Author Eric Enno Tamm is a journalist with firm ecological credentials and no fear of rattling cages. Applying for a visa in Vancouver, Tamm finds his path blocked by Chinese officialdom, but this only spurs him even more to imitate his hero. Forbidden entry as a Canadian journalist, he wings it in true Mannerheim fashion, by travelling under an Estonian passport. And off he goes, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, leaving a trail of irritated guides, furtive contacts and frustrated jobsworths behind him, contrasting Mannerheim’s accounts of Chinese militarism with his own 21st century perspective on what China is doing to its own environment and citizens.
Tamm’s quest is resolutely, bullishly inquisitive. He is arrested and interrogated by the Turkmen police before he even reaches China. He pokes his nose into the activities of clandestine missionaries, quotes harsh criticisms from named sources, and chronicles ecological disasters along the way. He has an eye for the fabric of life in Central Asia: not only the subtle exclusion of Muslim locals from a hotel restaurant that does not serve halal food, but also giggling tourists in shorts blundering around a sacred mosque, and the zealots who think they should be murdered for it.
His journey is riddled with historical coincidences and parallels. He enjoys the allure of “new bottles for old wine”, such as the paradoxical insistence of Maoist doctrine on blind faith, or the suggestion that the Red Guards who once smashed temples of Confucius could only become such fanatics after being raised in an essentially Confucian culture.
Like Mannerheim before him, Tamm travels undercover. He gets annoyed with his interpreters and jumpy in the presence of the Army, ever unsure who has shopped him and who is watching. But he also meets the movers and shakers of his age, and powerful evocations of the past, such as his encounter with the great-great-grandson of the woman Mannerheim knew as the Queen of the Alai Kirghiz. Tamm’s text fleshes out Mannerheim’s journey with historical contexts and adds data unknown in 1906. Read the full review >