Everyone certainly knows Mannerheim the military officer and politician who had served Russia before 1917, later dedicating himself to his homeland, Finland. But few are aware that the Lieutenant General of the Russian Army and the Finnish top-brass and statesman, who managed to win back and then safeguard the independence of Finland in the dreariest of times, was not foreign to science. And his expedition to Central Asia between 1906 and 1908 had resulted in serious scientific findings even though it merely camouflaged itself as a research project.
Back then, Russia had just lost the Russo-Japanese War and influence in the region waned. And China had recently had its Boxer Rebellion which prompted Empress Cixi to start reforms. The Russian General Staff decided to organize a geographical expedition to Northern China in order to further its understanding of the political and economic situation, to study sparsely populated areas, to validate and update maps and to probe the popular mood.
Mannerheim had made seriously preparations for the expedition, contacting museums and combing through archives, establishing connections with the University of Helsinki and the Finno-Ugric Society, and learning methods and techniques of scientific research. For two and a half years, he rode his stallion Philip through the rough Asian terrain exploring the military and political environment in China, taking pictures, drawing maps and describing the topography of the area. At the same time Mannerheim made meteorological observations and anthropometric measurements, collected priceless Chinese manuscripts and cultural artifacts, explored rivers, mountains and deserts.
Among other things, he compiled another phonetic dictionary of the languages of the peoples populating Northern China.
A thousand and two hundred collected exhibits were included in the collection of the National Museum in Helsinki, the report on the journey was listened to personally by the Tsar, and revised maps together with a 150-page report went to the General Staff. His photographs are still adorning museums, the diary of his journey was published and reads like an adventurous novel.