There’s a connection to be made between Pearl Buck in China and The Horse That Leaps through Clouds (Douglas & McIntyre, $34.95), a wonderfully fat new work of travel and history by Eric Enno Tamm, of Ottawa. As the 19th Century melted into the 20th, writes the author, “Western technology and imported consumer goods — along with radical political ideas, democracy and Christianity — were spreading to every corner of the Chinese Empire,” eliciting not joy but fear in Western capitals. One result was the so-called Great Game (the term popularized by Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim) in which Imperial Russia and Britain, along with France and some other European players, tried to out-spy one another to get control of Central Asia’s oil and other resources (a story well told in The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia and other works by Peter Hopkirk).
Just as this tomfoolery was winding down, Russia sent Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim on a two-year espionage mission from St. Petersburg to the farthest reaches of northern and western China. In later life, Mannerheim (1867−1951) became a controversial national hero in his native Finland and, for a time, its prime minister.
But, in 1906, he was a colonel in the tsar’s service, posing as an ethnographer and travelling with 16 steamer trunks on a mission that would last two years. Mr. Tamm sets out to retrace his famous predecessor’s steps, following the same path across, for example, Eurasia, that “vast continent ruled by a bizarre patchwork of oil-soaked aristocrats, one outlandishly ruthless crackpot and the world’s last major Communist regime and rising superpower.”
A sophisticated journalist indeed, Mr. Tamm gathers observations like gemstones as he crosses “a gauntlet of political and geographical extremes, including some of the world’s hottest deserts, highest mountains and cruellest dictatorships” stretching 17,000 kilometres. He is too clever to pretend he can intuit the future, but he clearly sees the present reflected in the past. For example, he notes while crossing Uzbekistan that “Khanates of blended races and tongues traditionally ruled Inner Asia. People identified themselves according to their local oases, their ruling dynasties and their allegiance to Islam. That didn’t quite fit the Soviet concept of nationality.”