Travel literature review: The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds

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The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds by Eric Enno Tamm

Rating: 2.5 out 5

Reviewed by Jani Patokallio

In 1906, Czarist agent and war hero Baron Gustaf Mannerheim set off on an epic two-year trek of ethnology and espionage across central Asia and northern China in the dying days of the Manchu Dynasty, eventually publishing a two-volume diary of his trip.  Precisely a century later, Eric Enno Tamm set off to retrace Mannerheim's footsteps, aiming to compare and contrast Russia and China then and now.  Great premise, but does The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds succeed?

Alas, while Mannerheim's military intelligence report may have earned him a promotion, as a work of literature his diary falls short. Even through Tamm's rose-tinted glasses it is 'as dry of titillating details as the Taklimakan is of water' and characterised by a 'stiff unreality', which would explain why it languished for nearly 70 years without a reprint.  Tamm is ill-equipped for the journey, confessing to knowing 'virtually nothing' about the region and has to rely on guides and interpreters for the entire trip. There are also some surprising design choices in the book: while there are extensive maps of Mannerheim's trip there's not so much as a single dotted line showing Tamm's often wildly divergent route, and a total absence of pictures is made even more inexplicable by the fact that we are repeatedly told Mannerheim was an accomplished photographer.

As a writer, Tamm flits between tracing Mannerheim's route, admiring his own bravery in tackling it, and trying to prove his theory that there are great parallels between China then and now. This leaves little room for writing about his actual adventure; even getting arrested by the Turkmenistani KGB isn't treated as a big event. After a rather tedious first half, the book improves somewhat as Tamm enters China and slows down enough to ferret out the occasional interesting nugget.  Nevertheless, like Mannerheim's original, this isn't likely to become a classic of travel writing; for a northern Chinese adventure paralleling Mannerheim's, try John DeFrancis' In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan instead.

Jani Patokallio folds, spindles and mutilates guidebooks into and out of databases in Lonely Planet's Melbourne office, and is contemplating a trip from Helsinki to Lhasa by train.

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