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Book Review: In a spy's footsteps

October 3, 2010

Ottawa author retraces historic journey across China
By James Macgowan
The Ottawa Citizen
September 29, 2010

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of
Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China
By Eric Enno Tamm
Douglas & McIntyre, $34.95

OTTAWA -- If I were a completely different person
-- one with guts, determination and a zest for
life — I wouldn’t have any need to read Eric Enno
Tamm’s fascinating and exhausting-by-proxy new
book, The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds. I
would make the 17,000-kilometre journey from St. Petersburg to Beijing myself.

But that’s the great thing about
travel/historical books such as this. While the
writer’s getting, say, heat stroke, armchair
travellers who lack guts, determination and a
zest for life can get up at the slightest hint of
personal discomfort, find a cool, refreshing
drink and then return to the journey at hand feeling none the worse for wear.

In this case, it’s two journeys: Tamm’s and
Finnish icon Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim’s, the
latter having made the same trip, more or less,
in 1906. He is, in effect, Tamm’s travelling
companion. “By reading his journal and following
in his footsteps, I hoped to share common
experiences and perhaps bond with the Baron,”
Tamm writes. Each night, he turns to Mannheim’s
journal for “context and comfort" as well as
"hints of what lay ahead on the road and, perhaps, in China’s future."

Though born in Tofino, B.C., and currently living
in Ottawa, Tamm is of Estonian descent. He grew
up listening to his father tell Second World War
stories, many of them involving Mannerheim, who
was then the commander-in-chief of the Finnish
army. (Finland and Estonia are very close, both
culturally and geographically.) These stories
piqued Tamm’s interest, but it wasn’t until 2000
that he first heard about Mannerheim’s Asian
journey and started thinking about retracing it.
It would prove to be a daunting task.

Mannerheim’s trek had begun in the aftermath of
Russia’s humiliating loss in the Russo-Japanese
war of 1905, a defeat the Czarist regime
attributed to a failure of intelligence. With
China thought to be another rising giant in the
East — as it is today — Russia was determined not
to make the same mistake. So Mannerheim was
summoned to St. Petersburg (at the time, Finland
was part of the Russian Empire, and Mannerheim a
Russian officer) and offered a secret mission to China.

On July 6, 1906, disguised as an ethnographer, he
boarded a train and left Russia’s capital, not to
return for two years. Exactly 100 years later,
Tamm follows suit but he has a problem: The
Chinese have somehow gotten wind of his plan and
deny him a visa. Luckily, this is not an
immediate concern and won’t be for thousands of
kilometres, which he will traverse by plane,
train, ferry, car, horse and camel.

Reaching Turkmenistan by ferry, Tamm finds
himself both ill and saddled with a very pretty
but sour Belorussian interpreter. He soon manages
to get himself arrested in Ashgabat, the
country’s capital. He has no idea why, until he
is forced to sign a confession admitting that he,
a foreigner had been out past 11 p.m. Apparently that’s not allowed.

In Uzbekistan, he takes a drunken tour of Andijan
-- where government troops opened fire on
protesters in 2005, killing hundreds — and
miraculously does not get arrested after the
police stop the car he is in. And on it goes.

It’s a captivating ride in an area of the world
that has gone largely unreported and Tamm is an
engaging guide. When he finally reaches the
Chinese border, he passes himself off as Estonian
— not a great leap when you have an Estonian
passport — and is astonished to find that he has
"snuck through the back door of China."

In China, Tamm’s relentless curiosity takes over.
He seeks out and finds missionaries — he’s not a
fan, it’s obvious — talks with dissidents and
gets a first-hand look at the destruction coal
has wrought in the everyday life of China:
Crossing the Yellow River on the Peking-Hankow
railway one day all he can see is a "sooty haze"
as "thick and blue as cotton candy.” But the
worst place on earth would seem to be Taiyuan,
the capital of Shanxi Province in China’s north,
which he calls the "most blighted city I have ever visited."

"Garbage was everywhere. Heaps smouldered on the
streets. So many torn bits of plastic hung in the
trees that they looked like fall foliage. The
roads were horrendously dusty, potholed and
cracked. I saw a teenage boy crawling on the
sidewalk, dragging his deformed legs behind him
and begging for change. A sooty film covered everything."

Tamm is pretty faithful to Mannerheim’s route and
alternates his thoughts, experiences and
impressions with those of the Baron. (It would
have been nice to have some pictures, and it’s
astounding the book has none. But Tamm has set up
a very detailed and interactive website to fill
in these blanks. ( and it’s worth a look.)

Mannerheim’s trip was epic for the time and it’s
fascinating to read his impressions a century
later. His China had one-third the people, far
fewer factories but was thought to have an
enormous amount of future potential, much like
today’s China. Both Chinas flirted with
democracy, but the Qing dynasty 100 years ago was
not able to keep a lid on the forces it had
unleashed. Tamm is not sure the current regime
will suffer the same fate as the Qing’s, but as
he makes clear, China is a complicated, almost
unknowable place, no matter how much time you spend in its grasp.
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