‘The Horse That Leaps Through Cloud’ Documents China’s Silk Road, Faded and Unraveling

If nothing else, Eric Enno Tamm deserves top marks for ambition. The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds — a cumbersome title — was the Chinese name given to Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a native Finn and the last tsarist spy in the Great Game. Tamm attempts to link Mannerheim’s journey along the Silk Road in the early 20th century with his own 100 years later. The resulting book, part-travelogue and part-biography with rigorous social historical analysis, demands perseverance, and rewards it.

So on what level does Tamm succeed? His accounts of the myriad environments he encounters are meticulously detailed but not particularly emotive. Much of this is epiphenomenal. Once the Silk Road bustled, but China has endured two revolutions since its halcyon days. Today, main streets in poor towns are dotted with cheap hotels; the cities are huge, modern and faceless. Tamm often delves into Mannerheim’s journal as comparison, revealing a decay his own account can only suggest. The romance of the Silk Road has given way to the cynical conformity of communist China.

Elsewhere, Tamm’s observations are not so far from Mannerheim’s. At several points in the journey there is a sense that ethnic conflict is barely contained. The Muslim Uyghur’s in China’s western provinces and Mongolians in the north both have legitimate grievances. Subject to ignorance from the authorities, they are also prey to Christian missionaries. Mannerheim’s brief was to gather information of political and military import. But his observations have done little to improve the social standing of China’s ethnic minorities. The far more familiar plight of Tibetans is usurped as Tamm experiences similar hostility to Mannerheim.

Another similarity between the two journeys is a lack of companionship. During the first leg of his journey, from St. Petersburg through the ex-Soviet states Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Tamm is warmly received. But the Chinese are less interested in his journey or even his presence. Kasim, a Uyghur driver with whom Tamm spends a large part of his journey, is “reticent”. Mannerheim is similarly incompatible with his longest-serving companion, the French scholar Paul Pelliot, one of the leading Sinologists of the 20th century.

Tamm’s interaction with those he meets is limited. As a result, there’s little insight into the author’s personality; a problem he faced with the ancillary character. “I had hoped that Mannerheim would become my travelling companion. By reading his journal and following in his footsteps, I hoped to share common experiences and perhaps bond with the Baron. Yet from his youth, Mannerheim was obsessively private.”

It’s left to Tamm’s discerning historical analysis to leave a lasting impact. The China of Mannerheim’s trek is vastly different to today’s economic powerhouse. On the cusp of revolution, debates about political reform, technological progress and educational philosophy masked frailties. Today, China’s next step is just as ambiguous. Is democracy achievable? Can China sustain its remarkable economic growth? Can it reconcile ancient values with modern practices? What exactly is the Communist Party aiming for? Ominously, Tamm feels that, “cynicism has replaced Communism as the belief system that drives Party membership. Most young people who join the party are careerists, not idealists”.

In a marvellous final chapter, Tamm reaches Beijing and collects his thoughts. The various threads of his journey converge and Tamm offers as lucid an insight into China’s malaise as any foreigner could be expected to provide. At times, it appears as though his narrative may unravel at any moment. But, not unlike the fine fabric which gave Mannerheim’s route its name, it is stronger than it appears to be at first glance.

RATING 7 / 10