A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China

Two epic journeys along the Silk Road – past and present – offer a riveting and cautionary tale about the breathtaking rise of modern China.

On July 6, 1906, Baron Gustaf Mannerheim—who decades later became the President of Finland—boarded the midnight train from St. Petersburg, charged by Tsar Nicholas II to secretly collect intelligence on the Qing Dynasty’s sweeping reforms that were radically transforming China. The last Tsarist agent in the so-called Great Game, Mannerheim chronicled almost every facet of China’s modernization, from reform of education, foreign investment and industry to the military, Muslim borderlands and Tibet’s struggle for independence.

On July 6, 2006, writer Eric Enno Tamm boarded that same train, intent on following in Mannerheim’s footsteps. Initially banned from China, Tamm devises a cover and retraces Mannerheim’s route across the Silk Road, discovering both eerie similarities and seismic differences between the Middle Kingdoms of today and a century ago. Trekking overland 17,000 kilometres to Beijing, he runs a gauntlet of political and geographic extremes including some of the world’s hottest deserts and cruellest dictatorships.

Along the way, Tamm offers piercing insights into China’s past that raise troubling questions about its future. Can the Communist Party truly open China to the outside world yet keep Western ideas such as democracy and freedom at bay, just as Qing officials mistakenly believed a century ago? What can reform during the late Qing Dynasty teach us about the spectacular transformation of China today? “Study the past if you would divine the future,” wrote Confucius. Tamm’s epic quest turns out to be a cautionary tale.

“Tamm has written a grand sweep of a narrative. It combines a long and arduous physical journey… Full of wild characters, harsh geography, and historical surprise, Tamm’s journey reveals him to be at once an intrepid adventurer, fine writer, and discerning historian. Altogether a wonderful book.” – Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence