Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing

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A gripping journey through some of the planet’s most remote and challenging terrain and its peoples, in search of why democracy has yet to thrive in lands it seemed so recently ready to overtake Across the largest landmass on earth, in lands once conquered by Genghis Khan and exploited by ruthless Communist regimes, autocratic and dictatorial states are again arising, growing wealthy on petrodollars and low-cost manufacturing.
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Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing

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Overview

A gripping journey through some of the planet’s most remote and challenging terrain and its peoples, in search of why democracy has yet to thrive in lands it seemed so recently ready to overtake Across the largest landmass on earth, in lands once conquered by Genghis Khan and exploited by ruthless Communist regimes, autocratic and dictatorial states are again arising, growing wealthy on petrodollars and low-cost manufacturing.
More and more, they are challenging theWest.
Media reports focus on developments in Moscow and Beijing, but the peoples inhabiting the vast expanses in between remain mostly unseen and unheard, their daily lives and aspirations scarcely better known to us now than they were in ColdWar days.Tayler finds, among many others, a dissident Cossack advocating mass beheadings, a Muslim in Kashgar calling on the United States to bomb Beijing, and Chinese youths in Urumqi desiring nothing more than sex, booze, and rock ’n’ roll—all while confronting over and over again the contradiction of people who value liberty and the free market but idealize tyrants who oppose both.
From the steppes of southern Russia to the conflict-ridden Caucasus Mountains to the deserts of central Asia and northern China,Tayler shows that our maps have gone blank at the worst possible time.

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Editorial Reviews

Susan Eisenhower
Murderers in Mausoleums brims with authenticity, but it's best read as a travel journal and not as a predictor of the region's geopolitical future. After a few incongruous pages of history and geopolitics, Tayler takes you on a trip you would never make otherwise. And when it comes to an end, you have had a tour of Eurasia's human and physical landscape, which is still magical, if—thanks to this book—a little less mysterious.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Tayler (Siberian Dawn) takes readers on an extraordinary adventure across the largest landmass on earth, from Russia through the Caucasus into South Ossetia and Georgia, on to Central Asia and Kazakhstan, and across Xinjiang and Mongolia. Equal parts history, politics, economic theory and anthropology, he brings into sharp focus the ordinary lives behind the news headlines. Of particular interest are two recurring discoveries he makes-replacing totalitarian dictators with "democratically elected" (often U.S.-backed) leaders opens the door to enormous corruption, and that where there is electricity, there is always a disco. Tayler marshals hundreds of years of history, from the conquests of Genghis Khan through the dislocation caused by WWI and WWII to the Chinese Communist revolution and the glossy, urban China of today. While the author's approach to exploration is haphazard at times, his impressive ability to build instant rapport and cull local knowledge in a remarkably short span of time gives his journey steady momentum. Tayler conveys his encounters in prose that is as richly textured as the stories he gathers in some of the remotest places imaginable. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A closely observed memoir of travels through Central Asia, where portents of continent-wide conflict loom. Atlantic Monthly correspondent Tayler (River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny, 2006, etc.) locates at least one emergent cause for strife in the geopolitical reality of an exponentially growing China, which faces huge shortcomings in the form of pollution, joblessness, a lack of drinking water, degradation of farmland and energy shortages, but has a tremendous surplus of people. Russia has a comparative advantage, with per capita income many times higher than China's and plenty of natural resources, but with a rapidly declining population. Likely this demographic context will result in changes of various kinds, perhaps including Chinese expansion into Russia and other Central Asian lands-and, if nothing else, in more deals for resource exchange between the two major powers that will have the appearance to some of an "anti-American alliance." And why not, asks Tayler, who visits the future front and returns with countless character sketches to enliven an already interesting big-picture narrative. A Cossack ataman contemplating an Asian future, for instance, fervently insists that "it takes four generations for white genes to be reestablished after mixing blood, you know." A Dagestani promises that a billion Chinese will die if they try to invade his homeland, and layabout Chinese youngsters in the unlikely desert metropolis of Urumqi suggest that the rising generation may not be up to the task. Yet, as Tayler notes, ten years ago Urumqi was "under construction and chaotic, all skyscrapers going up and cement dust coming down," while todayit is just one of many teeming, highly productive cities in a nation whose fortunes seem ever on the rise. Tayler ventures at points into Colin Thubron and Robert Kaplan territory, returning with a satisfying narrative that is of considerable interest to students of contemporary events, and futurists too.
The Barnes & Noble Review
In this corner, Bill Bryson and Peter Mayle, travelers on the bright side of the road. In the opposite corner, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Jeffrey Tayler, worthy wayfarers, too, but skinned to the journey's dark linings. Tayler is known to write fine, grim dispatches, from Russia and Africa, as a correspondent for Atlantic Monthly. In Murderers in Mausoleums, he takes a crescent-shaped swing from Red Square to Tiananmen Square via Central Asia, some 7,200 miles through inimical lands that have known a millennium's worth of pillage, plunder, and ugly governing since the good old days of Genghis Khan -- just Tayler's bailiwick, a pretty slice of anomie. He seeks to measure the emotional temperature of village and rust-belt town dwellers, see how they are faring under the latest Great Game: Russia, the United States, and China wooing the new steppe-and-desert republics to control, through ratty geopolitical one-upmanship (or simple thuggery), their strategic footing and vast energy deposits. Tayler leavens the trip with some transporting landscapes -- Kyrgyzstan's red-orange massifs, say, topped by snowy peaks -- and those everyday, indelible chance encounters: sharing a melon, a pie, or a cigarette with locals, perhaps a gold-toothed woman in Gypsy scarves and floral skirts. But Tayler focuses on the hard-bitten life of the vox populi, scraping by on wits and wiles amidst the corruption and mayhem (in Dagestan -- forget Chechnya, please -- Tayler is told, "We all get along really well here, despite our ethnic backgrounds ... I mean, aside from the bomb blasts and shootings"), while the Bush era's embarrassingly opportunistic support of regional "democratic" figures, such as Kazakhstan's odious Nursultan Nazarbayev, helps quash any populist impulse. Survival is the bottom line: people want stability and jobs, not bombast; if the "Great Game that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union has ended...victory has gone to the home teams. The West is out." Tayler's is a sad song of autocratic ascendancy. --Peter Lewis
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618799916
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 1/27/2009
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

