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.
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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.