This one starts in New York, in the Time Life building on Sixth Avenue. I'd just got back from a six-week grind covering the 1990 World Cup in Italy, during which about 90% of the games were mind-numbingly boring - like, in fact, most football games. (My genes are rugby-orientated: down my way we call soccer 'Wendyball')

Anyway, there I am in Art Brawley's office at Sports Illustrated - Art was my boss at the time - doing the post-mortem when he says, in a long-suffering sort of way, "I suppose you'll want to do a fishing story now". I told him that this, indeed, was the case.

"Where?" he asked, with a long-suffering look, the mag having picked up the tab for trips to Arctic Canada and (yes, seriously) the Khyber Pass in the previous few months. I looked him straight in the eye. "Outer Mongolia" I said.

Art was never one to duck a challenge. Two hours later I was sitting in our (yes, we had our own) travel agency while they tried to figure out flights and visas for Ulan Bator

I'd been waiting for more than 20 years for the chance to get to big O M. Since I was a teenager I'd been captivated by the thought of catching what was usually then called the huchen (Hucho hucho), or Danube salmon, said to be the biggest of the salmonidae, a non-migratory predator which, I understood, lived in the deepest pools of the biggest rivers in Central and Eastern Europe. In 1973 I thought Id cracked it: I'd got in touch with Dr Alwyn Wheeler of the Natural History Museum and, through his scientific contacts behind (what was then) the Iron Curtain, I was given permission to travel to (what was then) Czechoslovakia and fish a couple of the major tributaries of the Danube - by this time I learned that the Danube was too polluted to hold the great fish.

Only when I got there the rivers were frozen stiff.

Miraculously, my permit was renewed the following year and - I'm cutting the story short here - I caught three huchen - none of them giants, the best around 15 lbs as far as I remember. More importantly, though, I met Dr Josef Holcik of the University of Bratislava who told me, 'Hey, man, the place you should get yourself to is Outer Mongolia'. He'd been out there, he told me, on an icthyological field trip and caught not hucho hucho but hucho hucho taimen, an Asian variant, believe it or not a much bigger fish. And he particularly recommended a river called the Shishhid (the river, incidentally, where John Bailey and his friends would eventually do very well with what, by now, I was calling, sweet and simply, 'taimen'.)

But this was the 70s and there seemed no way of getting into Big O M as I'd started to call it. I spent hours waiting at their Embassy (every so often a little man who looked exactly like the evil Oddjob in the Bond movie would open a door, stare at me then shut it again.) I even wrote to the late Sir Fitzroy MacClean, the great travel writer for advice. He told me, All you can do is go to Moscow, apply for a visa there and wait. I suspect this would be for three months minimum.) Sports Illustrated were pretty good about expenses but I didn't think they'd stand for that


The mighty taimen, though, never left my mind. And, in 1990 by heaven, Big O M opened up - it was the first of the Eastern bloc, almost, to do so, and way ahead of the old USSR. And it was the reason why I was now in Time Life's travel dept setting up a trip there.

It wasn't easy. In the end I had to fly via Beijing, hang around for a couple of weeks there and then catch a train for Ulan Bator. That journey took 28 hours, but I was told that there was a big plus - I'd be crossing the Gobi Desert, so I could see all the wonderful wildlife, like wild camels. What they didn't say was that the train crossed the Gobi at night

That had to rank as the world's worst train drive. Also talking advantage of the opening up of Big O M, and sharing the carriage with me, was a group of evangelical Christians from the American Bible Belt who were hoping to convert the godless Outer Mongolians. Meanwhile they decided they'd start work on a captive audience - me. I pretended I couldn't understand English, and horrified them by putting away a few major slugs from my duty-free Scotch. This didn't stop them from moving into hymn-singing mode, though, which made sure that any nocturnal wild camels that might have got within range swiftly sheered off.

In the end, though, I made it to Ulan Bator, where, red-eyed and aching all over I met the man who was arranging my fishing. He was highly optimistic. The camp was ready for my sole occupancy and, yes, it was made up of those wonderful, traditional, Mongolian felt tents they called yurts. The finest fishing guides in all of Big O M awaited my coming, together with the finest of camp cooks

"I'd better take a few beers up for the lads, then", I said. This, it would turn out, was my first and most catastrophic error.

Gosh, I've run out of space!

Next month - vodka and vultures in the wilderness


When I woke up, the whole team had gone, taking with them the jeep and what was left of the vodka. Meantime what looked like a pair of very large, very mean vultures circled overhead