1. Yarlyk for ruling

No matter how long you feed a wolf, it still looks toward the forest.
Russian proverb

From our office window we could see a beautiful panorama of downtown Moscow. Forests of tall buildings rose in every direction like strange rock formations, and distant smokestacks looked like a chain of active volcanoes. Thunderclouds moved across one by one, caressing dusty streets below with brief showers. No one of my supervisors was in the room, so I forgot about my computer and watched the rain-striped view.

A very different image was in my head: calm, almost flat, sunburned steppe, faint shadow of distant mountains dissolved in midday haze, old wheel tracks going from nowhere to nowhere, smell of sage in the wind...

Ringing telephone brought me back from Mongolian plains to Moscow's Central District.

"Company meeting", my boss' secretary told me.

By the time I got to his office, all our department was already there.

"We have one topic to discuss", my boss said, "the immoral behavior of Vladimir".

I didn't know what to think. I couldn't recall doing anything immoral within the last few days. But our Belgian-owned company tried to resemble Western capitalist enterprises (as our boss thought of them) in every possible way, including strict dress code and puritan corporate culture, so you never knew if you'd done something wrong.

"At the celebration of our Belgian Chairman's birthday, you were overheard telling an obscene joke to another employee", said my boss.

Now I remembered.

A man comes home from work and tells his wife:
"Today we had to go through psychological profiling."
"What does it mean?" his wife asks.
"We were asked some stupid questions, some of them very embarrassing."
"Like what?"
"Well, they asked me if I was an exhibitionist during puberty..."
"And what did you answer?"
"I said I always was a communist, and nothing else!"
"You are an idiot! What if tomorrow the exhibitionists will come to power?"

My boss declared that I'd not get my bonus for the month, and let everybody get back to work. I started compiling some price lists, but accidentally looked out of the window, and instantly found myself back in Mongolian grasslands.

I always wanted to visit Mongolia. It is a unique country, especially from a naturalist's point of view.

A few centuries ago, a broad unbroken grassland belt stretched across Eurasia, from Hungary to Manchuria. Huge herds of wild animals inhabited it, together with numerous nomadic tribes always fighting with each other. Once in a while, some of these tribes - the Hun, the Turk, the Scythians, or others - attacked their sedentary neighbors, and so became known to historians.

Genkhis Khan (Chinghiz Han, actually) was the first to unite the nomads. Under his rule, the Great Steppe was no more a permanent war zone. It became a prosperous empire with splendid culture, democratic laws and excellent roads. Many adjacent countries asked Mongols for friendship and protection, to obtain safety and access to trade routes. Mongolian help allowed many small Russian kingdoms to avoid Polish and German invasions. Eventually, the Mongols forced these kingdoms to merge into a single state. Ungrateful Russian historians later declined the positive role of the Mongols. It became customary to blame them for all of Russia's problems of the following 700 years.

Genkhis Khan revived the Silk Road, and made it possible to travel from Europe to China. He established roadside stations where travelers could get fresh horses. When Alexander Nevsky, a wannabe Russian king, decided to ask the Khan for yarlyk (endorsement) for ruling, it took him only one year to visit Karakorum, the Mongolian capital, and get back to Northwestern Russia. Marko Polo also used these roads, and later wrote a colorful description of Karakorum - a splendid megapolis, meeting place for poets, artists, and scientists from all parts of Asia. The Empire enriched the cultures of all surrounding countries - not only semi-wild ones, like Russia and Hungary, but also the ancient centers of civilization, such as China, Persia, and later India.

Soon, the Mongolian Empire broke apart, and the Great Steppe was divided between the new superpowers: Russian Empire in the West, and Manchu Empire in the East. The eastern part of the Steppe is very different from the western part. In the western grasslands of Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan, the snow cover is thick in winter, but there're almost no rains in summer. In Mongolia, Transbaikalia, and Northern China, winters are very dry, but summers are normally rainy. This climate is much better for wild and domestic ungulates, so both wild animals and nomads were always more numerous in the East. That's why invaders such as the Hun and their descendants the Mongols usually came from the East.

The steppes occupied by Russians were less lucky. First, almost all wild ungulates were hunted to extinction; later, all grasslands except for a few tiny Nature reserves were converted to wheat fields. But Mongolian steppes were left almost untouched. Nowadays Mongolia is the last place in the World to see vast expanses of temperate grasslands, while the tallgrass prairies of North America, pusta of Hungary, and pampas of Argentina have all been ploughed. And, as if it was not enough, Mongolia also has wonderful deserts, pristine mountains, virgin forests, and splendid nomadic culture, virtually unchanged since Genkhis Khan's days...

Happy chatter of my co-workers informed me that the day was over. I turned off the computer, changed clothes (wearing business suite after hours would be too much for me), and spent the evening in the narrow streets of the old part of Moscow. After a hour's search, I found a small dilapidated building looking more like an ancient wooden cabin. It was the office of once-famous Russian-Mongolian Expedition.

This scientific body was created in the late 1940-s to explore the Nature of Mongolia - at that time a huge, dinosaur skull-marked white spot on biogeographic maps. Since Perestroika, Russian citizens had to obtain visas if they wanted to visit Mongolia, and these visas were almost impossible to get. The only way around was to become an Expedition employee.

The Expedition boss, Petr Dmitrievich, was well known in scientific circles as a man of great wisdom. Under his leadership, the Expedition survived the hardships of the 1990-s, when many other Soviet scientific institutions went extinct. I had never met him before, and I didn't really expect him to help me. In fact, I would be less surprised if he called the police. I had been working in the reptilian world of "Western-style" companies for almost a year, so I really forgot what normal people looked like. It was hard to believe that the old climate of friendship and mutual help, once so common among field researchers, still existed anywhere within 3,000 km from Moscow.

