At night, Hensel said, he heard heavy splashings. He went down and threw out small, dead fish on heavy cord lines. In the morning on the lines were five big huchen, and each one was more than a yard long! They were not the Czech Hucho hucho hucho, a char, but an Asian species that he knew very little of, Hucho hucho taimen. He thought that in Mongolia taimen could reach 150 pounds. But no one tries to catch them, because fish is not in the Mongolian diet and fishing has no part in their culture.
I stared at the plump, innocent face of Hensel as he made his devastating announcement. In that instant he had replaced a cured obsession with a new one. He would never know how often, across two decades, the image of a mighty silver-gray and crimson char would swim up unbidden out of my subconscious.
At first my hopes were high. I knew, of course, that the Mongolian People's Republic, formerly Outer Mongolia, permitted occasional hunting trips, and that it had an embassy in London, where I then lived. So I headed for the embassy the minute I returned from Czechoslovakia.
I needn't have rushed. If you ever saw the movie Goldfinger, you will recall Oddjob, the malevolent manservant who menaced James Bond with his lethal, steel-rimmed bowler. What you probably don't know, though, is that back in the '70s he was moonlighting as doorman at the Mongolian embassy in London. It was Oddjob, I swear, who opened the door when I rang the bell.
"Write a letter," said Oddjob in response to my questions, slamming the door.
I wrote numerous letters, to no avail. I wrote to officials in Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, to no avail. I received a letter from a travel writer, suggesting that I go to Moscow and try to get a visa from the embassy there. Not having that kind of time, I had to confess to myself that the great taimen of Central Asia, the greatest fish of what may be the final frontier for angling, was permanently locked in the Impossible Dream mode as far as I was concerned.
Then came 1990 and Mongolia's first free elections. Although the Communist party came away with a convincing victory, it was clear that the party would have to continue to listen to opposition voices. The changing political climate made the fishing trip to Mongolia a real prospect.
My quest for the taimen was slated to become a tangible matter rather than an enduring figment. At least I thought that was what was to happen. The surreal adventure began with a 30-hour trip to Beijing and a daylong stopover there, the high point of which was a visit to the Ming dynasty tombs—overrun with T-shirt vendors and the air loud with, I swear it, the voice of Tom Jones bellowing, in English, his plans to lie beneath "the green, green grass of home."
What followed was a 27-hour train ride across the Gobi Desert, which might have been interesting (wild camels, etc.) had I not been lumped in with seven American born-again Christians from someplace in Georgia, who, when they weren't lustily singing hymns and making plans to convert the Mongolian nation in the 14 days before their visas expired, solicitously inquired as to the state of my spiritual health.
Despite these omens, I felt that I was ahead of the game. The next morning, as dawn broke over the Gobi, I realized I had reached Mongolia, and that rivers full of monster taimen were not much farther ahead.