Lost In Mongolia: Rafting the World's Last Unchallenged River, by Colin Angus, Broadway, 288 pp., illustrated, $12.95
Go ahead, name the five longest rivers, in order.
First two, no-brainers: the Nile, the Amazon. Advanced geography fans might guess the Yangtze next. Fourth, the Mississippi-Missouri. And then? The Yenisey.
Colin Angus asked himself the same question. A veteran of the second successful expedition to raft the entire length of the Amazon (entertainingly told in his 2001 book, "Amazon Extreme"), Angus couldn't wait to be a pioneer. The virgin Yenisey remained to be conquered.
The trip he envisioned, like his Amazon adventure, was to follow the entire river, from its nascent dribble on a peak called Otgon Tenger in the Hangayn Mountains of Mongolia, then across Russia and Siberia, and finally to its mouth some 3,400 miles away in the Arctic Circle. The point was to travel the Yenisey under the power of his crew: no motors. They paddled a rubber raft and kayak for roughly the first quarter, then rowed a wooden dory with two massive oars for the rest. Adding to the challenge, the team had a limited window. Eight months of the year, the river is jammed with ice.
"Lost in Mongolia: Rafting the World's Last Unchallenged River" tells of Angus's five-month ordeal. It's a misleading title, though, since he does not say if other top rivers like China's Huang He, Russia's Ob-Irtysh, Amur, and Lena, Southeast Asia's Mekong, or Central Africa's Zaire/Congo have been "challenged." Besides, a quick Google check reveals no unanimity on the question of the top 10 waterways. (Technically, for the Yenisey to even make the top five, it needs to be thrown into the Yenisey-Angara river system.)
Record-book debates aside, the journey is remarkable. Surely the most harrowing episode is Angus's separation from his two teammates. While still in Mongolia, the raft capsizes, spilling their belongings into the river. Angus paddles off in a kayak to retrieve a bag containing their documentary film footage. Without food, clothing, bedding, or sun protection, he lives by his own wits for 12 days.
When he meets Mongolian peasants living in tepee-like huts called gers, Angus is reduced to pantomime and scribbling Neanderthal-like cartoons to describe his mishap. Details like this -- or how, later, the temporarily coed crew takes care of personal hygiene in an 18-foot wooden boat with no toilet -- amusingly satisfy our curiosity to know the nuts and bolts of this expedition.
But in recounting his tale, Angus does not have the help of Ian Mulgrew (the Vancouver Sun reporter who assisted him with his last book). On its own, Angus's prose can be spare and matter-of-fact -- reading more like "dear diary" than a literary work capable of penetrating insight. Upon being awarded a grant to finance the trip, he resorts to cliches: "I felt as if I were dreaming. All those sleepless nights. . . ." In striving to analyze his drive for adventure, Angus struggles with such flat insights as, "the more challenging the situations you put yourself in, the higher you set your goals, the more you will get out of life."
That is unfortunate, because "Amazon Extreme" had set a high standard, offering in-depth character sketches of the team members, crisp exchanges of dialogue, and at times illuminating historical background. Without Mulgrew, Angus's near daily entries -- covering the arrival in China on April 20, 2001, and the eventual destination deep in the Arctic Circle's Kara Sea on Sept. 20 -- advance the narrative efficiently. But the opportunity to go beyond "what we did on the river today" is frequently squandered. For every striking image the author conjures, such as, "When the last iridescent streaks of day had been wrung from the sky," the reader must suffer a mundane "The night had seemed endless" observation. A firmer editorial hand could have seen the author through these stylistic lapses.
That "Lost in Mongolia" eventually succeeds as stripped-down armchair adventure is less a testament to the author's writerly gifts than to his story and spirit. In spite, or perhaps because of, adversity, Angus's crew attracts hospitality. In a Bratsk Sea harbor town, they meet a mafia boss named Vladimir. Prohibited from leaving Russia, he touchingly befriends the quartet, snapping his fingers to lavish them with food and entertainment. After one such feast, Angus asks what his crew can do in return:
"His levity vanishing, he soberly looked at the floor and said, `What I would really like, you can't give me.' There was silence.
`I want to travel the world, but I can't. . . . Your company is the only gift I need. You are my window to the outside world.' "
In a day of heightened suspicion of foreigners and unfamiliar cultures, "Lost in Mongolia" instructs us that you are never truly "lost" among generosity and camaraderie -- which, Angus's adventure proves, happily thrive in the most far-flung places.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer and poet who lives in Paris.