Making Tracks

John Man Takes A Walk On The Wildlife Side In 'Gobi: Tracking The Desert.'

Gobi: Tracking The Desert, by John Man (Yale University Press). Cloth, $24.95.

IT'S BETTER TO travel to far-distant Mongolia in summer than in winter. In summer the temperatures can hit 115 degrees, but that's easier to survive than the 40 below of January. Both are preferable to spring, though, when, John Man writes, "brutal cold gives way to sand-blasting gales that can flay exposed skin and strip the paint from a car."

Man has seen these Mongolian weathers up close, and what he has to say about them will dissuade less than intrepid tourists from making their way to the punishing steppes of North Asia.

But readers with a taste for adventure will envy Man his good fortune in having been able to wander Mongolia freely, and with exceedingly interesting adventures.

In his college days, he writes in Gobi, British journalist Man talked his way onto a research expedition that was to go off dinosaur hunting in the high Asian desert. The expedition never materialized, but Man was already a year into studying the Mongolian language, learning such useful phrases as "Keep down your dogs!" and "How are your pastures?"

Having come that far, Man nurtured his dream of visiting Mongolia -- a dream which took decades to realize.

When he finally landed in the Gobi, it was to report on Mongolia's peculiar wildlife, a menagerie that includes rare wild camels and horses, mountain sheep, wolves, desert bears and the elusive snow leopard. In the company of sympathetic Mongolian guides, he traveled over deserts and mountains to track these creatures in the wild, and his matter-of-fact descriptions add rigor to a literature dominated by Peter Matthiessen's lyrical but not especially scientific memoir The Snow Leopard.

By sheer luck -- and here environmentalists will want to cheer -- Man arrived in Mongolia at a time when wildlife and wild places were the center of public discussion. With the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, Mongolia's economy had collapsed; Mongolians had responded, as always in times of stress, by leaving their cities and returning to the countryside to live off the land. Now that the economy was improving, Mongolians were going back to their offices and shops, but with a new determination to protect the backcountry from the excesses of development that had ravaged neighboring China and Russia.

As a result, the freely elected Mongolian government had taken an unusual step. Not only would it encourage preservation by creating huge national parks and wilderness preserves -- and the Mongolian system is far more extensive than the American -- but it would also declare that the entire, vast nation was a special biosphere reserve, attracting both ecotourism and funding from international wildlife organizations.

The plan met with wide support, and, Man is happy to report, Mongolia's wildlife seems to be thriving in a time when wild nature is in decline around the world.

Man's book, centered on wildlife though it is, does not overlook the human element. Man offers an engaging picture of Mongolia's people, who, having survived a long history of totalitarianism, are now seeking better lives for themselves.

And, although Man writes of weighty issues, he does so with good humor. He acknowledges that he was often out of his element in a land where a request for directions might be met with the reply, "Go toward the sun for three hours and turn left when you see the camel's corpse." In such situations, Man writes, he and his guides "were not exactly lost. We just had no clear idea where we were."

He gives his readers a very clear idea of what life is like in the harsh Mongolian desert, a region about which very little has been written in English. (Most books with "Gobi" in the title are set in Dzungaria, a bordering region of China.) Whether they choose to follow in his footsteps or not, readers will be grateful to John Man for having undertaken his adventure -- and for having written this moving story.