by Karen Robards
ISBN: 0786256540

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Lost in Mongolia
by Jason Brown

Colin Angus is one of those rare sorts who actually does those things the rest of us MEC catalogue fetishists merely dream about. Only thirty-one years old, the affably-mugged man from Vancouver has already rafted the Amazon River, undertaken a five-year solo sailing voyage around the globe, and, most recently, been the first to navigate the entire course of the Yenisey River, the fifth longest in the world. The travelogue of that latest adventure, Lost in Mongolia, is a chronicle of the five months, between April and September of 2001, it took him to do it.
After a series of financial and bureaucratic hassles the journey begins in Mongolia, with a casual ascent of the remote peak of Otgon Tenger (4000 m) whose melt waters mark the absolute beginning of the Yenisey system. In the process of laying claim to being the first adventurers to run the entire river, it's very important to Angus and his companions, fellow Canadian Remy Quinter and Australian Ben Kozel, to do the entire route without the aid of motorized power, from these first glacial drips to the icy delta at the Yenisey's terminus in Northern Siberia where it empties into the Kara Sea.
Like the cultural and geographical diversity of the land that the extensive river passes through, the tone of Angus's journal ranges back and forth in character. Much of it consists of objective-"we had a light rain in the morning" account-reportage, which slips into the tales of a rambling horny dude at certain rest stops along the way. But the book is most satisfying when it becomes an honest and contemplative account of extreme trial. Like most narratives of its kind the real climax in Lost in Mongolia is not the moment of journey's end but the near and actual disasters that occur along the way when things fail to go as planned. The centrepiece is the eponymous incident, in which Angus is separated from his companions and lost for several days on the Yenisey with literally nothing more than his kayak and a pair of pants. Compared to the rest of the travelogue, this retelling dips into deep emotional waters as Angus, starving and suffering from exposure, has to fall back on innovative survival techniques and make gambles with his life in order to find his way back to shelter and his companions.
With so little to rely on, there is a real chance that he won't make it. At the end of his rope, Angus contemplates risking the river at night, both to keep warm from the paddling and to save precious time in finding the next village. Standing on the shore of the river as the last bits of light die in the sky, he imagines his own death after which a herder finds his corpse floating in the river. He has no one to turn to for advice but himself and the consequences of a wrong decision are practically certain to be fatal. We are given a taste of his loneliness when he looks up and "[sees] the blinking navigation lights of a jet telegraphing its way across the sky. I imagined the passengers nibbling on their meals, sipping wine, and watching a bad in-flight movie."
Even when he's not having a nervous breakdown or desperately sucking sap from a birch tree, Angus can be engaging and humble. His writing is disarmingly casual and occasionally rises to provide unpretentious but amusing metaphors: "The landscape was uniformly brown, with tufts of vivid green scrub grass poking through here and there like a punk's Day-Glo hairdo." The book falters when he attempts to squeeze some kind of larger meaning out of his adventure. A nod towards a felt closeness to the "spirit" of the river, for example, feels superficial, when the bulk of the journal describes a lot of yeehaa-ing through rapids past the faces of bewildered locals, interspersed with periods of hard living R&R.
If anything, it seems as if the quest for the glory of being the first party to complete the entire river conflicts with his getting to know the spirit of the river. There are any number of instances in which the reader may feel frustration with Angus as he hurries past items of interest in the rush to complete his voyage on time. Towards the end of the journey, for example, they come across the Boguchany dam, a Soviet mega-project abandoned in the early nineties. Hundreds of workers, forsaken like the dam by their government employers, have returned to the project of their own volition to continue the construction. They fish and farm around the hulking steel and concrete dam and work as a community towards the nominally final result of completion. And just when is that deadline? "Maybe twenty five years, maybe a hundred," one of them tells Angus. It's a shame that Angus, happening upon Boguchany, couldn't spare a half day or so colouring his, and our, understanding of such a remarkable place.
A second criticism is the tendency for Lost in Mongolia to feel like an advertisement for itself. What I mean by this is the intrusive awareness that in successfully completing his journey Angus is creating a marketable commodity that will please his many sponsors and further him along his own chosen career path. This expedition is subsidised by many business interests-from Iridium to Gore Tex-who expect this piece of adventure to bring their products some exposure. Early on, Angus explicitly meditates on the differences between his previous, more spontaneous, and largely self-funded adventures, and this one in which more is riding on the success of his journey than just self-satisfaction. An overriding interest in commercial gain is the cause of his getting lost in Mongolia in the first place: after a spill Angus dashes off downriver to retrieve a bag containing video footage for a project funded by National Geographic. This same interest is also why there's an entrepreneurial current throughout the account-there's Angus's hustle to finance each step of the way, the promoting, the wheeling and dealing, and the film and the radio interviews by satellite phone. This in itself needn't be a bad thing. More time spent reflecting on the burgeoning commodity of adventure-travel might have produced an enlightening sub-plot in the narrative. But that's not how the book was written, and consequently it's slightly galling that every time a water filter or pocket knife is given brand name placement together with mini reviews of their performance in the text.
I'm not asking for Peter Matthiessen. Angus is a competent writer and comes across as a strong and distinct character, but I suspect the experience moves and shapes him in ways that his account fails to communicate. Lost in Mongolia is captivating and thrilling but so much more could have been drawn out of the experience if less attention were paid to the notion of "race" and more attention paid to place.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us