The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

China’s four great ancient capitals

I’d better put up some posts and photos about Southeast Asia because I have another trip coming up soon, but let me post one more post on mainland China. It’s about the four great ancient capitals of China – Beijing, Nanjing, Xian, and Luoyang, which I’ve been lucky to have visited. These four were all capitals during China’s greatest periods, such as the Tang Dynasty (Xian), the Han Dynasty (Luoyang), the Ming Dynasty (Nanjing), and so on. As Chinese history is so complex and turbulent, the capital was changed many times, and these four cities were capitals several times as well.

The first one I listed above is China’s current capital and probably most famous city (though Shanghai might beg to differ), so most people are definitely familiar with it. To be honest, Beijing actually isn’t even that ancient, with its first turn as capital in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but it’s still one of China’s most historic and important cities. The second, Nanjing, is also very well-known, though not as big on the travel itinerary for foreign tourists, which is a shame. The third, most people should know but mainly for its world-famous terracotta warriors. The fourth one, Luoyang, is the least well-known, both because its glory days were the furthest away, and also since it hasn’t developed as much as the other cities, especially being in Henan province, which is rich in history but not so rich in actual socioeconomic terms. But just like the others, it’s got several very interesting sites such as the Longmen Grottoes (a UN World Heritage site), a great museum, and China’s first Buddhist temple, the White Horse Temple. I even wrote an article about Luoyang for China Daily.

My favorite capital is Nanjing, which is also my favorite Chinese city in general. It’s very pleasant, charming, modern, even green with lakes and large leafy parks, and of course, historic. It has a more laidback vibe than other cities like Beijing or Xian, as well as nearby Shanghai, but it’s not a sleepy, boring place either. I’ve actually been to five capitals though, with Hangzhou (Southern Song Dynasty) being the fifth. Hangzhou is actually more famous for its West Lake than for being a former capital, but it’s an attractive city. All five are well worth visiting, with Luoyang being quite close to Xian (less than 2 hours by high-speed train) so it’s not exactly off the beaten path and hard to visit.

Inside the Forbidden Palace. This is one of the main structures inside the giant complex, which even though I saw it countless times in movies, photos, and ads, still amazed me when I actually visited in 2012. Forgive me for the picture color; the air that day wasn’t very good.

This is the CCTV headquarters, which is one of the strangest modern buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s one of Beijing’s many interesting buildings, though maybe not so attractive. You can notice the sky is bright in this photo, which shows that you do get nice days sometimes in Beijing.


Confucius Temple entrance. The historic area surrounding this temple is also confusingly known as Confucius Temple and is considered one of Nanjing’s main attractions, but nevertheless the whole area is a good place to check out.


The Sun Yat-sen mausoleum, which honors and houses the body of Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of modern China” and a great Chinese, albeit not without some flaws. The mausoleum is located on a hill, which also has the tomb of the founding Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (itself a very pleasant site), and a historic pagoda.


Xian’s Bell Tower makes for a grand sight at night. It’s located near the center of downtown Xian, with roads extending in four directions to the main gates of the giant city walls that surround the downtown.

Xian features a Muslim Quarter, which is a nice place to visit and eat. It’s full of stores like these, restaurants, food stalls, and vendors, as well as a unique mosque built like a Chinese temple- Great Mosque of Xian.


Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes has thousands of stone Buddhist carvings, but these are by far the largest and grandest.


Luoyang fittingly has a very nice history museum, with ancient Chinese pottery, like this blue Tang Dynasty horse, being one of the highlights along with fossils and a fully-reconstructed Chinese mammoth.

Xian’s ancient but still mighty Bell and Drum Towers

In the exact center of Xian is a magnificent giant Chinese pavilion atop a stone base that forms a roundabout intersection around which traffic goes. At night, this tower is lit up and it forms a particular picturesque sight from every corner of the intersection. This is Xian’s old Bell Tower, a three-storey Chinese tower with multiple wooden roofs with each corner curving gently upwards. The Bell Tower was built over 600 years ago in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, and is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in China. There’s an interesting legend behind the tower’s construction, that it was built to repel the power of mythical dragons to protect the city from earthquakes, which were believed to be caused by dragons. After it was built, earthquakes never occurred again. The Bell Tower had a utilitarian use though. Its giant bell was sounded at dawn every day, while a giant drum in the Drum Tower was sounded to mark the sunset.

To visit it, you have to go underground and find the Bell Tower ticket office. The area underneath this specific intersection is a busy set of corridors that lead to street exits, department stores, and the subway station. After you buy the ticket underground, you ascent the stairs to the base of the Bell Tower where you are at street level and can see traffic speeding around you, with a steel fence preventing people from walking onto the road of course. Most of the building is wooden, and the ceilings feature nicely colored patterns and elaborate eaves. There’s a huge bell on the outer level and inside, there are scrolls and a stage where bell performances took place daily.



The Bell Tower lies at the exact center of Xian.

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The Drum Tower is nearby.


Not far from the Bell Tower is the Drum Tower. Just as ancient (built four years earlier in 1380) and esteemed as the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower is more rectangular and longer. It’s located a little further off on the NW corner of the intersection, roughly in front of the Muslim Quarter.

