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Yakutsk (March, 1922)

By Leo Caesius

It was 3 PM when I finally arrived at the train station at Kulakovskij Prospekt, and as I disembarked with the crowd, I picked up a copy of the local newspaper, the Jakutija, at a kiosk just outside of the platform. It was written, of course, in Russian, like the street signs, the marquee on the theatre across the street, and just about everything else in this corner of the world. Despite the fact that it has been nearly a year since the Chinese annexed Yakutia from the Russians, no one group has yet emerged to assume the role formerly played by the Russians (who still number some quarter of the population) in the cultural life of the country. Among its official languages, which is to say Sakha, Buryat and perhaps half a dozen others (Russian conspicuously not numbered among them), only Mongol (spoken by less than 3% of the population) has any literary history whatsoever. Indeed, a single copy of the Mongolian journal Montsame, published in Urga, was displayed at the kiosk. It was dated almost exactly five weeks ago.

Of course, that was why I was here. Only a few days earlier, a kingdom had been declared in Yakutsk (from Nanjing, of course). As one of her first official actions in office, Queen Khongordzol the First, as she was styled, proclaimed a Yakut Language Academy and summoned all six or seven of Yakutia’s top language scholars to hash out the details of a language policy for the world’s youngest country. Naturally, the Russians wanted to keep the status quo, and they weren’t the only ones who were sympathetic to the idea. The idea of reeducating oneself in an entirely new language – let alone one that has no grammar, no dictionary, no works of literature, not even a script – well, that was pretty daunting, to say the least. Fortunately, if the rate of adult literacy in Yakutia even reached double digits (and I wouldn’t be willing to put money on that statistic), it wasn’t by very much. Yakut’s newly minted language teachers would be starting from scratch, any way you slice it. So, as you can see, the YLA had its work cut out for it, as we say back home.

The "majority" Yakuts were pushing for their own language, which is somehow related to Turkish; the only serious contender was the Buryat language, which is basically Mongolian, from what I’m told. Of course, there were some other suggestions, as well; a few linguists tendered other traditional languages of the region, such as Mongol and Chinese, and one crackpot even wanted to adopt Esperanto. I guess there’s one born every minute. To complicate things, the Yakuts are concentrated in the north, and the Buryats in the south – next to their Mongolian cousins. It is not entirely unimaginable that the country could potentially split over this issue along ethnic lines. Over the next few days, the YLA would be meeting to discuss the matter; in slightly more than a week, they would elect a president and vote upon the issues raised during the meeting.

I strolled down Kulakovskij Prospekt towars my hotel, the Tynyg Darhan. The stroll along the Prospekt, which afforded me a view of the Lena, was pleasant enough; the weather had started to grow warm and street children were frollicking along the banks of the river. An elderly man pushed a cart laden with dry-looking rings of bread down the street. I had a few hours before my meeting with a local linguist involved in the language policy debate, Tsyben Zhamtsarano. He was Buryat. Most of the scholars here are. Nearly all of them were educated in Russian universities out west.

We had planned to meet at a local café, run by some Armenians. I arrived early, sat myself down by the samovar, and enjoyed a warm cup of tea. The tea came with a lump of butter floating in it, which I promptly fished out of the cup and hid inside the folds of my napkin. It would obviously take some time for me to get used to the local cuisine. Shortly after I arrived, Zhamtsarano showed up on the scene, early as well. Zhamtsarano was a pleasant man with a face that always seemed to smile; he was dressed in a suit and tie, and his closely-cropped black hair was slicked back against his skull. We exchanged introductions and got down to business. I first asked him about the various proposals likely to be tabled over the next week.

"There are three major factions within the academy," he said in fluent Russian, "although the term ‘faction’ probably suggests that we have a greater difference of opinion than is actually the case. We are all from the same area of Yakutia, many of us coming from the same town, and most of us have been educated in Russia – in fact, most of us attended St. Petersburg University. Nevertheless, we have our differences about the direction we would like to take our nation."

