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Today in Alternate History
Day in Alternate History Blog
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
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
Vasilij Andreevich Mikhailov, who is a Christian but attends Buddhist services
every year with his father, is grudgingly allied with this faction, for obvious
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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