went to Turkey last year, sometime in August or September. Lots of new people. I’ve found some great people that I continue to travel with and still keep in touch. At the time, I didn’t know where I was going. I was going down from Russia and then somewhere around Georgia. In the middle of the day, I decided to go to Turkey. I didn’t have a destination in Turkey to go to. Once I got there, I decided to go to Istanbul, because my friend had a wedding over there. I think I would have headed that way anyway because it’s a great big city and I love Istanbul. I’ve been there before.
What goes on in your mind when you choose your next destination?
I don’t know, to be honest. I remember the moment when I chose to go to Georgia and Turkey. Some of my friends in Russia told me about this amazing trip to the mountains. And it was in that part of Russia with farms and such. So I decided to go there. Sometimes, it’s just plane tickets. Planes are cheaper to Thailand than to somewhere else. So I went to Thailand. But sometimes, it’s just places I like. For example, I’ve been to Thailand before. When I was living in China, I would visit different parts of Thailand. I don’t know why I like the country so much. Maybe because of the food, perhaps because of massages. I like Buddhism a lot, so that’s a huge influence. People are mindful; everyone’s smiling. I just wanted to go to Bali for New Year. There wasn’t any reason. I thought it would be cool just being there.
As a traveller, what are the most important things you need to carry on your journey?
A sleeping bag; it’s handy. For sure, some trousers, some socks. This time, I’ve got a huge bag. After my trip to Turkey, I decided to pick up a new backpack, and I only found a huge one. When I was in Moscow, I thought I had 15 kilos, but when I got to the airport, I found out I had 27 kilos. I was shocked. I’m carrying lots of stuff because I took everything I like. I have a tea ceremony set because I like the Chinese tea ceremony. I have a huge speaker because I love music. And I took lots of clothes which I didn’t need so I gave it away. That’s a big lesson for me – don’t become attached to things. Then I brought a drone, and I want to buy a camera and a computer. I appreciate that I have this big backpack. I don’t have a base, you know. I carry everything that I need with me, everything that I like and I’m pretty attached to things. But I would recommend only take what you need. I took everything that I love, cause it’s not just a trip, it’s my life.
What challenges do you face when you travel to new, unexplored destinations?
For me, travelling is my way of living. I enjoy it. Couch surfing never works for me, so that’s a challenge. There are no challenges except maybe a huge backpack. Sometimes, the problem is that people don’t speak English much. That was the case in Turkey, but I learnt some Turkish. In a week, I built a big dictionary on my phone.
If you had to settle down in any of the countries you’ve travelled to, where would you live and why?
I’ve wanted to go to Australia and settle there. I’ve never been there, and I think if I finally got to go, it makes sense to stay there for 4 years. Another option I’m considering right now is to go for a Masters program in Germany. I would like to see Canada, but I’m sure I don’t want to live in a cold country. I’ve been living in one, so no. Sometimes, I think small European countries. Big cities are 100% not my thing, so maybe the countryside in Europe but I need to know what I’m planning to do there. In Australia, I can travel, and there are lots of other activities, like surfing. But in a small village, somewhere in Sweden, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. Painting?
What’s one thing you don’t like about travelling?
Well, it’s hard to find a girlfriend. I don’t like distant relationships, and I’ve never been travelling with any girlfriend. I had only one relationship where the girl was ready to go travelling, but she always changed her mind. It’s much harder to pick up some long-term relationships, I think.
You travel around only in Southeast Asia. Do you think you’ll start exploring further any time soon?
To be honest, I haven’t been to lots of places in Southeast Asia still like Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, as I said. I’m planning to go to other places. I still want to go back to Turkey; I still want to go back to India. I have this big project on my mind where I want to come to explore India for a year on a motorcycle—and staying in Rishikesh because I like the North. As I said, I have a few big projects with hitchhiking around Europe, going on a road trip in India and somehow I will get to South America.
Speaking of India, what do you love about India and what do you think is very special about this country?
I like spirituality. This is what I was missing. In Russia, we have lots of space, lots of nature and people love spirituality. And China is the opposite. They’re all focused on making money and consuming goods, that’s all. When I arrived in Delhi, it was polluted, but I liked everything. I can look in people’s eyes, and I see awareness. I like doing yoga. Indian food is still number one. I know I haven’t seen much of India, 10%, maybe less? Even though I’ve lived there for 2 months, I’ve only been to Delhi, Rishikesh, Mumbai and Goa. I want to travel deeper. There are also lots of places I haven’t been, especially Southeast and in the South.
You are also a yoga instructor. How do travelling and yoga go together? How has your experience working in an ashram influenced your travels and your videos?
Yes, I completed my yoga course, and I was teaching yoga in Bali and Shanghai, but mostly for friends. Honestly, it’s very complicated for me. In terms of spirituality, sometimes, I feel very emotional. I’m focused on it and do meditation every day. I do vipassana, and I’m very focused on it, but sometimes I want to do some grounded things. I have my yoga mat with me. Right now, I’m practising mostly basic things. Sometimes I do sun salutations; I do some breathing techniques. From time to time, I meditate, especially when I have a hard time, when I feel like I need to balance myself. Meditation helps. I don’t practise very consistently. One method at least. I always practise something.
As a Russian, how do you get along with the local people of the places you visit? Are there any cultural similarities?
