BEIJING — In his rattling Russian jeep, Peter Hannam was bouncing across the Mongolian steppe 200 miles east of Ulan Bator when he spotted the solitary man astride a white horse descending a distant hill. The rider, sky-blue cloak and orange sash flapping in the bitterly cold wind, was the only sign of humanity on the vast and barren plain.
Hannam instructed his driver to leave the dirt track and intersect the rider's path.
Possibly, Hannam thought, the horseman would know the place where Chinese Communist leader Lin Piao's airplane had crashed under mysterious circumstances more than 21 years before. He sensed he must be getting close to the crash site. Earlier in the day he encountered villagers who bragged of owning pots and pans made from the Trident aircraft's aluminum fuselage.
Close up, he could see that the horseman was elderly, with silver hair and a craggy face ravaged by the extreme climate of Mongolia, where temperatures in the Gobi Desert range between 105 and 50 degrees below zero.
"To find the airplane," the old man said, showing no surprise at encountering a foreigner and his small entourage on the remote steppe, "you must first find the Marshal."
Thus began the journey that led Hannam, a 29-year-old free-lance journalist, on an international quest to solve one of the greatest mysteries of Asia: What happened to Lin Piao, the Chinese Communist Party leader accused of a 1971 plot to overthrow Chairman Mao and, according to some accounts, shot down over Mongolia as he tried to escape to the Soviet Union.
Six months and six countries later in a Moscow military morgue, Hannam obtained a KGB file that until that moment had been seen by only four other men: two Soviet pathologists and the late Soviet leaders Leonid I. Brezhnev and Yuri V. Andropov, the latter when he was head of the KGB.
According to the KGB file, two extensive Soviet secret autopsies conducted at the site of the crash near a fluorite-mining village in north-central Mongolia proved without a doubt that Lin Piao, once Chairman Mao's handpicked successor, had been killed in the crash, as were Lin's wife and son.
The newly unveiled evidence ended years of wild speculation and conspiracy theories about Lin Piao's bizarre end that, in Asia at least, rivaled those surrounding the John F. Kennedy assassination in the United States. Scholars of the Lin Piao era in Chinese history praised Hannam's work, reported in articles that appeared last month in Hong Kong, Russian and U.S. publications, including U.S. News & World Report.
"In terms of the physical evidence he collected, it is a major step forward," said Kau Ying-mao, a China specialist at Brown University and author of a book about the Lin Piao affair.
For the historians, Hannam's work was confirmation of an important detail in the era of the Cultural Revolution. Lin Piao, after all, was the creator of Mao's "Little Red Book" of quotations. One of the most famous photos of that era shows the diminutive Lin standing next to Mao at Tian An Men Square during a review of the Red Guards.
But in an age dominated by television, Hannam's work was a throwback to an earlier era, when roving free-lance reporters went to the ends of the earth in search of a good story. Global television ended most of the ends-of-the-earth stuff. Satellite feeds make Somalia beach landings look like another episode from "Baywatch."
The itinerant free-lancer, Stanley in search of Dr. Livingston, is a disappearing breed.
Still, there is Mongolia.
Mongolia was practically virgin territory for journalists when Hannam arrived there in 1991, one of the first resident Western reporters--and for almost two years the only one--in one of the most remote regions on Earth.
Until popular demonstrations ended one-party rule in 1990, Mongolia was the de facto 16th republic of the Soviet Union for more than 65 years.
Outside Ulan Bator, the dreary, frigid capital, conditions are extremely primitive. Half the population still lives in hemispherical tents called yurts. One-third of the population, like the man on the white horse, are nomadic tribesmen.
In the capital, cultural life revolves around the stolid, Stalinist-inspired Ulan Bator Hotel. The hotel is a magnet for every variety of adventurer, con man, vamp, born-again missionary, oil and mineral prospector and dinosaur bone hunter the world has left to offer. One regular visitor is a tall, bearded cross-dresser from Venice Beach who publishes a Mongolia newsletter. Another in Hannam's time was Indian Ambassador Kushok Bakula Rimpoche. In addition to his ambassadorial duties, Bakula, from the Ladakh region of India, is considered by many followers to be a reincarnation of Buddha. "India dispatched a god as its envoy to Ulan Bator," said Hannam admiringly.
In short, the hotel was a perfect work environment for a free-lancer like Hannam. Also, it was usually warm inside. If power failures deprived the rest of Ulan Bator, the hotel was a welcome refuge.