"One group consists of those who seek closer ties to the West. This ‘faction’ is led by Genin-Darma Natsov; he’s a radical atheist, where most of us are religious. Buddhism is one of the few things uniting the Sakha with the Buryats and the rest of the groups living in Yakutia, although the religion of Shakyamuni, as practiced here, is heavily influenced by traditional beliefs. Nevertheless, he is opposed to any form of national identity based upon religion, whether it be the religion of the lamas or the shamans. He and Mikhail Bodganov feel that as the Western powers shed their national differences, we smaller nations must emulate them or risk being left behind. Both of these men are Buryats, of course, but they have the support of the Russians here in Yakutsk."

Vasilij Andreevich Mikhailov, who is a Christian but attends Buddhist services every year with his father, is grudgingly allied with this faction, for obvious reasons.

"The other major ‘faction’ is that of the traditionalists, who would prefer that we remain close to the traditions we share with our neighbors to the south, the Mongolians and the Tibetans. Several of them would even prefer that we let the Sakha and their Yakut Republic go its separate way and unite with the other Mongol tribes. This group is likely to push one of the more traditional scripts used to write Mongolian and Tibetan, such as the Soyombo script."

"Soyombo?" I asked, jotting it down in my notebook. I hadn’t heard that one before.

"The Soyombo script was devised over two centuries ago by the first Holy Venerable Lord, the spiritual leader of all the Mongol tribes. He had a vision of signs in the sky, which he used to represent the sounds of all of our sacred languages. He used it to teach his students translation from one language to another. It has a limited currency today, mostly for decorative use, but some of the scholars still cling to it for sentimental reasons. I personally am opposed to its adoption as it would keep us isolated from the West, even if it keeps us more closely tied to our neighbors to the south. I also feel that the Sakha might be less than enthused to adopt such a traditional symbol of Mongol civilization."

"We used to write Buryat and Yakut in Cyrillic, when we would write them at all, but that is a dead issue now. Even the Russians here are reconciled to this fact. Natsov and Bogdanov are likely to push some variety of the Roman alphabet, possibly the one devised by Bazar Baradievich Baraadin. His is widely acknowledged as the best script yet devised for representing the sounds of all the Mongol tongues, and could easily be adapted to represent the language of our Sakha brethren."

"As you might imagine, Baraadin and myself are somewhat closer to this ‘faction’ than the others. He seeks closer ties with the Mongols to the south and with our Tibetan brethren in faith. Yet his heart is truly in the West, where he spent much of his youth working as a translator. He speaks Russian, German, French, Italian, and even English fluently. The two of us are working to broker a compromise between these two groups.

"Another group seeks closer ties with China, our erstwile ‘liberators.’ This is Danzan Khorloo’s ‘faction;’ Danzan is largely responsible for the recent wave of Chinese businessmen who have immigrated to Yakutia. A decade ago you would have to travel hundreds of miles to the south to see a single Chinaman; today half the stores on Kulakovskij Prospekt are run by them. Mark my words, this is the beginning of something big. In a few years, no matter what happens here, Yakutia will be completely changed by the Chinese. We might even find ourselves outnumbered in our own homeland. Danzan, of course, welcomes all eventualities; he even has the idea that we will eventually write our languages with Chinese glyphs. Why anyone would ever want to do such a thing is beyond me!"

My informant must have noticed the glaze developing over my eyes, for he quickly switched the topic of conversation. "Are you familiar with the legend of the Abominable Snowman?" he asked. "A giant man, living far beyond the pale of civiliation, covered with hair … I believe you call him the ‘sasquatch’ in your country."

"You mean ‘Bigfoot?’." I could scarcely credit my ears. I had come here to discuss linguistics with this young man and he was feeding me yarns about bugaboos. For those of you who have been living in a cave, "Bigfoot" is a slippery character who only makes appearances to drunken yokels living in the Pacific Northwest. He’s usually described as tall – often as tall as 10 feet – and hairy. The only trace he ever leaves of his passing is a set of tracks, generally about a foot and a half long. The nickname, I suppose, comes from the size of his feet.

