Photo: Kyrgyzstan traditional boy tent

A boy stands by a tent in Kyrgyzstan, one of the stops in Murderers in Mausoleums.

Photograph by Frank De Luyck

By Don George

January 2009

Book of the Month: 
Murderers in Mausoleums,
by Jeffrey Tayler

As a new world order slowly begins to take shape around the globe, the two Communist colossi—Russia and China—are poised to play pivotal roles. Western media report routinely on events and attitudes in these countries' major cities, but what of the vast, resource-rich, and tradition-bound territories and peoples between them? This sprawling region, the largest landmass on the planet, constitutes a perilous blank in the average Westerner's map of the world. In his riveting new book, Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing, Jeffrey Tayler ventures from Red Square to Tiananmen Square to try to fill in that blank.

Setting off in the summer of 2006, Tayler starts his 7,200-mile, three-month odyssey in Moscow, former capital of the U.S.S.R., whose ghostly presence still dominates the history and hopes of many in this region. As he forays into the Caucasus Mountains and then to the Caspian Sea, hard and sometimes surprising truths emerge: Ancient ethnic and religious divisions still reign, with neighboring peoples stubbornly clinging to their heritage and tribal individuality, and deeply suspicious of their neighbors; Vladimir Putin is a hero to many, respected for striving to regain Russia's dignity and respect; and even the murderous historical overlords of these territories, from Genghis Khan to Joseph Stalin, are revered for the power they wielded and the authority they imposed. In these sere, sun-blasted steppes, desert-surrounded cities, and hardscrabble mountains, Tayler discovers, democracy and human rights are not the self-evident ideals Westerners might assume them to be.

Journeying from Russia to KazakhstanKyrgyzstan, and China, through an alphabet stew of peoples—Ossetians, Chechens, Balkars, Ingush, Kazakhs, Cossacks, Dungans, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Uygurs—Tayler proves himself an engaging and enlightening guide, well versed in the complex histories and cultural traditions of the region, and sufficiently fluent in Russian, Turkish, and Mandarin that he can carry on intricate—and often alcohol-fueled—conversations. In addition to being an assiduous reporter and keen observer, Tayler is also an openhearted traveler, and his intimate encounters with taxi drivers, guides, train companions, and sundry friends of friends who have agreed to show him around their town weave a rich human tapestry that raises this narrative to travel writing of the first order.

At once travelogue and textbook, Tayler's illuminating, in-depth account should be required reading for the State Department and the Pentagon, as well as anyone interested in the emerging map of the Russo-Chinese world.

New Book Roundups:

In Troubled Lands

In Land of Marvels, by Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth, a British archaeologist in 1914 Mesopotamia (now Iraq) finds his excavation of an Assyrian palace threatened by a scheme to build a new railroad to access the area's rich oil fields. Unsworth's compelling novel of competing international interests in the Middle East has timely echoes. Fidali's Way, by George Mastras, takes place in Kashmir, where a young American lawyer backpacking through Central Asia is forced to flee after being accused of a murder in Pakistan. He ends up in a mountain village where he falls for a Muslim doctor and becomes involved in the region's bloody conflict between the Indian military and Kashmiri separatists.

Intrigue Abroad

The Empty Mirror, by J. Sydney Jones, is a murder mystery set in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna, centering around artist Gustav Klimt, who comes under suspicion when one of his models turns up as one of the victims in a series of brutal killings. Other famous names of the day also make appearances, including Mark Twain and founder of Zionism Theodor Herzl. The Book of Unholy Mischief, by Elle Newmark, steeps readers in the sights and tastes of 1498 Venice, where the hunt for an ancient book containing secrets of alchemy and immortality ranges from the kitchen of the doge's luxurious palace to labyrinthine back streets.

Chinese Characters

Baldy Li and Song Gang are the stepbrothers in Brothers, by Yu Hua, a wryly comic, brash yet warm-hearted novel that spans four decades of tumultuous Chinese history from the Cultural Revolution to new capitalism. In The Piano Teacher, debut novelist Janice Y.K. Lee tells a story of romance and deception in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong during World War II.

Reading Matchmaker: If You Like...

...Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, check out Buying a Piece of Paris, by Ellie Nielsen. Her lighthearted memoir revolves around turning the widely held dream of owning a bit of French real estate into hard-won reality. Instead of the south of France, though, Nielsen tackles the capital city. Hurdles include snobby real estate agents, decrepit apartments, and the lack of French language skills. Despite the reality check, is it any surprise that her dream pied-à-terre in Paris materializes in the end?

One Last Thing: Magical History Tour

I first visited Asia at the tail end of the great hippie overland migration from London and Paris to Goa and Kathmandu. Teaching in Tokyo on a two-year fellowship, I bought Lonely Planet's Across Asia on the Cheap in the summer of 1978 and followed in reverse the trail that had been blazed by footloose Western seekers in the '60s and canonized by LP founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler in the early '70s. In Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, Rory MacLean richly retraces this pilgrimage in the 21st century, venturing from Istanbul through eastern Turkey to IranPakistanIndia, and Nepal. Along the way, MacLean vividly evokes the route's history and landmarks, and poignantly encounters some of its original travelers. His tale revives the aspirations and adventures of those seminal years, and maps the new worlds left in the wake of that transforming trail.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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