“A magnificently provocative book” – Georgia Straight

Reviewed by Alexander Varty, Georgia Straight, October 19, 2010

Once one of the world’s forgotten trade routes, the Silk Road has recently become so popular that there are more would-be travel journalists trekking the old camel trail than there are tractor trailers on the Coquihalla (way too many, in other words).

Ottawa-based Eric Enno Tamm, however, has taken a relatively untrodden path across the sands of the Gobi and from there into the heart of China, and that has a lot to do with his travelling companion: the ghostly shade of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim. Aristocrat, horseman, architect of modern Finland, military strategist, and—in the years between 1906 and 1908—spy for the Russian emperor Nicholas II, Mannerheim seems a figure out of some Ruritanian adventure novel, but proves a wise and prescient guide for a lone Canadian abroad.

Tamm’s book—named for Mannerheim’s romanticized translation of his Chinese moniker, Ma Dahan—has a tripartite agenda. It’s a telling of the Finnish hero’s “lost” years, during which he travelled Central Asia posing as an ethnologist, recording the tribal customs of the Turkmen, Uigurs, and Uzbeks. It’s a record of Tamm’s own Asian journey, which began 100 years to the day after the baron set out on the road. And it’s an attempt to survey the booming enigma that is present-day China, with special attention paid to the consequences for its citizens, the local environment, and the global economy.

A successful attempt, I should stress, although it’s not always pleasant reading. The baron’s China, although desolate and poverty-stricken, still retained touches of its former glamour, with its scholar-poet administrators, ancient ceremonies, and formal gardens. The China Tamm encounters a century later is a throbbing hive of smog and corruption and, yes, wealth, although not much of that trickles down to the $2,000-a-year workers he finds staring into their computers at a Xi’an data mill.

That’s a scene the baron never could have envisioned, although Mannerheim did beat contemporary reporters to the punch when discussing the role that coal would play in fuelling China’s economic revival, the controversial policy of flooding “ethnic” areas with Han settlers (already under way in Mongolia a century ago, as it is in Tibet today), and the infrastructural stresses that, then as now, are cause for serious worry over the country’s future. He was a brilliant man, and this is a magnificently provocative book.