Daniel Kalder belongs to a unique group: the anti-tourists. Sworn to uphold the mysterious tenets of The Shymkent Declarations, the anti-tourist seeks out the dark, lost zones of our planet, eschewing comfort, embracing hunger and hallucinations, and always traveling at the wrong time of year. In Lost Cosmonaut, Kalder visits locations that most of us don't even know exist -- Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El, and Udmurtia. He loves these places because no one else does, because everyone else passes them by.
A tale of adventure, conversation, boredom, and observation -- occasionally enhanced by an overactive imagination -- Kalder reveals a world of hidden cities, lost rites, mail-order brides, machine guns, mutants, and cold, cold emptiness. In the desert wastelands of Kalmykia, he stumbles upon New Vasyuki, the only city in the world dedicated to chess. In Mari El, home to Europe's last pagan nation, he meets the chief Druid and participates in an ancient rite; while in the bleak industrial badlands of Udmurtia, Kalder searches for Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, and inadvertently becomes a TV star. An unorthodox mix of extraordinary stories woven together with fascinating history, peculiar places, and even stranger people, Lost Cosmonaut is poetic and profane, hilarious and yet oddly heartwarming, bizarre and even educational. In short, it's the perfect guide to the most alien planet in our cosmos: Earth.
When Halder tells a passenger on a train to Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, that he and his friends are just tourists, she's convinced he's either stupid or lying. After all, who would willingly visit what turns out to be "a fairly sleepy provincial Russian city distinguished by a big mosque" and a McDonald's? But Halder, a Scottish writer living in the former Soviet Union, is fascinated by the rundown "pseudo-countries" we never hear about in the news, believing them to be symbolic of all humanity. His "appetite for black holes" eventually leads to further travels in Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia. Unfortunately, while his rhetorical enthusiasm remains strong throughout, a certain repetitiveness creeps in. Halder wanders around the depressingly grim surroundings, cobbles together whatever cultural facts he can find online and has mostly frustrating encounters with the locals ("I don't much like talking to people"). And while his real-life misadventures, like a visit to a sacred pagan grove with a high priest he meets through a mail-order bride distributor, are outlandish enough, he still engages in distracting fabrications and daydreams. Halder's refusal to set himself up as an international expert is admirable, but his depiction of the remote republics of a "shadow Europe" remains uneven. B&w photos throughout.