The odyssey of "Genghis Blues" | page 1, 2, 3, 4

The young filmmakers -- Adrian is 30, Roko 28 -- have been on a course for both the Gobi and documentary film since childhood. At home in Chicago, they spoke Serbo-Croatian with their parents, Czech and Yugoslav immigrants, and during summer vacations they visited family in Eastern Europe.

As early as they can remember, their mother was telling them that she hoped they would one day travel around the world -- a goal both brothers have accomplished, Adrian two times over. To further instill their wonder for a world beyond Michael Jordan and the Sears Tower, she removed the family's television's channel dial, leaving it permanently tuned to the PBS affiliate. While their schoolmates were watching baseball and sitcoms, the boys were absorbing hours of African wildlife shows, a series of documentaries about Papua New Guinea made by a two-brother team and "The Last Journey of a Genius," a film which they rank with "Star Wars" as a major influence on their lives. 

This obscure documentary recounts the story of the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and his attempts to travel to Tuva. As with the handful of other Westerners who knew about Tuva, Feynman had discovered the area through the unique postage stamps it had issued in the early 20th century. Enchanted by the stamps and by the resonant name of its capital, Kyzyl, Feynman became intent on visiting the remote, mountainous land. The Soviets, however, could not believe that this great mind was interested only in the scenery, and for 13 years, they repeatedly foiled his plans. The Belics, however, determined that they would somehow make it to Tuva.

During college, Adrian circumnavigated the globe twice with the Semester at Sea program -- heading west one year and east the next. He sailed up the Mekong River, meeting both northern and southern veterans of the Vietnam War, and had his first snorkeling experience in the Seychelles, off the coast of Africa. After years of PBS wildlife programming, Roko was also eager to get to Africa. In search of an inexpensive, unique way to see the continent, he and his friend Jeff became last-minute team members of a student group that traveled from Kenya to Malawi to deliver money and supplies to refugees of the civil war in Mozambique.

In order to afford their plane tickets, the two spent the first few weeks of the summer painting houses in a Chicago suburb, before flying out on Fourth of July morning. "We went from a tree-lined street with lawn chairs set up for the holiday parade, to baboons and giraffes crossing the road! It was just surreal!" exclaims Roko, still sounding 18. "I remember one of the first mornings of the trip, sitting in the street as the sun came up and hearing the Muslim call to prayer. It struck me as the most engaging, beautiful scene of my life. Now, looking back and having been in Africa again, I know that it was just some dusty street in a small town." 

The leader on that trip, Dan Eldon, was a year older than Roko and Jeff. He had grown up in Nairobi and traveled extensively, recording his experiences in his photo journals. Roko recalls the way in which Dan was fearless about new places and people, completely fueled by curiosity. They learned many tricks from him -- how to talk to border guards, how to read a potentially risky situation. Dan and the summer's experience accelerated Roko and Jeff's travel instincts, serving as a springboard for bigger, riskier adventures.

Two years later, they took time off from school to travel around the world. This time Roko planned to film their experience. He and Adrian had long been fascinated with video and Super-8 film; as kids, they had often talked their teachers into accepting films instead of research papers. During the African safari, Roko had been charged with documenting the students' journey, but too agog with his surroundings, he had left the job to other group members. This second time, he diligently filmed and edited the lengthy trip. With understated subtitles describing key moments in the journey, the resulting film is reminiscent of a Victorian travel monologue -- complete with suspense, narrow escapes and a cast of unexpected friends and nemeses, a depiction far more interesting than anything you'll find in glossy travel magazines. 

The video begins in a cramped dorm room in Russia, as Jeff, Roko and some local students who have befriended them share vodka and try on an army uniform, dancing and mock-parading around the room. One of the students takes them home to his family, where they're treated like special guests and, again, entertained with song and drink in the small, simply furnished apartment. Fleeting scenes of the Middle East follow, with Roko attempting to ride his first horse to the pyramids.

In Jordan's desert, the two friends hike into the abyss, romanced by the sound of the name -- Wadi Rum -- and a paved road that abruptly ends, eaten by sand. After two nights spent sleeping on a rocky overhang in order to avoid packs of marauding wild dogs, they trudge back out, filming each other as they go, both looking weak with hunger and cold. By the time the pair make it to Dan's house in Nairobi, they are so grimy you can practically smell them through the VCR. They record a silly afternoon with their friend, clowning through the urban streets. A year later, Dan died in Somalia while covering the war there. 

Soon after this point in the trip, they were mugged and their camera was stolen. They took divergent paths through Asia, with Roko still hoping to make it to Tuva. His final leg was a nightmarish train ride through rural China, headed toward a back entrance to Tibet. The farther west he went, the more violent and Kafka-esque the journey became. This progression culminated in the middle of the night when he and other passengers were herded through the streets of a deserted town by soldiers in riot gear. As the only Westerner in the lot, he never understood the soldiers' intent or what the crowd had done to upset them, though he was enraged by the random beatings of innocent people he witnessed. 

When he finally made it to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, he learned that Western travelers were not allowed in the countryside. Not having come this far to let a silly rule stop him, he donned a traditional sheep herder's coat and a Chinese hat. With the help of an equine expert Israeli traveler, he bought a horse. "I'd heard so much about Tibetan hospitality," he says, "that I figured I'd have no problem finding places to stay."

It was November and growing increasingly cold, so he was happy when on his second night a family did befriend him. The tiny granny of the household, all of 4 feet tall, was more concerned about the horse than she was the disguised Westerner. With a teasing smile, she turned the saddle around to its correct position, hoisted herself on the horse and took off at a wild gallop. 

But after that, his luck ran out. He sensed that the Tibetans had been reprimanded for talking to foreigners and were now shy of them. After two weeks of solo ramblings, his water bottle frozen solid as he awoke under a bush every dawn, he decided to go home. It was frustrating to know how close he'd come to Tuva, yet he was eager to go there with fresh eyes on a future journey. 

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