While the Bell Tower has the more impressive location, I found the Drum Tower to be more interesting since there’s more to see. It features giant drums all around its entrance while inside is a drum museum featuring all kinds of weird and fascinating drums. I was lucky enough to catch a free performance there, which happens several times every day. A troupe of young drummers played Chinese drums for about 20 minutes, with at least one solo.

This was the morning before my afternoon flight back to Taipei, but I managed to visit the Grand Mosque in the Muslim quarter after I left the Drum Tower. With this post, I’ve finally concluded writing about my Xian-Huashan-Luoyang trip last year and I’m quite relieved.

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Large drums surround the first floor of the Drum Tower but this drum is by far one of the biggest.

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Straight ahead, at the end of the street is a guard tower of the City Wall which surrounds the entire Xian city center.

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I caught this free performance inside the Drum Tower.



The Drum Tower has a collection of diverse drums inside.



View from ground level at the base of the Bell Tower. I raised the camera over the steel fence to take this pic.

Wooden panels on the side of the Bell Tower show Chinese stories and sayings.

Xian’s Muslim Quarter

One of Xian’s major attractions is its Muslim Quarter, a neighborhood and shopping district where most of Xian’s Muslim Hui live ((hence the place’s Chinese name 回民街 Hui MinJie, Hui people’s street), a vivid example of the city’s historical heritage and its prime location as the starting point of the Silk Road leading to Central Asia. The Hui are Han Chinese (possibly with Central Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry) who are Muslims, rather than a distinct ethnicity like the Uighurs. They’ve been living in Xian for over 1,500 years as their ancestors settled down here as traders. 



The area is filled with restaurants, stores, and food stalls selling all kinds of delicacies like meat kebabs, roujiamos (Chinese type of hamburger), and Xinjiang naan bread. I visited this place twice, once at night and once on Saturday morning, and both times it was packed full with visitors, many of whom are Chinese. At night, the streets were nicely lit up, as many Chinese tourist sites are, and the main streets and lanes were full of people. I bought a cool Xian city map that was filled with attractions drawn onto it. I also bought a few mini-terracotta keychains from a vendor, who nicely explained each one, but wasn’t satisfied when I only bought several and desperately screamed, which was a little jarring.


Besides the food and shopping, one of the main sights is the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi), the largest mosque in the area and built in the year 742. What is unique about it is that it’s a mosque built in the shape and style of traditional Chinese architecture. There’re no tipped onion-shaped domes or minarets here, like what regular mosques have. The main prayer hall resembles a Chinese temple, albeit with Arabic writing. There are even stone steles with Arabic (and Chinese). Unlike what the name suggest, the mosque isn’t that big, but it and its surrounding buildings and gardens are well worth a look. Frankly I didn’t think it was possible to build a mosque in traditional Chinese architecture, just like you won’t see a church built in Chinese style. There’s a nice peaceful atmosphere inside that is completely at odds with the vast commercial activity outside.


The Great Mosque’s prayer hall, where services are held.


The pavilion in the main garden in the Grand Mosque complex.


Covered shopping lane right outside the Grand Mosque, with a cute kid riding around.

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Naan bread for sale, and one friendly and one oblivious clerk.


These items seems more Tibetan or Yunnannese than Hui or Xinjiang.


Bought a naan bread from these guys and girl. The guy in the middle seems like a bit of a smartass, but he actually spoke a little English to me, after I was confused by something he said. 





Stone stele with Arabic writing.


Shopping lane right next to the Grand Mosque, whose outer wall is at left.

Xian’s Tang Paradise


On my Xian trip, later that day after we’d gone to see the terracotta warriors, my Cantonese travel buddy and I went to the Tang Paradise park (Da Tang Furong Yuan 大唐芙蓉园). It’s a large, scenic, and exquisite theme park that recreates Xian’s glorious Tang times, replete with a palace, gardens, pavilions, surrounding an actual lake, with performances as well. Despite initially thinking it’d be kind of tacky, it was actually quite nice. The palace had colored murals filled with Tang Dynasty court scenes, and there was a music hall on the second floor, which actually hosted none other than German leader Angela Merkel and then-Premier Wen Jiaobao. Tang Paradise is near the Big Goose Pagoda, and outside the walled city center.

Around the grounds, there were various complexes and pavilions, and statues of ancient Chinese objects as well as a “self-cooled pavilion” cooled by water from an actual waterwheel. One of the more interesting exhibitions was statues depicting Chinese stories and sayings, like making a needle out of stick, a legend of Tang poet Li Bai that illustrates how if you work hard, you can achieve the impossible’ and why a foolish person would be called wooden cock (in ancient times, cockfighting was popular among the nobility, and commoners who couldn’t afford cocks, would imitate the wealthy by making wooden cocks). We also saw a short show with Chinese acrobats, who did the usual tricks like tumbling and balancing objects with their feet while lying down. A female acrobat took it to a new level, balancing a pole with her feet with two male acrobats hanging on each side.

The waterwheel that powered the “self-cooled pavilion”.

