‘If you have an open mind, people are all the same’

John Andersen dropped out of high school to climb mountains. Decades later, the 73-year-old is still travelling the world - and it's been a priceless education.

'If you have an open mind, people are all the same'
All photos are from John Andersen's travels and are copyright John Andersen.

We all have that dream – to travel the world, and make a living in doing so.

But for most people, that’s as far as it goes: just a dream – a distant fantasy that taunts us during the mundane moments of our everyday lives.     

And if it wasn’t for his outdoorsy father and upbringing, this could have been true for Danish high school dropout, John Andersen, too.  

But for John, that dream was destined to become a reality. It was in his blood.

“My father was passionate about nature. He would always go out into the woods, or go kayaking and scouting and so on,” John explains.

“I was very young when I first went out into the woods with him. He taught me to be safe and relaxed in the darkness of the forest. I learned to listen to the animals, to sleep beneath the trees, and build a fire in the open.”

An adventurer in the making, John continued to travel with – and learn from – his father throughout his childhood; his passion for nature and the great outdoors growing with every trip.

“We went on a long, beautiful hike in Lapland in northern Sweden when I was 16 years old,” John recalls.

“It was so exciting – the huge mountains and winding rivers, reindeer and mosquitoes, and snow on the peaks. It was a new world for me compared to the flat terrain of my Danish homeland. It was beautiful.”

Whilst exploring the far north of Sweden, John and his father visited Sweden’s highest mountain: Kebnekaise, where they met a mountain guide from Austria who took John rock climbing.  

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The mountain guide told John about a school in Switzerland where he could learn to climb. John was instantly intrigued, and later quit gymnasium in order to attend the Swiss school.

“I came home from gymnasium, and told my dad that I don’t want to go to school anymore,” John explains.

“He said, ‘Ok, what do you want to do?’ So I told him I wanted to go to the mountain school in Switzerland. He said, ‘Ok, that’s fine.’ And so I went.”

“It was fantastic – for eight months, I learned to climb and ski at this school.”

It soon became clear to John though, that mountain guiding alone would not give him a stable income. As such, on his return to Denmark, John attended the School of Architecture in Copenhagen to train as a carpenter and architect.

But by no means was that the end of John’s dreams of exploration and adventure.  

It was just the beginning.

After all, the Nordics have spawned some the world’s most celebrated explorers and adventurers.

Their journeys and stories have inspired generations to not only follow in their footsteps, but also to create legacies of their own – and John Andersen is no exception.

Throughout his travels and adventures, John has found inspiration from a variety of Nordic explorers who came before him.

Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was the first.  

“Fridtjof Nansen was the first person to cross the icecap of Greenland in 1888,” John explains. “He also helped start the League of Nations, and founded the modern polar expedition.”

“The people I climbed with came from all around the world, but they had all climbed in Greenland. So I went there too.”

But it wasn’t the climbing that John hung around for. With Nansen in mind, he set about embarking on his first real adventure: crossing the Greenland icecap on skis.

“It was a complicated achievement at the time,” he says. “No one had done it, back then at least, on skis. So I decided to do that with three of my friends.”

This adventure sparked something of a love affair between John and Greenland.  

A few years later, he returned on an archaeological expedition in search of the first Greenland Inuit, and continued to embark on several kayaking adventures around the Greenlandic coast between 1980 and 2005.

After attempting to run his own architectural business, John started lecturing in Islamic Architecture at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen in the 1980s, something he still occasionally does today.

Meanwhile, like a real-life Indiana Jones, John ventures around the world on different Nordic-enthused expeditions and adventures.  

“I was inspired by the Danish Arabia Expedition of 1761, for instance” John says.

“Five Danes and a Swede travelled from Denmark to Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Jerusalem through Europe. It was a very big scientific expedition, and only one man, Carsten Niebuhr, came back seven years later.”

“So I followed his whole route – what he saw, I saw. It was fantastic.”  

Sixteen years ago, the biggest publishing company in Scandinavia approached John, suggesting that he write a book about his travels.