I don’t know, actually. For 4 years, I have not associated myself with the Russian culture or Russia itself. I disagree with my country, and I’m tired of opposing. I don’t consider myself as a Russian. But I’m still Russian and still use this language. I read a lot in Russian and communicate a lot with Russians everywhere. Russian people are very straightforward, and I am very straightforward. But Asian people aren’t straightforward at all. If there’s something wrong, they never say it. Sometimes, I’ll be irritated by that. In my country, having power is having success. If I have a gang, I can rob somebody or do something by force. In China, success is money. In India, success is something you love. If you love the world itself, it’s karma, that’s success. It doesn’t matter who you are. In Buddhist cultures, like in Thailand, people never get angry. Nothing pisses them off. For me, it’s a big lesson, because lots of things piss me off. I become angry very quickly, and I can never hold it inside. I don’t think it’s healthy, first of all, and sometimes, I think I shout at people impulsively. But it also helps me solve lots of problems. But sometimes, it’s strange for other people. When you come to Russia, you feel like people are mad and angry. That’s why they’re drinking so much, I think.
Have you ever met any interesting people on your journeys that you can think of?
Usually, it’s in a hostel. Like the people whom I met in Turkey, in Cappadocia, there were 4 of them, really good friends of mine now. One girl was from Iran, another boy from Russia, another boy from Ukraine, another from Kazakhstan. Somehow we became friends. Sometimes, you meet interesting people on the beach. For example, a good friend of mine sat at those desks with nails. He produced them and also coached on how to stand on them, and how to breathe fire. He came to the beach every day and then we started living together. I moved to the place he was living so we could save money. Sometimes, it’s friends of friends. Turkey is very famous for hospitality, in my opinion. When I arrived in Turkey, I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I called my friends from Shanghai, who is Turkish. He called up his friend who was in the next city. And that’s how I came to Yehezkel. I stayed with him for 10 days and then I travelled with friends of his friends.
Your videos have an interesting feel – they’re fast-paced, shot at unique angles, there’s an occasional zoom in – that’s almost psychedelic. How do you produce your videos?
First of all, it’s not just me. I think maybe like 60% is my friend’s job, who I met in Cappadocia. Since then, I started producing these kinds of videos. I also do videos, but mostly I do it on the phone, even editing because I’m lazy to use a computer. I learnt doing it with him, being honest. He gave me that confidence that I also can make videos. Right now, I’m studying videography. Before, we were doing it on intuition. We had plenty of time and beautiful places around. When I was in Beijing, and we would first watch the material, then shoot to the song and then try to make the sequence.
What equipment do you use to shoot your videos?
Some of them were made only with a phone – Xiaomi 8 and Xiaomi 6. Xiaomi 6 is my friend’s phone. It has like a broken camera, but it worked; there’s no problem with the pictures. Later on, we got a GoPro, and now I have a drone. Now I’m focusing on buying a good computer and start editing more. For now, it’s just my phone, GoPro and drone. I want to buy a camera or probably iPhone; I’m not sure.
Travelling always seems to be an expensive hobby that’s affordable only for rich people. How far is it true? What kind of advice would you give based on your travel experience?
Well, you definitely need some money. You need to find a way to make money, but it’s not expensive. For example, these past 2 years, I’ve been hitchhiking mostly, so I save a crazy amount of money just doing that. I count like 500 dollars per month, that’s the minimum I need. That’s enough not to starve and to have a place to sleep. It can be cheaper, I’m pretty sure. I mean, I live pretty comfortably. Sometimes I spend more. I saved a lot when I was working in China, but I’ve started working again because all my savings have finished.
How do you make money while you travel? How do you manage your budget for travelling?
I used to work as an English teacher in China, and that was my primary income. Since March, I’ve started teaching videos online on my phone; some months it can make me 400 dollars, sometimes 100. That’s why I’m focusing on getting a computer to get more video editing jobs. I want to be better at it. For me, English teaching is my way of making money as well. I’m an experienced teacher. I think it’s very easy to find an English teacher’s job in Asia. I’ve heard in South America as well. But that’s not what I want to do. For the next couple of years, it will be video-editing, and I also want to start doing video production. I have a separate Instagram account which I’m filling slowly, and then I’ll get a camera.
Have you ever struggled financially during your travels? How did you tackle the situation?
No, I always managed my finances well, and I start looking for a job before I go broke. When I had just come to China in the beginning, I felt like I didn’t have enough for the long-run. I had an experiment in Bangkok 2 years ago. I was begging on the streets and the funny thing I was making the same amount of money per hour that I was doing by teaching English. I was shocked. My friends told me that he knows people who travel and they live their life like that, and they don’t care. We just tried for a couple of hours. Later, Buddhist monks came to me, and they asked if I was hungry and I wasn’t, and they asked why I was begging then. But it’s a lesson. You always can do something, but there are many ways.
Do you have any travel hacks or hints that you could share with our readers who are amateur travellers?
Apart from the standard hacks of couch-surfing and early booking, I would suggest being talkative. Go for hitchhiking. That’s an entirely different experience of travelling. Even if I have money, I prefer hitchhiking because you can see much more. You can talk to the local people. Make friends. Everybody loves travellers. Maybe it’s also because I’m young. I’m not sure; if I would be 40, hitchhiking might be weird. So travel when you’re young.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to travel full-time but is scared of taking the first step?
Just do it. Make some primary savings. There are so many ways to work online. It’s probably better to get insurance. I don’t have insurance, but I will get one before I make my next move. And anyway you will get benefits because the world is changing, it won’t go back to this labour-based working. So start working online and go travelling. Make yourself a situation where you can work from anywhere.
In what ways has travelling changed you? What lessons have you learnt from your journeys?
I think every journey is just a big lesson. But that feeling that I told you, that feeling of excitement, it makes you look at the world with a different angle. You should look at the world like it’s a new thing. If you get used to the place, to the people you are, you will feel bored. That’s sad. That’s why I keep travelling – it makes me feel better. I’ve learnt a lot; each culture gives me something. For example, about my temper, that I shouldn’t take things seriously, that I should calm down much more, that I should smile more. But mostly it’s that feeling of excitement that everything can be new.