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The Currents of Thousands of Years: A Review of ROWING TO BAIKAL: SIXTY DAYS ON MONGOLIA’S SELENGE RIVER



Book cover of Rowing to Baikal

Peter W. Fong


ROWING TO BAIKAL: Sixty Days on Mongolia’s Selenge River


Latah Books / December 2023 / 330 pp / $19.95


Reviewed by Greg Pape / May 2024





 

A first glance at the book’s title, Rowing to Baikal, and you might imagine it fanciful, playful in tone like Skating to Antarctica or Kite-Surfing to the Moon. Or you might ask yourself, where is Baikal and why would one row there? If you open the book, you will find a map of a portion of the border between Mongolia and Russia. North of the border, in Russia, Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake and contains a fifth of Earth’s freshwater. Baikal’s principal source is the Selenge River and its tributaries. In Rowing to Baikal’s prologue, the author, Peter W. Fong, tells us:

 

The headwaters of this incomparable river arise nearly a thousand miles from the lake in the far north of Mongolia. The river basin is the site of numerous proposed dams and diversions, including both hydropower projects and schemes to supply water to faraway cities and mines. Its name—Selenge (or Selenga in Russian)—is said to derive from the Mongolian verb “seleh,” as in “to swim.” And trying to describe its intrinsic value can sometimes feel like swimming upstream—against a very strong current.

 

But rather than swimming upstream and fighting the current, Peter Fong dreamed up the Baikal Headwaters Expedition, with the goal of following the water from a mountain peak in Mongolia downstream (the river flows north) and across the border into Russia and all the way to the Selenge River delta and into Lake Baikal, gathering scientific data on the water, fish, and wildlife, and surveying the people who live along the river to learn as much as possible about this relatively unknown and gravely threatened river system.

           

Peter W. Fong is a writer, conservationist, and world traveler. He is the author of the prize-winning novel Principles of Navigation as well as a chapter book for children and adults, The Coconut Crab. Numerous stories, photographs, and articles of his have appeared in The Fly Fish Journal, High Country News, The New York Times, and others. He has worked as an artist-in-the schools in Montana and a travel guidebook writer in China. Since 2013, he has worked part of each year as a fly fishing guide in Mongolia, where he has developed a deep appreciation for the still relatively free-flowing Selenge River and the vast ecosystem it supports.

 

One of the river’s most charismatic inhabitants is the taimen, a long-living member of the trout and salmon family that can grow to five feet long or more. Fong tells us that the “taimen is listed as an endangered species in Mongolia and in Russia’s neighboring region of Buryatia.” Fly fishers from all over the world have been enticed to visit Mongolia for the chance to catch and release this amazing fish, and this sort of low-impact tourism has been a boon to people living along the river.


Taimen depend on a healthy, free-flowing river for their survival. As a river guide working alongside Mongolian guides and translators, Peter Fong has become familiar with and developed an appreciation for not only the river and the taimen, but also the people who live along the river. Early in his richly detailed day-by-day narrative, Fong notes that one of the goals of the expedition is to “draw international attention to a remote and beautiful landscape that has been stewarded by countless generations of nomadic herders.” The reader learns about the aquatic life of the river and the connections, both physical and political, between the land, the water, the changing climate, and the people and their history. Here is a paragraph from 100 pages in that gives us a casual lesson in Mongolia’s former dimensions:

 

The sun warms the valley so quickly that I’m in shorts before midday. My T-shirt bears a map of the Mongol Empire in 1280, more than a half-century after the death of its founder, Chinggis Khan. At that time, the southern half of Baikal was inside the imperial borders, as were many other familiar place names, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Lhasa, Baghdad, and Moscow.

           

As readers, we join the expedition and its small but memorable company: Misha, a Russian scientist; Lanie, an American Ph.D. candidate and fly-fishing guide; Guido, an intern with Mongolian River Outfitters (MRO); Pujee, the expedition’s cook; her son Enkhtuvshin; and Soyoloo, Peter’s friend and coworker at MRO serving as translator and boatman. When Soyoloo has to leave the expedition to return to work at MRO, he is replaced as translator by Anuka.

 

As in most expeditions, there will be unexpected occurrences, sudden changes in weather and in personnel, hardships, setbacks, and fearsome moments, as well as moments of humor, discovery, elation, and insight. When traveling down a river in Mongolia, sleeping at night in tents, there are things we don’t often experience in our daily lives: “At dusk, the sky fills with flights of cranes and bar-headed geese. Their calls sound long into the night, low above our heads, along with the noise of a new round of rain.”


And during the day in a drift-boat on the river, “an animal swimming across the channel . . . only its head was visible, but that head looked large and blocky . . . then the beast reached the far bank, clambered ashore, and began to run. Its tufted ears were set close to the head, while the tawny flanks reminded me of a mountain lion.  But the hindquarters were nothing like a mountain lion’s. Instead of a long-tailed lope, this animal moved with compact swiftness. The tail was a stub, and the hind legs stocky and powerful—they propelled the beast over the grass at an incredible rate, up and over each ripple in the terrain like something out of an animated superhero movie. I am glad that Anuka and Lanie saw it too, so that I don’t have to doubt my eyes: a lynx.”

           

Although this is a book about a scientific expedition, its author is not willing to rule out the mysteries and understandings of the shamanic view of things. In fact, when he comes upon a group of shamans performing a ceremony at the river’s edge, standing around a fire and launching an elaborately crafted sacred object into the river as an offering, he takes this as a hopeful sign. “All I can recall now,” he says, “is feeling that I am witnessing the labor of hundreds of hours set forth on the currents of thousands of years. Someone has taken care. Of and for the river.”

 

I think for Peter Fong and those of his readers who find themselves in the boat and on the water with him, feeling the river’s complex currents, its relentless pull toward the immense and ancient body of water ahead, there is a sense of wonder and awe, a physical and psychic attention that intensifies and calms, rises and falls, so that we feel we are not just on the river, but that the river has gotten inside us and we hear its medley of voices, some of which we understand and respond to. When I finished the book, I put it down for a day or two. Then I picked it up and read it again.



 

 

Greg Pape is the author of A Field of First Things (Accents Publishing, 2023) and ten other books. His poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Colorado Review, Cutbank, Iowa Review, Kyoto Journal, The Louisville Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, and others. Former Poet Laureate of Montana, he serves on the MFA poetry faculty of Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann School of Writing.

 

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