This is the math I do in my head: 1,500 divided by 25 equals 60. That’s the length of the Selenge River and its uppermost tributary in kilometers, divided by an anticipated average distance per day, meaning that after 60 days, I’ll be rowing an inflatable boat atop the biggest body of fresh water on the planet: Russia’s Lake Baikal.
Because 60 days is only 2 months, which does not seem long at all, I redo the arithmetic, starting at the river’s headwaters in the Ulaan Taiga, a sparsely populated region well-known among Mongolians for its shamans and reindeer herders, then continuing downhill, to that unknown place where the initial trickle will gather first into a brook and eventually become a navigable stream.
At this point in my calculations, the expedition should be barely a week old, though no doubt our forced reliance on horses and camels will make it feel like a much longer span. Seven days, perhaps, before we can climb into the boats, before it’s all riffles and pools and very few bridges: the floating, Russian army-surplus monstrosity below Bayanzurkh, the concrete model near Mörön, the highway span north of Bulgan that I know only by hearsay.
Here’s another bit of math: of the river’s 1,500 meandering kilometers, I am familiar only with about 10 percent, a mere 100 miles or so. By that reckoning, embarking on this expedition from Mongolia to Siberia is akin to setting out on the road from Paris to Budapest and only knowing the way to Reims.
That is, it would be like that, if we were riding bicycles instead of rowing boats, along a route liberally populated with restaurants, hotels, and other travelers’ conveniences. But we’re not—and for that I’m grateful.
Instead of sampling roadside cafés, we will collect data on water quality, mayfly populations, taimen genetics, and angler effort, among other things. And my obsessive calculations? A symptom, perhaps, of both anticipation and anxiety, like a rookie guard mentally rehearsing plays before tip-off, or a teacher counting heads before a field trip.