"Yes, that’s quite a story," I replied, "a tale old wives tell to the easily impressionable, their children and drunkard husbands."

"That may be so, but humor me for a second. The fact of the matter is that similar legends are told all over the world. In China, the same creature is called the Yeren. In the Himalayas, he is known as the Yeti. In Australia, he is known as the Yowie, and to the South Americans he is known as Mapinguari. It will not surprise you that the Mongol tribes tell of a similar being, known to us as the Almasti, which are similar to your ‘bigfoot’ but much smaller in size, being described as roughly the same height as a normal human being, albeit much more hirsute. It is my opinion – and this opinion is shared by my colleague Baraadin – that we are dealing not with a faery tale but a different species of hominid, which has evolved separately from mankind and survived unbeknownst to us by dwelling in the most distant corners of the globe, far from his cousins. In his push to conquer the world, mankind has finally come into contact with these long-lost cousins after untold aeons of separation."

I stiffled a chuckle. Zhamtsarano’s eyes blazed with an inner light. At first I thought that this might be some kind of a Buryat practical joke, but after looking in those eyes, I could tell that he was a true believer.

"I have a proposal to make," he said.

"I’m all ears," I replied.

"I realize that you were sent here to cover the founding of the Yakutia Language Academy. I cannot imagine what you did to deserve such an assignment, but I cannot imagine that you would have come here under your own volition."

I had to hand it to Zhamtsarano; he was very perceptive, if a little odd. His voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper.

"I am offering you the chance to cover the story of a lifetime. This same Danzan Khorloo, whom I have just mentioned, has given me a lead on a recent Almas sighting at Alag Usu to the south, near the border with the Chinese province of Mongolia. Both I and Baraadin will be leaving for Alag Usu tonight in the hopes of catching a glimpse of this elusive being. I have spoken with Baraadin, and we would like to invite you to join us."

"Will we make it back in time for the meeting?"

"Oh, but of course!" he replied. "Obviously we’ll be back in time. Believe me when I tell you that you would be making the right decision by joining us. Even if we do not track down the legendary Almas, you will have a chance to see our beautiful country; Yakutsk has its charms, I suppose, but you will run out of things to do here rather quickly, and we have a week to kill before the YLA begins deliberating our language policy. In the worst case scenario, we will run a day or two late and you may miss a lecture or two and the inaugural ball."

I came to the conclusion that I should join them, if for no other reason than I’d get to spend a week or so with two of Yakutia’s most brilliant scholars, ones who would prove crucial during the deliberations of the Yakutia Language Academy, which, after all, was the reason I had come here in the first place. While I traveled through the country with them, I would have the opportunity to familiarize myself more intimately with the political situation here. Later that evening, I was introduced to Bazar Baraadin, who shook my hand in the western fashion. Our guide for the trip, a lama from Urga by the name of Shirab the Hoarse, was a first-class athlete and had often traveled the route that we would be taking between Yakutsk and Urga.

Zhamtsarano did not disappoint. The territory that we passed through was indeed beautiful. We boarded a steamboat and traveled south down the Lena for three days, the shores of the Lena untouched by development and thickly forested with larch. We disembarked near its source south of the Central Siberian Plateau and joined a caravan at Irkutsk, headed south to the Mongolian border.

The caravan passed through Tara Bulag and Ulan Erhiin before arriving at the spot known as Alag Usu, a well which had long since become filled with sand. We arrived just before sunset and began to break down the caravan for the night. Suddenly, the caravan leader let out a startled cry. We all immediately stopped what we were doing and looked up. Perched atop a sandy mound to the south of the caravan was a man, covered from head to toe in hair. His long arms were held akimbo, his elbows bowed out and his hands straddling his knees, like an orangutan. His face was the only part, as far as I can tell, which was free of hair. The expression on that face was like no expression I’ve ever encountered in another man; even from that distance, I could tell that its bearer had no truck with the civilized world. It was radiant with a fierce and wild intensity.