Chinese acrobatics. The girl in green was twirling the two guys on a pole with her legs.

At night, the lake, the palace, and the pavilions surrounding the lake made for a really lovely scene. The main reason we were coming here though was to see the world’s largest water movie, a short film projected and shown over the lake with lasers and fireworks.

Unfortunately the water movie turned out to be a cartoonish show with fighting gods, demons and even dogs borrowed from Chinese legends. We left before it was completed and by that time, it was past 8. It was impossible getting a taxi as every single one that drove by was full (which I was kind of miffed about), so we went to a restaurant by the guy’s hostel. Afterwards we said our final goodbye and I took the bus to the subway.

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The great palace.

Strange color to light up trees with, but it’s a fine sight nevertheless.

Statues illustrating the “wooden cock” story.

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They even had this stone boat, which is possibly a copy of the one that the Empress Dowager Cixi had built in Beijing during the 19th century. 


The water show. It got progressively ridiculous as it went on.


A mural inside the palace. It’s seems to be a Central Asian or Indian dancer entertaining Chinese officers at a foreign court.


The music hall inside the palace. 

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Wen enjoyed themselves at a show here.

This looks just like one of those classical Chinese water towns in Jiangsu and Shanghai.

China’s famous terracotta warriors


I’ve written about two-thirds of my Xian-Luoyang trip but it might seem I’ve forgotten something important. That would be the terracotta warriors, one of the most famous sights in the world and the main reason one goes to Xian. The reason I’ve waited so long to write about it is because I saved this trip for the latter end of my trip, after returning from Huashan and Luoyang.

The day after I returned to Xian from Luoyang, I met up with my Cantonese travel buddy who I’d met in Luoyang. We met at the Xian train station (the central one, not the high-speed one) and soon found the special bus to the terracotta warriors in the massive parking lot in front of the station (which lies just outside the City Walls). It’s weirdly numbered – 5 (306) with the 5 signifying that it’s line number five, I believe. There are several buses that go to the terracotta warriors, but this is the most dependable one as it’s quite direct and doesn’t make much stops beforehand.

It took a little over an hour and I was confused when the bus stopped at a hotel parking lot. We were told this was indeed the final stop by the terracotta warriors and after turning the corner, we reached the entrance where there was an open-air plaza with stores and vendors. This itself was a little confusing as the way was not clearly marked and there was some walking around before we found the actual ticket booth. It was a bright Friday morning and there was a good bit of visitors, but not an overwhelming amount.


The terracotta warriors, horses (and horse-pulled chariots) were housed in three main pits. The overwhelming majority of them were in Pit 1, a vast hanger-like building. This is the famous sight that’s been seen in countless photos and TV shows, with the warriors standing in orderly rows, dozens deep in a massive pit located below you. When you enter through the main entrance, this sight greets you head on.

It is an impressive sight and one of the most major archaeological finds ever, no doubt, but is it worth all the hype? I’d have to say, unfortunately no. I was a little underwhelmed and didn’t linger too long. Of course, it’s much better to have a guide who can tell you the details and history behind the figures and the finding. That would have improved my experience immensely. At the rear, there were dozens of more figures that stood neatly arrayed. I’m not sure if these were newer, recently restored figures.



The other two pits are also large, but have much less figures and horse chariots. Most remain in their original state, with some as a pile of disfigured parts. This was indeed how most of the terracotta warriors had been found, with Chinese archaeologists eventually piecing many back together like those in Pit 1. The warrior excavation was a work in progress, and there may even be more underground. Pit 2 was also quite large and more dim, with its earthen pit in a more undisturbed state with trenches and furrowed surfaces cluttered with broken pieces here and there. However, the probability of ancient booby traps, just like in an Indiana Jones movie, are real and prevent archaeologists from proceeding too quickly. Pit 3 is much smaller than Pit 1 and is believed to be the “command center” of the other two pits.

Besides the pits, there were exhibits of ancient artifacts and actual terracotta warriors which were really good. I found it more fascinating seeing the terracotta warriors, officers, and chariots up close. In addition, the exhibits showed different kinds of terracotta figures including birds and human acrobats.

Pit 2.

The best sights in the whole place- terracotta warriors up close and personal.


Another cool sight- a chariot and horses.

Kneeling archer.

After all this, we went to the actual emperor’s mausoleum which was about a 10-minute drive from where the terracotta warriors were. Located deep inside a mound, the tomb has never been opened and all you can really do is walk around the mound. Around this area, there were certain stations where more figures had been found and further archaeological work was being done to restore them. These were small pits and the figures were not numerous. It wasn’t too interesting, though there was a weird moment when the guards at one station were blasting Gangnam Style on their small radio.

We took a different bus back to Xian, a regular area bus that stopped at various towns on the way to Xian. It took a little longer than the 5(306) but not by much. So in the end, is it worth it to go see the terracotta warriors, especially if you can only go to a limited number of places in China? Of course, but only if you don’t miss out on Xian’s other fine sights.

Pit 2.

Pit 3.

High-ranking officer or general.


The front of Pit 1 from the side.

Gold ornament depicting a tiger fighting a boar (Warring States Period 475-221 BC).