“Sovietistan” and “The Border” by Erika Fatland

Hier gibt es diese Rezension auf Deutsch.


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.

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Abkhazia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Books, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Korea, Norway, Poland, Ukraine and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “Sovietistan” and “The Border” by Erika Fatland

  1. Pingback: „Sowjetistan“ und „Die Grenze“ von Erika Fatland | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Alessio says:

    On this topic, I suggest Stan Trek by Ted Rall

    • First, I read “Star Trek”, and I was confused. :-)

      “Stan Trek” seems to be the Italian title of “Silk Road to Ruin”, as far as I have been able to figure out. Another book to go on my wishlist…

      And with this recommendation, you are to blame if I will hitchhike to Herat or to Hulbuk once everyone along the Silk Road will have been vaccinated. :P

  3. When I run away from home and travel the back roads of the U.S. I’ll keep your advice in mind.šŸ˜‰
    History is interesting, but in a travel book I’d want to know more about the landscape, the architecture, the food and about the people and their everyday lives. I want to feel like I’ve been on the journey too.

  4. Jan Parry says:

    I agree with you Mr Moser. I had a very small part in the first ‘rough guide’ to Greece and I have felt a certain guilt and conflict about the effects of tourism over the years since. I also travelled on the trans siberian – both ways ! – and took the ferry across to japan in the late 1970s, to work on an archaeological excavation in Tokyo. I do not think that I could describe the highly controlled experience of travelling across Europe and through the USSR back then as tourism but it was fascinating as we met a lot of people en route. I like to spend time in a place and connect with people and also understand the history.

    • Wow, that sounds like a fantastic adventure!

      I also love long train rides for that purpose. My trip through Canada was a good example, helped by the absence of wifi on the train. I wrote a trilogy about it, here is the first part: https://andreasmoser.blog/2019/01/10/27-hours-train/

      Of course, my dream is to go through Russia by train, to Mongolia, China, Tibet. But I’d like to learn a little bit of Russian before.

      I recently read a book by several East Germans recounting their illegal trips through the Soviet Union in the same time you were there. They only had a transit visa for two days (to go to Romania), but they absconded and hiked, hitchhiked, paddled, cycled through the USSR, often for months, before returning.
      (Because the book has only been published, my review is only available in German, too, though: https://andreas-moser.blog/2020/10/18/udf/ )

  5. 50% of the time on traveling? You can’t be serious. Some of the best parts of traveling are spending days in a crowded train or bus, chatting with people, sharing food and stories …

    • I absolutely agree!
      What I meant was not to plan more than 50% of the time for sightseeing or fixed interviews, instead wandering around aimlessly or talking to strangers on a train or at the train station, waiting for the train delayed by hours.

    • Especially the delayed trains, or ones that break down midway

    • Oh yes! For a traveller without a schedule (or with some flexibility), such events are a blessing.

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