It's only a few pages into Jeffrey Tayler's full-bodied adventure across the belly of Russia and China when one begins to realize that these countries are guided more by ethnic and tribal pasts than by modern geo- political forces. When Tayler engages a Cossack in Novocherkassk, for instance, the man asks him what his "blood" is.
Tayler replies, "I was born in America and have an American passport. So I'm American." Wrong answer.
"Don't say you're American. It's the same as saying you're a mutt, a nobody. Don't say you're a nobody. ... Being an American means nothing at all. What counts is your blood."
The Cossack's admonition is the standard greeting of many people Tayler meets, people who are more than willing and able to rekindle ancient wars and tired grudges.
In "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing," Tayler, who lives in Moscow, journeys from Russia's Red Square to China's Tiananmen Square, a 7,200-mile route "through the least-visited corners of southern Russia, Central Asia, and northern China." Tayler's past books detail a boots-on-the-ground style of travel in the Congo, Islamic Africa and down Russia's Lena River. He fills his writing with keen research and sparkling prose, making him one of the best global chroniclers of our time. This new book will only enhance that reputation.
Much of the travel is by train and taxi. The landscape is dusty and dangerous, often populated with bitter and desperate inhabitants. In Russia, some want the chaotic and murderous age of Stalin to return; others pine for revenge and retribution. Many are simply drunk. When Tayler departs Russia for Central Asia, he is relieved "to leave behind the anger and ethnic hatred I had met with almost everywhere ... in Russia."
Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union, Tayler observes that Central Asia is still in the grips of the Bear and that its "lasting legacy here consists of the standardized ugliness of almost everything they built -- a curse on all the former Soviet lands that no one has the money, time, or energy to lift."
In China's Urumqi, Tayler finds a modern and youthful city with no shortage of Western-style vices such as teenage hookers and hashish. Any vestiges of the Communist chairman are gone, and that's the lesson of "Murderers in Mausoleums." The worlds that Lenin and Mao created have been forever transformed. All that remains are their embalmed corpses.
Stephen J. Lyons' essay "Blowing it in Idaho" appeared in the recent anthology "The Mysterious Life of the Heart: Stories From the Sun About Passion, Longing, and Love."