Do you also have so many travel guides at home for countries you never made it to? I still got a Lonely Planet guidebook for Central Asia, which I bought in 2007. Apparently, in the past 13 years, a lot of things have come up, because I still haven’t been to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan.
Because I still have to save a little until I can afford the train ticket to Tashkent, I have shortened the waiting time with a book about these five fascinating countries. Thankfully, the Norwegian author Erika Fatland took it upon herself to travel through dictatorships, autocracies, barren steppes and drafty yurts for her book “Sovietistan”.
Even if I still can’t tell all the -stans apart one hundred percent after reading the book (for that, an intensive personal inspection is essential), and even if one or the other revolution has changed circumstances in the meantime, I still got quite a good impression, which only intensified the travel bug. Fatland interweaves her own experience with historical inserts, which sometimes get a bit out of hand when she lectures about Genghis Khan for pages on end.
Fatland’s new book, “The Border: A Journey around Russia”, continues the method slightly modified, unfortunately with less of what was strong about “Sovietistan” and more of what was less good. Here, the lecturing takes over, again for pages on Russian Siberian expeditions or on border conflicts, with only little conversation and personal encounters to make up for it.
In this second book, one gets the impression that Fatland was sent on a long journey to repeat the success of “Sovietistan” come hell or high water. The author herself admits that she would not have spent $20,000 to cross the Northeast Passage, for example. More enlightening are the reports from places that remain closed or hard to get to for the average traveler, like the Donetsk Republic or South Ossetia.
Again and again, her impatience and annoyance shine through when an agreed interview is delayed, when the cab driver doesn’t show up, or when the internet connection is bad. In Urumqi, she spends four days just staying in the hotel and watching Netflix. Clearly, someone is not very enthusiastic about her own journey, which, according to the subtitle, must lead “through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage”.
This is simply too long and too much for one book.
For authors, my general advice to travelers applies as well: Less is more. Focus on one or two places, but really immerse yourself in them. And don’t make plans for more than 50% of the time. The rest must remain open for spontaneous encounters, for surprises, the stuff that makes for good stories.