on 1 February 2006
Did you know there was a Buddhist republic in Europe? And a desert for that matter? Or a pagan republic? Russia stretches from Eastern Europe to Alaska and contains many semi-autonomous republics - they have their own presidents, their own TV stations, their own heroes and legends and, of course, their own corruption, brutality, and cities dedicated to chess. They just don't have tourists.
Kalder sets out as an 'anti-tourist' visiting these undesirable places and casting a realistic eye over them and their prospects; yet the same eye also contains a deep empathy towards these people and their invisible countries. Kalder's black humour carries the book from history to personal encounter (or non-encounter) with ease, and his revelations broaden out the view well beyond four republics you've never heard of.
Kalder states at the beginning that 'travel rarely broadens the mind', and travel books even more rarely do so. But this one does, brilliantly.
on 27 September 2006
File under "eccentric travel". Kalder, an expatriot Scot living in Russia, decides to visit a few of the more out-of-the-way European Russian Republics, and finds well, not a lot really apart from a lot of empty steppe, crumbling concrete apartment blocks, bad hotels and the remnants of some of the more obscure Asiatic races to have wandered into Europe over the centuries.
Kalder describes himself as an "anti-tourist", in search of the opposite of the kind of thing that would normally attract visitors; scenery, history, good food, weather etc., and he certainly finds it in these out of the way places. By the end of the book he wasn't really sure why he'd made these journeys, and neither was I, but he's done us all a service in locating those exotic destinations that you really don't want go to, and it's an entertaining read.
on 2 January 2009
I read some of the negative (1 and 2 star) reviews before I bought this, as a friend of mine suggested they can tell you much more about a book than the glowing 5 star reviews. He was spot on. The only thing is, the negative reviews of this book, very nearly put me off. But, as I managed to find a cheap, 2nd hand copy, I decided to risk it, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
I found a guy, who doesn't want to go to the Republics, just for the sake of laughing at or mocking these people, he wants to see what makes them tick. Base level travelling. Maybe it's like 'base jumping' or something. The book's not perfect, but it made me want to read more, and for me, that's very good.
I didn't know about a couple of these republics, shame on historian me. But then again, the Russians really did get around during the Soviet period. So much territory to cover.
It's a fairly easy read, but with substance; heart. Something for those of you who aren't just interested in pretty pictures or coffee table books from Travel Writers. This guy's also lived in Moscow for quite a few years, which frankly scares me more than these Republics. My own dream is to go to Kamchatka; I saw a guy pulling a huge fish out of a stream on TV, with his bare hands. That I want to see.
Love it or hate it. Kalder has his own style. He's flippant at times, but not as shallow as some reviewers would paint him. He has more soul that most snap happy travellers you see around these days. He gets himself 'in' there. As drab as the reality may be - yes, sometimes it really is just drab. But it's real.
on 25 February 2006
This book is a fantastic account of the strange travels of Daniel Kalder and some of the people he meets. He spends time exploring places , enjoying nihilism and the mundane. His anti tourist manifesto even encourages it!! It is funny , warm and you capture something of what it must be like to be in his head- a strange place indeed. His digressions from the plot make this book much more than a travel book. I thoroughly recommend it , especially for people tired of the mundane cosy travel book. The tourist is dead.Long live the anti tourist.
on 10 March 2007
It is difficult to evaluate this book, because I can't avoid the feeling that it could have been a lot more. It is certainly a good, quick read, takes the reader to "zany" places, and there are so many jokes that the law of averages dictates that some of them are going to be genuinely funny, even if a number of them do loom on the horizon like Titanic-sinking icebergs.
What I miss, however, is any real depth to the book, and I only rarely had the feeling that the author really got under the surface of the places he visited. Instead, he tends to use them as the butt for a barrage of the aforementioned jokes, which at some point cheapens the narrative, adding an air that sometimes borders on a kind of colonialist arrogance. There comes a point when the reader - or at least I - really wants to know more about what the people in these places are dealing with, what motivates or moves them. This is lacking.
At the same time, the author has a habit of making wholesale generalisations (e.g. "Iran is a hellhole" - in fact it is anything but), which are based either on exuberance in his own writing, a degree of immaturity or complete ignorance. These sorts of comments, as well as a baffling eagerness to repeatedly use the term "cumstain", become genuinely irritating. Moreover, anyone who has travelled extensively around FSU countries (as I have had the mixed fortune of doing) will realise that the author is rather less intrepid than he makes himself out to be, but ultimately that is not so important.
