Mongolia Portraits

In May 2014, Rachel Ben-Shmuel and I set off on a ten-day trek through the Altai Mountains of far western Mongolia. We were retracing the journey taken by my grandparents, who had escaped from Siberia during the Russian Civil War in December 1919, lived in Mongolia for two years, then, pursued by the Red Army, made a treacherous winter crossing of the mountains before finally reaching the Gobi Desert and entering China. My mother was born along the way.

In her eighties, my grandmother Evpraxia Smolianikoff wrote a memoir of that adventure, describing their route with sufficient geographic detail that we were able to ask our guides from Mongolia Expeditions in Ulan Bator to plan an itinerary that followed her footsteps. We were likely the first Americans to travel through these remote valleys and nomadic settlements. Everywhere we met Mongolians and Kazakhs who greeted us with warmth and undisguised curiosity about us and why we had come. They welcomed us into their gers (yurts), fed us, and listened to our stories. Many had heard of the Russians who had lived among them in the early 20th century.