John’s first book, Mit Grønland (My Greenland), was published in 1998. Since then, he has written several more about his adventures, including his journey across the Northwest Passage in a kayak in 2002, the aforementioned Danish Arabian Expedition in 2012, and his voyage along the Silk Route to China in 2015. 

Currently, John is writing about another Nordic-inspired adventure he recently spent four months completing.

“It is a beautiful story about a Danish commander, Vitus Bering, who travelled for the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great,” he explains.

“Peter the Great wanted to find out whether or not Siberia and North America were connected, so he got hold of Vitus Bering, and told him he is going to be the captain of an expedition.”

“The Danish commander travelled from St Petersburg to the Kamchatka Peninsula where he built a ship and sailed up through Siberia and North America. He arrived back in St Petersburg five years later, but was sent out on the same journey again shortly after, and died on the return voyage.”

John followed Vitus Bering’s remarkable journey, sailing thousands of kilometres along the magnificent Siberian Rivers, meeting lots of friendly people along the way.

“The Russians are very nice people – they are fantastically open and helpful,” John says.

“Having travelled so much, I’ve come to realise that, if you have an open mind, people are all the same.”

To this day, however, out of the many places John has visited around the world, Greenland still tops his impressive list of favourites. 

“It’s so beautiful,” he says. “From the mountains and fjords, to the glaciers and drifting ice, Greenland is beautiful. And the Greenland Inuit are so wonderful and kind.”       

Now aged 73, John’s appetite for adventure shows no sign of wavering, with plans to explore South America by motorbike next year.

John Andersen will continue to travel, write and lecture – sourcing inspiration from some of the great Nordic explorers that have gone before him, all the while leaving footsteps of his own that will one day be followed by those he too has inspired – whenever and wherever that may be. 

Click here to discover more Nordic stories

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers.


Could Oslo-Copenhagen overnight train be set for return?

A direct overnight rail service between the Norwegian and Danish capitals has not operated since 2001, but authorities in Oslo are considering its return.

Norway’s transport minister Knut Arild Hareide has asked the country’s railway authority Jernbanedirektoratet to investigate the options for opening a night rail connection between Oslo and Copenhagen.

An answer is expected by November 1st, after which the Norwegian government will decide whether to go forward with the proposal to directly link the two Nordic capitals by rail.

Jernbanedirektoratet is expected to assess a timeline for introducing the service along with costs, market and potential conflicts with other commercial services covering the route.

“I hope we’ll secure a deal. Cross-border trains are exciting, including taking a train to Malmö, Copenhagen and onwards to Europe,” Hareide told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

The minister said he envisaged either a state-funded project or a competition awarding a contract for the route’s operation to the best bidder.

A future Oslo-Copenhagen night train rests on the forthcoming Jernbanedirektoratet report and its chances of becoming a reality are therefore unclear. But the Norwegian rail authority earlier this year published a separate report on ways in which passenger train service options from Norway to Denmark via Sweden can be improved.

“We see an increasing interest in travelling out of Norway by train,” Jernbanedirektoratet project manager  Hanne Juul said in a statement when the report was published in January.

“A customer study confirmed this impression and we therefore wish to make it simpler to take the train to destinations abroad,” Juul added.

Participants in the study said that lower prices, fewer connections and better information were among the factors that would encourage them to choose the train for a journey abroad.

Norway’s rail authority also concluded that better international cooperation would optimise cross-border rail journeys, for example by making journey and departure times fit together more efficiently.

The Femahrn connection between Denmark and Germany, currently under construction, was cited as a factor which could also boost the potential for an overland rail connection from Norway to mainland Europe.

Night trains connected Oslo to Europe via Copenhagen with several departures daily as recently as the late 1990s, but the last such night train between the two cities ran in 2001 amid dwindling demand.

That trend has begun to reverse in recent years due in part to an increasing desire among travellers to select a greener option for their journey than flying.

Earlier this summer, a new overnight train from Stockholm to Berlin began operating. That service can be boarded by Danish passengers at Høje Taastrup near Copenhagen.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about the new night train from Copenhagen to Germany