Going First Class From Karakorum to Moscow

Letter From Mongolia

In August-September 1985, I traveled as a faculty lecturer with a group of Rice University alumni on a journey from Mongolia to Moscow by way of Siberia. The trip began in the village of Khujirt near Genghis-Khan's capital of Karakorum. From there we went northwest to the God-forsaken Ulan-Ude and the capital of Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk, and then westward to Krasnoyarsk, famous for its labor camps and more recently for the radar installations. Next came the matchbox city of Novosibirsk and its designer version, Akademgorodok, then Omsk (where Fyodor Dostoevski spent four years in hard labor for political crimes), Tyumen, and Sverdlovsk. Appropriately, we traveled across the Urals in the darkness of the night so that no one could take pictures of the landscape in which the Soviets make the bomb. Finally came Andrei Sakharov's home of Gorky, and then the centers of the empire: Moscow and Leningrad.

More than seven centuries ago, a similar journey was undertaken by the Mongol horsemen who beat all records in the speed with which they moved across the enormous Siberian plains and established an empire. It covered the territory of the present-day Soviet Union, and its hallmarks were contempt for the individual, glorification of the state, and a drive to unify the world under the scepter of the Khans. At that time, Moscow paid homage to the Mongols; now, it is the other way around.

Even in Mongolia there remain few traces...

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