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Media : From Mongolia to Moscow, Tracking the Lin Piao Mystery : Journalist finds new evidence on 1971 disappearance of China's No. 2 leader.

March 08, 1994|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he first arrived, Hannam moved into the neighborhood of Ulan Bator named, literally, Outer Space. It seemed to fit. How Hannam ended up in Outer Space, Mongolia, is mostly a tale of career mismatches and Asian yearnings.

After graduating from Harvard University magna cum laude in 1987 with a degree in social studies, Hannam returned to his native Australia. His first job was in the personnel department of a chocolate factory. That didn't last. "Most of my time was spent trying to find an efficient way to sack people," Hannam recalled.

Then he tried banking in Hong Kong. Also no good.

But Hannam had attended high school in Singapore and developed a passion for Asia. At Harvard, his senior thesis was on non-governmental political organizations in Indonesia, where he spent a year doing research. So in 1991, he quit a radio job in Australia and came to Beijing.

A radio job he had been promised in Beijing fell through. Attempts to find permanent work with newspapers and news agencies also failed. His Chinese visa was expiring.

So in September, 1991, he leaped at the opportunity to accompany his friend and Harvard classmate Susan Lawrence, a journalist working in Beijing, to Ulan Bator, where Lawrence was covering a visit by the Dalai Lama.

Hannam and Lawrence went straight from the airport to Gandan Monastery, where the Dalai Lama was giving an audience. The Mongolian authorities, unlike the dour government officials in Beijing, had been warm and welcoming to the visitors. They actually invited reporters into their newly reopened land.

Hannam quickly realized that Mongolia meant opportunity. "All foreigners had been locked out for two generations. Only a handful of academics followed the country through the pages of the official Mongolian Truth newspaper. I realized that any story I picked would be reported upon for the first time."

Besides, it was a brilliant autumn. "The mountains were gold and the sky blue and the weather was still above freezing." Winter seemed far away. In his first week in Ulan Bator, his apartment was burglarized and his computer equipment, as well as much of his cold weather gear, stolen.

Despite the early hardships, he broke a story about managers of the Mongolian central bank squandering the country's entire $90-million foreign reserve in risky foreign exchange dealings. He accompanied Japanese archeologists on a hunt for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, who the Japanese claimed was originally a samurai warrior.

But his biggest story, and biggest adventure, was chasing the mystery of Lin Piao.

The quest began in May, 1993. Hannam, 5-foot-10, thin and bespectacled with a mop of dark brown hair, rented a jeep from the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party--the ruling Communist Party in the Soviet era--and set off in search of the crash site. "We just pointed the jeep not really knowing what we would find."

Two hundred miles east of Ulan Bator, near the fluorite-mining burg of Bekh, they encountered the lone rider on the white horse. The Marshal recommended as a source by the rider turned out to be an elderly village gadfly so named because of his penchant for wearing Soviet medals and campaign ribbons pinned to his chest.

So willing was the Marshal to join in the quest that he first jumped into the jeep wearing his nightshirt.

After Hannam reassured him that there was time to dress, the Marshal slipped into his beribboned jacket and led the party to the crash site. For years after the crash, wolves had lived in the plane's shell. It provided roosts for eagles and vultures. But after two decades of salvaging by local residents, only a few strips of the plane, the longest about two feet in length, remained when Hannam arrived.

Other residents of Bekh led Hannam to the plot where the bodies found on the Trident 1E aircraft were first buried. Finally, two eyewitnesses to the crash surfaced.

One of them, Dugarjavyn Dunjidmaa, chain-smoked cigarettes rolled in scraps of newspaper and told how she saw the crash while she was on guard duty at the Bekh explosives depot.

"I heard some roaring and wondered what was going on," she told Hannam. "I took my rifle and went out." She said she saw flames pouring out of the rear engines of the aircraft.

Back in Ulan Bator, Hannam kept on the case, interviewing two dozen people who had some role in the investigation of the crash while continuing his work as a free-lance journalist. One of his duties as a local stringer for several newspapers and Reuters news service was to make a daily check of the coal supply at the power plant to see if the Mongolian capital would survive the winter. During some cold spells, the coal stock dwindled to a two-day supply.

From often-wandering interviews conducted in the padded vinyl chairs on the fourth floor of the Ulan Bator Hotel, Hannam began to collect details of field autopsies conducted by Soviet pathologists.

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