But Petr Dmitrievich didn't call the police, and didn't throw his heavy ashtray in my head. What was even more hard to believe was that he didn't ask me to pay him a few thousand dollars for his help. Instead, he agreed to list me as an expedition member, and offered to use their base camp in Ulan Bator. He also recommended that I get a letter of recommendation from some Western organization. As he put it, "Russians are currently much less popular in Mongolia".

It took me five days to collect all the paperwork necessary to quit my job, and only five minutes to create a letter of recommendation from the National Geographic Society on my computer. Interestingly, I never had to use this "yarlyk" during the trip, except to get a train ticket from Moscow to Ulan Bator. Next Tuesday, loaded with food for five days of railway travel, I made it to my shelf in the "common car", which is the cheapest of all railroad cars in Russia.

The car was packed with Russian miners with their families, returning to Mongolia from vacations back home. In a more expensive car I met some Western tourists. They really enjoyed this expensive five-day trip along the Transsiberian, which for everybody else on the train was more of a curse.

I never could understand why Transsiberian Railroad was so popular among foreigners. All land along the route had been colonized by Russians many decades ago, so there's nothing to see except for small, heavily polluted and uniformly-looking towns, second-growth forests, and one brief view of Lake Baikal. Other Siberian railroads, such as BAM or Taishet-Abakan line, are much more interesting, but almost unknown outside Russia.

The train was slow, and the weather was bad. Soon, I was bored to death, and miners' daughters were too shy to talk with, so I borrowed a well-known Australian-printed guidebook to Mongolia from one of the tourists. It wasn't a good idea. At that time, I knew as much about Mongolia as an average American knows about Russia, where bears walk the streets, everybody plays balalaika and good democrats fight with evil communists. But that guidebook really scared me. With a sadistic pleasure, its author described dirtiness, poverty, stupidity, aggressiveness, and ignorance of the Mongols. Just one quote:

"If, despite our warnings, you dare venture outside Ulan Bator, and get stoned by some hateful villagers, chances are you've been taken for a Russian. So, try crying loud "America, America!", because that's the only Western country most Mongols know by name."

Later I found Mongols to be one of the most friendly and hospitable nations on Earth, but at the moment it didn't seem funny. The only thing that comforted me was that most of these descriptions could as well be applied to my own country. A miner who was sharing the compartment with me confirmed my worries: "Mongols are very difficult people". His wife added: "I feel sorry for them". "Why?" he asked, surprised. "Because we'll return to Russia sooner or later, and they'll have to live their entire life in Mongolia!"

I returned the guidebook to its owner, and started learning Mongolian from an old Soviet textbook. It's not a difficult language. Here are some Mongolian words:

toilet - bie zasah gazar
loath of bread - potz
weekend - byamba nyam
gun - buu
bad - muu
dust - oo
cat - muur
I don't speak Mongolian- bi mongoolor yardaggui
where? - haana?
when? - hezee?

Double vowels are, in fact, spoken in almost the same way as singular ones. Currently, Mongols use Cyrillic alphabet with two extra vowels. There are talks of returning to the much more complicated Mongolian script, currently in use in Inner Mongolia.

As we moved east into Siberia, train stations started looking more and more like bazaars. Locals surrounded the train to buy or sell beach sandals, sweaters, hairpins, or to exchange huge bags of goods with their friends inside. Cheating was widespread: the most popular scheme was to pretend to buy something from a train-riding merchant, and run away without paying. Merchants, in turn, tried to sell damaged goods in the last second before the train left. On almost every station, someone used the emergency stop handle in a desperate attempt to get his money back.

We passed Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia, turned off the Transsiberian, and entered the grasslands. Azure-winged magpies appeared in riverside willows, Dahurian partridges could be seen from time to time, and the first eagle circled high above the steppe.

We spent six hours at the last Russian station, as guards searched the train, chasing visa violators and kids with no tickets. Western tourists got bored and asked me to translate the graffiti on the station building, but these slogans were boring, too.

Then the train crawled on for two kilometers, reached the first Mongolian station (the exact copy of the Russian one), and stopped there for five more hours. During all this time, the toilets on the train were closed. Poor shy miners' daughters had to stay in lines to use a narrow gap between cars. But the tourists were really excited: finally, something exotic!

Drunken Mongolian border guards took my visa papers. It was a good thing I had copies - later I found out that these papers were also required to leave the country.

When I looked outside next morning, it was still raining. Wet steppe, green as a lawn, rolled towards distant ridges - western foothills of Hentei Highlands. And there was wildlife everywhere - mostly animals that in Russia can only be found in the Red Data Book. Each small lake was guarded by demoiselle cranes and black storks, utility poles were decorated with tawny eagles and upland buzzards, dozens of Mongolian marmots could be seen in tall grass. There were no permanent settlements, but lots of gers (nomads' tents). Obviously, the abundance of wildlife was a result of fauna-friendly attitude of the locals, rather than lack of human population.

The train crossed a low mountain pass, descended into Tola River valley, and finally arrived in Ulan Bator.

To endure storms in a freezing sea,

In a barge with a dying engine;
To climb icy mountains,
Panting under an unliftable backpack;
To crawl across a bleak desert,
Breathing hot dust;
To hike in rain-soaked swamps,
Feeding taiga mosquitoes;
I can tolerate everything,
But not spending summer at home.

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