From North Korea to Norway: Around Russia in 259 Days
20,000 kilometers through 14 states, across the Arctic Sea, always along the border: Erika Fatland has circumnavigated Russia and experienced the global political giants from the perspective of his neighbors.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you come up with the idea of circumnavigating Russia, after all, the largest country in the world by area?
Erika Fatland: One night I dreamed that I was walking on a big map. I roamed from country to country, always along the border with Russia, from North Korea back to my native Norway.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What happened after waking?
Fatland: I started to plan the route. I wanted to find out how Russia historically influenced and continues to shape each of the neighboring nations. "The Border" is a book about the neighboring countries of Russia, but of course indirectly one about Russia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were traveling 259 days in 14 countries. How did you travel?
Fatland: I used all sorts of means of transport - from North Korean propeller planes, where no one cared about belt-laying, and Chinese high-speed trains to slow Kazakh trains. I drove across the Caspian Sea on a ferry that did not leave until it was full. Elsewhere I rode horses, and there were reindeer in Mongolia. I also traveled by bus, taxi and of course on foot.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mostly you went on tour alone. What attracts you to it?
Fatland: This makes it easier to get in touch with local people. Some also felt sorry for me. For example, in China, where all activities take place in the community, many could not understand that someone volunteers to travel solo. But if you use common sense and do not take any unnecessary risks, the places I've traveled so far are safe even for single travelers. Most people are hospitable and happy that someone comes to their partly remote home.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How has the hospitality shown?
Fatland: In Azerbaijan and Georgia, it goes so far that you should be careful about compliments. For example, when I admired the beautiful shawl of an Azerbaijani woman, she immediately said: "Do you want him?"
15 picturesErika Fatland and "The Border": Polar Bears, Matryoshkas, Kalashnikovs
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The 14 neighboring states are very different. How do they look at Russia?
Fatland: Being the neighbor of the largest country in the world has never been easy. Norway is the only neighboring country that has never been at war with or has been occupied by Russia. This is mainly because the common, rather short border is very high in the north. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has the longest border with its neighbor in the north, with more than 7,500 kilometers. The annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine must have caused anxiety in the Kazakh government. It tries to locate ethnic Kazakhs in the border zones, probably to prevent these areas being dominated by ethnic Russians, who make up around a quarter of the population.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Even in the Baltic States of Estonia and Latvia, a quarter of the population comes from Russia - a legacy from the time when they were part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union.
Fatland: Yes, even there in the population after the outbreak of war in the Ukraine, the fear of Russian aggression has risen. I met young men and women who have plans for the case of an attack. They would then pick up the weapons and go into the woods to fight.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do the Russians live in these countries?
Fatland: A large part of the Russian-speaking population is poorly integrated into Estonian and Latvian society. In Tallinn, for example, they live in neighborhoods where more than 90 percent of the population are Russians. And almost all Russians live in the border town of Narva. Many of them do not even have citizenship.
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13.04.2019, 18:30 clock
The border: A journey around Russia, through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, ... the Northeast Passage (suhrkamp paperback)
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SPIEGEL ONLINE : You have hit hundreds of people along the border. Which impressed you?
Fatland: In Georgia, I met Dato Vanishvili. One day he woke up and discovered that the Russian border guards had built a barbed wire fence around his house during the night and that he was now trapped in the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. Since his wife is very ill and can not leave the bed, they could not move and had to stay on the wrong side of the border. I interviewed him through the fence, which was guarded by Georgian soldiers as Russian soldiers patrolled the area and sometimes arrested people who came too close to the fence.
SPIEGEL ONLINE : Who did you meet?
Fatland: In Belarus, for example, Maja Levina-Krapina told me her dramatic story. She is a Jewish survivor of the ghetto in Minsk and was rescued by her older brother. His friends had to carry her into the forest because she could not walk anymore. After the Second World War she became an acrobat. The meeting with Maja was a reminder of how people's lives are often turned upside down by the forces of world history.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: During your tour you have crossed many borders. Which experience will you remember?
Fatland: The transition from North Korea to China. A few meters behind the border, the landscape remains the same, but otherwise everything is different. People look different, have a different mentality. From the evening unlit and isolated country, I came suddenly into a modern country full of neon lights. And I felt free again.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And that means something in socialist China. What surprised you on your travels?
Fatland: The Northeast Passage - the sea route in the Arctic Ocean along the north coast of Eurasia. For four weeks I traveled with 47 other passengers in an old Soviet research boat about 10,000 kilometers. I expected polar bears, ice floes and loneliness, but we also saw thousands of rusty oil barrels on the beaches. It was a melancholy journey. Due to global warming, nature is changing so rapidly in the Arctic.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The circumnavigation ends in your home. What does the local border look like?
Fatland: When I paddled on the border river in a headwind with a kayak, the comparatively short 196 kilometers were suddenly very long. One day, together with my father, I wandered through the lonely tundra to Treriksrøysa, where Finland, Norway and Russia border on each other. This is marked by a cairn with a white three-sided pyramid. Near the campfire nearby, two young soldiers sat and grilled sausages. They greeted politely and smiled at us. "Are you hungry?" One asked in Norwegian.