Death by Drowning in Mongolia
We hadn’t considered death by drowning in Mongolia,
Though that is what fate seemed set to serve us
When the engine quit in the rusty Russian boat,
Leaving us adrift in the dark,
Halfway across Lake Hovsgol.
Already we had felt the weather’s wrath,
Stranded our vehicle in a river,
Waded floodwaters chest deep,
Slid off the dirt road through the endless wideness
Of grass in the treeless, fenceless landscape, all that,
Only to be stranded by a stripped gear
In the motor of a Russian boat on Lake Hovsgol.
No lights, no flares, no radio.
And who would we call, anyway?
Where, exactly, would we say we were?
Who would look for us?
No Search & Rescue here.
We would have to save ourselves
If there were any saving.
The crew, three men and two small boys,
More scared than even we were,
All of them were seasick.
And none of them could swim,
Not that it made any difference.
No point to life jackets here,
Except to keep your cyanotic corpse afloat.
And besides, there were no life jackets.
Anyway, it’s the cold that kills you.
Some facts about Lake Hovsgol:
Just south of Siberia, sister to Lake Baikal.
One of the world’s most pristine lakes.
20 million years old,
Mother Lake, Ocean Lake, Mongolia’s Blue Pearl,
84 miles by 22 miles, 800 feet deep.
Under ice so thick most of the year
Heavy trucks once used it as a winter road.
44 degrees Fahrenheit in high summer.
Swimming hard, you’d last, at most, an hour,
On a warm bright day in July.
Which this was not.
All night, the wind wailed, slapped the boat
With icy whitecaps, pitching, pounding, spinning, rolling,
Nothing we could do but ride it out.
Some slept, but I stayed awake, and wept,
Certain I had killed us all this time.
Even in the storm, the deck was better than the cabin,
Stifling with stale diesel fumes and fresh fear.
I gripped the rail till I couldn’t feel my hands,
Considered surrendering to the dark water
Then and there, but didn’t.
The worst night of my life.
By daylight, we could barely scry the shore,
Distant, blurry, but so miraculous to see,
Even if we never reached it.
A fellow passenger, a Danish engineer,
Rigged a sail from a striped tarpaulin,
Caught a breeze, seized the rudder,
And slowly steered us in, close enough
To shout for help. We had fetched up
At a holiday camp, the only one
Along a hundred miles of wooded shoreline.
Another boat raced out to ferry us ashore.
We knelt and kissed the ground.
In the camp’s warm kitchen, a beautiful, serene woman
With flawless skin and a leaf-green cashmere sweater
Served us hot stew and strong black tea,
Expressing soft-voiced sympathy for our ordeal
Until I suspected we were dead, on the boat
Or in the water, and this was the otherworld we’d come to.
I bought a bottle of the bar’s best vodka, Ghengis Khan
(Chin’-guss Han’, to a fellow Mongolian)
To commemorate our rescue
We all raised our glasses, and laughed, and joked,
Giddy with deliverance and drink, still shivering.
Then we rode two hundred miles on horseback,
Across snow-covered mountains, more flooded rivers,
Through pathless larch-forest taiga,
Then the broad Darhat Valley, with horse herds and buntings,
Undulating steppes that could swallow
People and horses as easily as Lake Hovsgol.
All the way to the reindeer herders’ home,
Where we slept on cut evergreen boughs,
And smudged blackflies and mosquitoes
With blazing branches.
The shamans told us the weather spirits were unappeased,
But predicted we’d get home.
I came away admiring Ghengis Khan.
Best trip I ever took, of many, before or since.
Every word of this is true.
The best trips are the ones that change you.
But even now, years later,
I still dream of that listing, creaking boat.
Of being lost and helpless in the roiling dark.
Of gripping the icy rail while gazing down
Into that merciless water,
Of hearing the waves slap the boat’s hollow sides.
Great title, great internal rhyme. Vivid and gripping to read.
My attempt at what the Anglo Saxon bards were doing with Beowulf and other stories. Like most forms, harder than it looks.