Travelling with an Anti-tourist

Daniel Kalder’s debut Lost Cosmonaut is a nihilistic celebration of four Russian places so far off the tourist trail that most people—including Russians—will never have heard of them. The semi-autonomous republics of Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia all lie west of the Urals, and thus in Europe, a fact that serves only to make them even more compelling as unusual destinations.

Lost Cosmonaut obliterates all romantic notions of what a travelogue should be. The result is a startling and original book that really will broaden your mind.

After graduating in English from Edinburgh University in 1997, Kalder, who is originally from Dunfermline, decided to ‘travel the world in pursuit of adventure’. He went first to Russia, and has been there ever since. Then his friend Joe persuaded him to take a trip to Tatarstan.

“I knew that one place looked very much like another, so I didn’t really want to go. I went on a whim in the end. Then, on the train, the ticket inspector just wouldn’t believe we were tourists; that anyone in their right mind would be interested in visiting Tatarstan. It was pretty funny.”

And so, the concept of the anti-tourist was born. Lost Cosmonaut opens with ‘The Shymkent Declarations’, a spoof Soviet- style manifesto from ‘the first international congress of anti-tourists’. ‘The duty of the traveller’, it proclaims, ‘is to open up new zones of experience. In our over-explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes and grim urban blackspots.’

Says Kalder: “I like industry, I like decay and I like wastelands. Natural beauty doesn’t appeal to me. I find places no-one thinks of much more interesting because you are free to invent them for yourself and to make your own connections.” The four places in the book are unified by what Kalder calls ‘the secret underground resistance of non-entities… the invisible dwellers in invisible cities.’

Though Lost Cosmonaut is often very funny, it would be a mistake to regard it as a kind of real-life ‘Molvonia’. The sheer grimness of the places Kalder visits is ultimately rather sobering. “I didn’t want to write a book where I would be the jolly foreigner poking fun. I wanted to embrace the sameness of these places, and their neglected people. And to record their desire to be of significance; a desire that we all have, despite our complete irrelevance before the cosmos.”

The concept of the Lost Cosmonaut came to Kalder in a dream. After orbiting the earth for years, a cosmonaut receives his orders to return to earth, his days in space at an end. But alone for so long, he has grown estranged from people, preferring solitude and the contemplation of the stars. So he switches off his intercom, and sets forth to drift eternally through space. “I admire this lost cosmonaut. Nobody will know what he discovers. Nobody will care. But it’s interesting to him, and that is enough.”

Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

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