Photo: Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, courtesy of the Finno-Ugrian Society and the National Board of Antiquities, Finland
Photo: Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, courtesy of the Finno-Ugrian Society and the National Board of Antiquities, Finland

from Issue 5

Steppe 5 Cover

A Secret Agent on the Silk Road

by Eric Enno Tamm

Exactly 100 years ago, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim spent two years travelling across Central Asia. Ostensibly leading a scientific expedition, Mannerheim went on to write a comprehensive report of his journey for the Russian General Staff. Eric Enno Tamm uncovers a shadowy figure in the Great Game

Perhaps the best-known Finn in history, Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was a baron and cavalry officer, White Army General, liberator of his country, Commander-in-Chief during World War II, one of the greatest military strategists of the twentieth century, statesman, President of the Republic, and defender and hero to his people. Lesser known, however, is his role as an intrepid explorer and imperial spy for Tsar Nicolas II in the Great Game.

From 1906 to 1908, Baron Mannerheim – whose Chinese name, according to an official visa stamped in his passport, was Ma Dahan (‘the horse that leaps through the clouds’) – undertook a heroic journey across the then-little-known world of Central Asia through China, from St Petersburg to Peking. He travelled some 14,000 km, mostly on horseback, accompanied by a small band of Cossack soldiers and a capricious interpreter.

After two years, he returned to St Petersburg and personally debriefed the Tsar about his trip. He wrote up his strategic investigations in a secret report to the Russian General Staff, but it was not until 1940 that his travel diary was published, along with 307 photographs. Reviewing Across Asia: From West to East in 1906–1908, Sven Hedin, one of the greatest Silk Road explorers, stated that Mannerheim was assured ‘a place of honour in the exploration of a great continent, a place of honour which in reality belonged to him thirty years ago’. Yet the book, published during World War II, went largely unnoticed at the time and became a mere footnote in Asian studies.

Mannerheim’s journey took him from St Petersburg to Moscow, south down the Volga River and across the Caspian Sea. ‘Lights peep out from far and near, surrounded by the mysterious shapes of the hills, and illuminate endless rows of oil derricks that appear out of the dark earth like an army of ghostly creations,’ he wrote of his arrival by ship in Baku, the centre of the Caspian’s oil boom a century ago. He then sailed to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi) and travelled by rail through the Silk Road oases of Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and Osh, where he organised a caravan to take him over the Alai Mountains to China’s westernmost outpost, Kashgar. From there he ventured along the southern edges of the Taklamakan Desert to Khotan and then returned north, zigzagging across and surveying the mountain passes of the Tian Shan range. Mannerheim then headed into Gansu Province, travelling along the Great Wall as well as areas occupied by obscure Uighur tribes and Tibetan nomads, into the Yellow River basin of China’s central plains. He finally swung north to Inner Mongolia, and arrived in Peking after two years on the road.

Mannerheim was ostensibly leading an ethnographic and archaeological expedition. He travelled part of the journey with Paul Pelliot, a renowned French archaeologist and Sinologist and one of six European explorers dubbed ‘foreign devils’ by the Chinese, who conducted archaeological raids on Chinese Turkestan (today Xinjiang) at the turn of the century. The ‘foreign devils’ spirited away entire libraries of ancient manuscripts, frescoes and relics of lost and buried Buddhist cities. Mannerheim collected artefacts and ancient manuscripts, wrote detailed descriptions of local cultures, sketched towns and took photographs along the way.

It was an epic, physically gruelling journey up steep alpine trails, over glaciers and through scorching deserts. ‘The sun burnt me, my head felt heavier than usual and I had an almost irresistible inclination to lie down under a tree and give up riding any further,’ he wrote about nearing Kashgar. ‘In vain I tried to refresh myself with a few succulent peaches. My mouth was parched and my tongue stuck to my throat and gums.’ Yet it was not just the geography and climate that were hostile. Writing about his visit to the Tibetan lamasery town of Labrang, Mannerheim describes one tense encounter: ‘The bareheaded lamas, dressed in red, appeared on all sides like an army of ants. Hooting, jeers, stones, etc.’

The scientific expedition was just a cover. Its real purpose was not ethnography but espionage. Mannerheim was no scholar, but a thirty-nine-year-old colonel in the Russian army. (Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire at the time.) He was one of the last secret agents of the Tsar in the Great Game being played out by the Great Powers in Central Asia at the end of nineteenth century. This veritable terra incognita was a nexus of duelling empires – Japanese, Chinese, British and Russian – whose shadowy agents played cat-and-mouse for military and commercial intelligence in the dusty oases and bustling bazaars in the heart of Asia.

Mannerheim’s secret mission was to chronicle the modernisation of China. In the last years of the Qing Dynasty the Empress Dowager Cixi began implementing ‘intensive reforms’ to the Empire, modelled on the success of the Japanese, who had shocked the world by defeating the Russian Empire in Manchuria in 1905. Mannerheim was ordered to collect information on Chinese reforms of the government, military, industries and new educational system, gauge the subversive attitude of China’s ethnic minorities (particularly Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongols), note the influence of the Japanese and explore routes for a potential Russian invasion of China’s western provinces. He also met the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in the mountaintop temple complex of Wutai Shan, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in China. His Holiness had escaped to China and Mongolia after the British invaded Lhasa in 1904. Mannerheim told the Tibetan spiritual leader that the sympathies of the Tsar and Russian public were with him in his struggle against both the Chinese and British.

‘He listened to my polite speeches with unconcealed satisfaction’, Mannerheim wrote. ‘Then I had to explain the working of a Browning revolver that I had brought as a present. He laughed, showing all his teeth, when I showed him how quickly it could be reloaded by putting in seven fresh cartridges. I apologised for not having brought a better gift, but after two years’ travel it was difficult to have any other objects of value than weapons. The times were such that a revolver might at times be of greater use, even to a holy man like himself, than a praying mill.’

Mannerheim mapped 3,087 km of road, sketched twenty garrison towns, took 1,370 photographs and dispatched secret reports back to the Russian General Staff in his personal correspondence, written in Swedish, to his father.

Mannerheim’s epic journey of archaeology and espionage is as compelling today as it was 100 years ago. Hundreds of books are now being published about China’s rise and reform just as they were a century ago when such books as The Awakening of China (1908) and China in Transformation (1898) enthralled Westerners about the potential of a ‘New China’. Central Asia, too, is back in the headlines and in the midst of a new ‘Great Game’, as analysts describe the struggle for the region’s vast reserves of oil and gas.

‘The remarkable awakening of the ‘Central Realm’ from its centuries of slumber, the political re-birth of China characterised by the policy of intensive reforms of the central government, was of very special interest at the time of my journey.’

Those words are as true today as when Mannerheim wrote them a century ago.

Eric Enno Tamm is an author and journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. In 2006, armed with Mannerheim’s travel diary and maps, he retraced the baron’s route across Asia.