From Mongolia to Irkutsk with the Tofalar and a String of Twelve Horses
“IMPOSSIBLE. Permissions are not granted for what you want to do.” The Soviet ambassador in Paris was categorical in his refusal. Although perestroika was in the air, these were still the days when travelers supplied the authorities with a statement of their trip’s purpose, the names of the hotels they would stay at, and a list of the people they were likely to meet. Ninety-five percent of the territory I planned to travel through was off-limits to foreigners. Even requesting a high-ranking KGB officer as an escort, I had only one chance in a thousand of carrying out even a quarter of my plan to cross Siberia under my own steam from Mongolia to the Arctic Sea.
As he stood up to shake my hand, the ambassador joked: “The only person who could possibly help you is Mikhail Gorbachev!” And who could contact the president of the USSR on our behalf if not his French counter part, Francois Mitterrand? I had hunted boar one day with one of Mitterrand’s best friends. I drove down to his country house to explain the whole situation. He demurred, as I had expected, refusing to trade on his friendship on behalf of anyone. In the end, Mitterrand did help me out, at least indirectly, but it was more that I helped myself. After a year of sleepless nights, of shuttling back and forth between Moscow and Paris, of writing hundreds of letters and brooking countless disappointments, I finally found myself about to set off.
Then I was blackmailed by Russian authorities who told me to pay an enormous sum of money or I could not go.
I didn’t pay, and I set off anyway. It was summertime. We started our Asian journey on horseback, as it was the only way to travel across the vast mountains between Mongolia and Lake Baikal.