That said, I suppose that at no point did the author set out to achieve a work of depth, and his chief aim is presumably to take the reader to unexpected, quirky locations and recount amusing anecdotes about them. So if you take the book for what it is - a superficial, often amusing account brief trips to Russian backwaters (not that Kazan is really a backwater) - then it does succeed in this and makes for entertaining reading.
on 27 August 2007
Two stars for effort, because I realise that writing a book must be a difficult, demanding process for the writer, no matter what the end product looks like. Three stars deducted because the end product is incredibly disappointing.
The reviews here were so divided that I decided to go with my gut instinct, which was to read it - what a mistake that proved to be. Looking at the reviews again, I almost get the feeling that the positive reviews here were written by Kalder's friends - or maybe even himself.
As others have mentioned, the book does indeed have its moments, but overall I would have to call this the Emperor's New Clothes of travel writing, with the writer trying to con the reader with pointless amblings of dubious veracity that ultimately deliver nothing. He even tries to pull the same con job with his photographs, which he presents under some concocted off-beat/nihilistic notion of being "anti-photos", but in the end are simply bad pictures that display no talent, no insight, no perspective, no humour. In a country such as Russia, with such a richness of photographic potential (and I don't mean pretty churches), this is just pathetic.
On top of this, the writer simply comes across as a highly unpleasant person - and perhaps he deserves some praise for making no effort whatsover to conceal this. He is a self-confessed cheapskate, poorly informed, obnoxious, incredibly immature, insensitive and very abrasive, and clearly considers himself vastly superior to all around him. I could think of no worse travelling companion. If you nevertheless wish to ignore the negative reviews here - as I did - be aware that this is the kind of person you will be travelling with for 250 pages. Really horrible.
on 11 August 2007
This book is no great work of literature, as other reviewers have already pointed out. Kalder has one great piece of insight, however, which I must presume he intended. (Like many of his native countryman, he has a talent for deceptive understatement.) His real achievement is to draw the reader in to passing judgement on the often banal lives of others, connected to the west of the continent by geographical chance. He dares the reader to condescend and then turns this condescension completely around. His achievement is to deceive the reader into believing they are cleverer than they actuallý are. He does this by using the disguised wit of the traveller, playing stupid when required so as not to appear too threatening and keeping an eye on the door so that a quick exit can be made, no trace left - much as he does at the end. His final message - our circumstances are largely a matter of luck - cuts across the prevailing message of western culture, embodied in the idiot tourist charicature, that we generally speaking make our own.
on 2 September 2008
I have nothing against a casual style of writing, in fact travel writing often works better when you can identify with the person. But here Daniel Kalder seems to be deliberately trying to annoy people with his attitude. For example, in the chapter on Kalmykia (which by the way, having been there, is nothing like he describes) he starts to translate a Russian poem but instead of doing the whole thing writes the word "something" so often that the poem is incomprehensible. He then defends this by saying he "couldn't be bothered" to get his dictionary. This is obviously either supposed to be funny or endearing, as I can't believe that throughout the several years it must have taken him to research and write this book, and then find some fool to publish it, he had no time to get a dictionary out. The section where he imagines that his friend gets his brains blown out by a Russian policeman was needlessly shocking and entirely gratuitous.
I've not been to any of the other three places he talks about, but after reading the section on Kalmykia and finding it so completely misrepresented I have little faith in what he writes about the others.
So, instead of buying this self-absorbed and entirely pointless book, I have two alternative recommendations:
1. Go to Kalmykia. It is lovely. The people are friendly, there's never any rain and the capital city is green and pleasantly litter-free.
2. If you want a book about interesting places that is funny (and actually bothers to be well-researched too) then have a look at the work of Dixe Wills instead. He's like a Douglas Adams of quirky travel writing.
on 9 August 2008
I really enjoyed this book! There is something poetic in Kalder's writing that I haven't encountered before. Highly recommended!
on 24 December 2008
I don't usually write online reviews, but on seeing that this book was getting some decent ones, felt obliged to do so. This is hands down the worst book on Russia I've ever read. I've lived and worked there on and off for a decade, including a year in Kazan, where Daniel's research never seems to involve leaving his hotel room for fear of actually discovering something about the place. He's the most repugnant narrator imaginable, convinced that everyone is worse than he is, and - humorously - that any bloke who's remotely friendly towards him wants to have sex with him. Lazily and patronisingly written, this is the absolute worst book imaginable to introduce people to the unknown wonders of Russia. Try Kapuscinski's Imperium for a beautifully written series of snapshots of life around Russia. Even though it's all well over a decade old, it's still an extraordinary and beautiful account of this most amazing nation. In contrast, Lost Kosmonaut is not worth the paper it's printed on.