JEFFREY TAYLER is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, Harper's Magazine, and National Geographic. He is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Facing the Congo, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: The Scourge from Hell, the Retreat of the West, Great Games Past and Present

Born into the royal Borjigin family in 1162, Temüjin, heir apparent to the Mongol clan’s chieftaincy, found himself, at age nine, scorned by his people, cast out of the communal fold, and reduced to hunting for rodents and roots to survive. A tribe of Tatars had poisoned his father, erstwhile ruler of the Borjigin, and his subjects, refusing to invest a scion so young, usurped power and consigned Temüjin to debasing destitution. The usurpers would have done well to note one circumstance,  whether as augury or omen: Temüjin was born clutching a clot of blood.
     Seven years later the Merkit, a rival Mongol tribe, kidnapped Temüjin’s wife and triggered a series of apparently local events that would result in the downcast youth’s ascension to power not only over all the Mongols but, eventually, over half the known world. Supported by the leader of the allied Kereit tribe, Temüjin, who by then had matured into a giant more than six feet tall, endowed with charisma, cunning, and formidable intelligence, raised an army of twenty thousand mounted archers, with whom he routed the Merkit and recovered his wife. Astonishingly, he then turned on and trounced his benefactors, the Kereit nobility. Impressing commoner Kereit into his cavalry, he proceeded to decimate the Tatars, imposing vassalage on those he spared; after this, the Tatars would fight alongside Temüjin’s troops. In 1206, on the wind2 swept grasslands by the river Onon, Temüjin’s moment of triumph had arrived: the twenty-seven Mongol tribes, whose elites he had either slaughtered or subjugated, invested him with the title of Supreme Ruler—or, in Mongolian, Genghis Khan.
     Genghis Khan was a complex figure, at once paranoiac, fearless in combat yet afraid of dogs, and fascinated by sorcery and shamanism. Believing himself divinely charged with establishing justice on earth, he set about his mission. The Mongols’ martial prowess, discipline, and military tactics were unmatched, even before he came to power, and constituted his most fateful asset.
     Trained in archery as tots and reared as equestrian warriors, Mongol males amassed battle experience early on by raiding neighboring peoples for cattle, women, and livestock. Ever flexible in war, they advanced as they could and retreated when necessary. Their horses were small, hardy, and agile, capable of covering immense distances with lightning speed. Each Mongol warrior campaigned with four spares, which allowed fresh mounts as needed and dawn-to-dusk travel. Living off their livestock, hunting, or the food stocks of the people they plundered, the Mongols campaigned without provisions. They fed on the run, drinking their mares’ milk or piercing their mares’ jugulars with sharpened straws to sip their blood, or sustaining themselves with dried meat heated under their saddles. They wielded bows fashioned from bone, wood, and gut that fired bone-tipped arrows with a range of eight hundred feet (twice that of European bows) that could pierce armor. In their innovative siege techniques they employed powerful catapults called mangonels to reduce immured cities.
     The Mongols lived only to fight. A Chinese chronicler of the time wrote, "They possess neither towns, nor walls, neither writing, nor books . . . legal institutions they know not. . . . They all feed on the meat of the animals which they kill . . . and they dress in their hides and furs. The strongest among them grab the fattest pieces; the old men, on the other hand, eat and drink what is left. They respect only the bravest; old age and feebleness are held in contempt." However fearsome they were, they were also notoriously fractious. To counter this, Genghis Khan created an elite personal guard unit of 10,000 men and reorganized his 100,000-strong army into divisions of 10,000, incorporating Tatars and mixing clan origins to hinder potential lineage-based conspiracies against him.
     Thus arrayed, Genghis Khan and his men were ready to conquer the world. They began with China, to Mongolia’s south. They had long coveted China’s civilized riches and raided Han farmers in the borderlands. Before invading in 1213, Genghis Khan issued the Chinese an ultimatum he was to repeat across Eurasia: Accept Mongol suzerainty and become allies, or resist and perish. They declined. The Mongols then exploded across the north of the country, razing ninety cities and villages and slaughtering their populations, at times sparing people for use as human shields in the next assault. In two years Genghis Khan’s army reached Beijing, which it plundered and set afire, leaving it to burn for a month, and sallied on into Tibet and even Korea (from which, decades later, his descendants would launch an ill-starred invasion of Japan).
     Then Genghis Khan turned his eyes west. Within five years he would conquer a hundred million people and ravage Central Asia, including Persia, Armenia, and Georgia. Finally, between his hordes and Europe lay only one state: Russia.

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