In a spy’s footsteps, “relentless curiousity takes over”

Reviewed by James Macgowan, The Ottawa Citizen, September 29, 2010

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.