No sooner did we see the creature than it was gone. Without a second thought, Shirab set forth in hot pursuit of the creature, followed by Baraadin, Zhamtsarano, and myself. As the sun set over our right shoulders we followed the trail in the sand left by that strange beast. After what seemed like many miles of pursuit, we stopped. The trail had run cold, and the sun had set. It quickly dawned on us that we were, without a doubt, lost.

During his sales pitch, Zhamtsarano had neglected to mention one very important fact to me: the Ala Shan desert, one of the driest in the world, is prone to extreme temperature changes. During the day, the temperature was a brisk 50 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. As night fell, it plunged at least 30 or 40 degrees. Once we stopped running after the Almas, we soon realized just how cold it was. Furthermore, we had no idea where the rest of the caravan was. We were completely exposed to the elements. If the cold didn’t get us, there were always marauding bears, wolves, and snow leopards… not to mention the Almasti. We had no way of knowing whether there were others afoot, and whether they were hostile in their intentions.

It was so dark that we could barely see one another. Within a few hours the moon arose, giving the entire area a pale, ghostly look. As soon as the light permitted, we began to follow our own tracks back to the camp.

As we started to climb up a ridge of sand, a flickering light appeared at its summit, immediately followed by another, and then another. Within a short period of time, the broadening circle of light illuminated a group of soldiers holding lanterns in their right hands. Their uniforms identified them as Chinese. They motioned towards us, indicating that we should follow them.

They brought us to an armored compound. Once inside, the commanding officer interrogated us in halting Russian. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Where are your documents?"

"Documents?" replied Baraadin. "What are you talking about? Which documents?"

"I need to see your passports and your visas to enter the Empire of China. If you do not produce these documents, I have to assume that you are here on illicit business."

"But we don’t need a visa to enter this country!" said Baraadin.

"No documents?" responded the Chinese officer. "Of course you do. You’re obviously not Chinese," he said, motioning at me, "and I can’t imagine what you were doing here, in the middle of the Ala Shan in the dead of night."

"According to the Chinese-Yakutian Treaty of Eternal Friendship, signed only this year, the border between Yakutia and China is open to all citizens of both countries," pleaded Zhamtsarano.

"I know nothing of this treaty," retorted the officer, "in any case, perhaps you can explain to me just what business brings you to China?"

Zhamtsarano and Baraadin were silent. I could tell that they were hesitant to tell the Chinese exactly what they were doing that night. Their academic reputations might well be at stake. "We were tracking a species of bear, sir," said I, "we lost track of both the bear and the time. That is how we came to be stuck in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the night."

"I hope that you were not planning to poach that bear?" said he.

"No, sir, nothing of the sort."

"Regardless, I must keep you hear until your story checks out with Nanjing. We are somewhat isolated from Nanjing, out here in Mongolia, but a supply truck from Urga visits us every week or so. We do not have a telegraph here but the supply depot in Urga has access to one. We shall relay your whereabouts to Nanjing through the supply truck and receive our orders once it returns. Unfortunately, the supply truck has departed only just yesterday. Until such time as it returns, you will be our guests here." The Chinese officer dismissed us.

Well, to make a long story short, we were detained near Erieen Teeg for nearly three weeks, and by the time we returned back to Yakutsk, the verdict of the YLA was a fait accompli. Zhamtsarano and Baraadin’s absence proved to be crucial, and Baraadin’s alphabet was narrowly defeated by the Soyombo script, which was to be adopted by all of Yakutia’s official languages. Naturally, neither of the two scholars were happy about this turn of events, and the Sakha were making noises about their dissatisfaction as well. For my part, not only have I missed the story that I was sent to cover, but I missed it following another wild goose chase of a story that never panned out. I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to my boss when I return!


To Episode 6


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