Well, a bit farther, I learned after I checked into the Ulan Bator Hotel and met the outfitter's local agent. Like as far away as a 12-hour ride the next morning in a UAZ, a Soviet jeep. It was then that I made a major mistake. I suggested to the agent that we might haul a few beers up to camp for the guides and staff.
Uh, vodka was what they mostly drank, the agent said.
So, fine, I said, a few bottles of that, then.
Cases would be better, said the agent. I was a little taken aback, but the local stuff was cheap, at least, about a dollar a bottle. I didn't know then that Genghis Khan vodka is perhaps the only liquor in the world that truly lives up to its namesake, leaving its partakers thoroughly sacked. And that it comes with foil caps that can't be resealed.
We set out on the 260-mile trip. Six times we were hauled out of the mud by passing trucks; we had neglected to bring even a shovel. Toward the end of the long day, though, we crossed a bridge over the Geroo. It was a big, burly river that surely held monster taimen. Only it was bank-high, with logs swirling down it, the water the color of hot chocolate. "Too flooded to fish," the agent said superfluously. "We're going higher up. To the Khuder."
The Khuder, though clear, was a brook compared with the Geroo. And slowly the truth filtered out. This was no taimen river, though there might be the odd taimen in it. The fish I was after were in the big rivers at lower altitudes. And those were all unfishable for the time being.
Not that fishing mattered. The minute the guides saw the cases of vodka coming out of the UAZ, mine was a lost cause. Every night after that, in my yurt, or felt tent, I listened to the carousing into the small hours, knowing the thankless task that lay ahead of me—dragging a guide and the jeep driver out of bed so that I could get an hour or two of fishing before the long, long lunch hour set in, followed by siesta time, followed by cocktail hour. In the end I would manage three days of fishing out of 17 on the road.
I did see my first taimen. That was when, thoroughly defeated, I was back in Ulan Bator spending another long travel delay at the State Central Museum. There, in a glass case, was an actual taimen. It was a tad dried up, but it still looked big and mean, 50 or 60 pounds. I aimed my camera at it, but—the final blow—the flash failed to go off.
On the long trip back home I fought the feeling that perhaps I was fated never to capture a taimen, even on film.
But this past summer, a new factor was fed into whatever mysterious computer fate was using to direct my search for a big taimen. Alaska Airlines began a service in through the back door of the U.S.S.R., from Anchorage over the Kamchatka Peninsula to Khabarovsk, in the eastern part of the Russian Republic, near the Chinese border, a mere six hours of flying time from Anchorage.