Historical Long Riders
|Lieutenant Zubowitz - Rode from Vienna to Paris in November 1874.|
Vasili Zvansov - took part in one of the most extraordinary equestrian journeys of the 20th century, an ill-fated journey which took him from the borders of Chinese Turkestan to the distant Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
In the immediate post-World War II period the Soviet Union began work on its atomic program. In order to monitor Soviet progress the newly created CIA sent their agent, Douglas Mackiernan, to Urumchi, a city in China’s western Sinkiang Province. Working from that consulate MacKiernan investigated the Soviet mining of uranium in northern China and secretly planted electronic sensors to detect the Soviets' first atomic blast on August 29, 1949, in Kazakhstan.
When the Communists seized control of China Mackiernan was ordered to evacuate. But conditions in the east had deteriorated so seriously that Mackiernan had only one option, escape by horseback across one of the worst deserts in the world and ride on to the still free Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Accompanying him on this hazardous journey would be Frank Bessac, a young American student turned espionage agent who had been patrolling the Chinese-Mongolian border, and three fervent Russian anti-communists Vasili Zvansov Stephan Yanuishkin and Leonid Shutov.
Before this unlikely group saddled up, Mackiernan wired Washington DC to report that the communists were expected to seize Urumchi immediately. Then, with his official duty done, Mackiernan, Bessac and the Russians set off towards Tibet with their gear, which included machine guns, radios, gold bullion, navigation equipment, and survival supplies.
Having initially eluded their Chinese pursuers, when the equestrian escapees reached the Takla Makan Desert, Kazakh nomads advised the travellers that, because there was no pasture ahead, they could only proceed if they rode specially-trained, meat-eating horses. The Kazakh chief, Hussein Taiji, said that such horses were rare, and would cost twice as much. The diet of these extraordinary horses was another equine, the wild ass of Central Asia.
Vasili Zvansov later recalled, “We searched for three months amongst the Kazaks for these rare meat-eating horses. But when we found them we discovered they wouldn’t eat just any kind of meat – they would only eat the liver of the wild ass, known as the Gobi Kulan. We also learned we couldn’t feed them liver every day, or it would have killed them, so we fed them every few days. There was indeed no grass on the entire trip and only the horses which ate the liver survived the trip.”
Mounted on these specially trained horses, Zvansov and his fellow Long Riders set off to cross the notorious Takla Makan Desert.
While riding through a canyon they found dozens of dead horses and people. “In the dry desert air they were perfectly intact as though they had died yesterday,” Zvansov recalled. “Yet, we discovered later, it had been 13 years since. They had been massacred from the air when these Kazakhs had fought the Chinese.”
The spies turned Long Riders were then forced to ride up into the mighty Himalayas in order to reach Tibet.
“We spent 40 days constantly above 16,000ft. The air so thin that when sleeping you would suddenly wake up gasping for breath.”
During the course of their journey Mackiernan had managed to radio Washington to report their progress. The American government in turn had sent word to the Dalai Lama’s government, asking the Tibetans to extend diplomatic sanctuary to Mackiernan and his men when they reached Lhasa.
The problem was that Mackiernan and his men were due to enter Tibet before any official word of greeting could be sent from the capital to the distant border post. Plus, MacKiernan’s group had no visible sign of authority. Under such rare conditions are disasters born. After having struggled over the Himalayas, Mackiernan, Bessac and the Russians believed their freedom was in sight. Before them lay the Tibetan outpost of Shigarhunglung, where they thought they would find safety. It was April 29th, 1950, Douglas Mackiernan’s birthday – and he was about to die.
According to previously top-secret American State Department documents obtained by The Long Riders’ Guild, Mackiernan and his men were attacked by the Tibetan border guards, who mistook the travellers for bandits or communists guerrillas. Mackiernan, Yanuishkin and Shutov were slain. Zvansov was shot in the leg. They joined a long list of equestrian travellers that had been captured, tortured or killed in Tibet.
The two survivors were taken prisoner and the Tibetans, once they were convinced they were not bandits, treated them kindly. They set off for Lhasa and, after three days, Zvansov made the macabre discovery, while searching saddlebags for rope, of the severed heads of their dead companions being taken to the authorities.
Click here to read Bessac's journal.
With Zvansov and Bessac captive and radio contact broken off, rumours began swirling across Central Asia that Mackiernan may have been wounded or slain. Washington attempted to enlist the aid of Scottish Long Rider George Patterson to find the missing Mackiernan. Knowing of Patterson’s intimate knowledge of the country and his ability to speak Tibetan fluently, the American State Department believed the Scottish Long Rider might be able to locate Mackiernan and guide the missing agent and his men to safety. Yet before Patterson could set off, word reached Washington that though Zvansov and Bessac had reached Lhasa alive, Mackiernan had been slain.
The Dalai Lama’s government expressed official sorrow at the murderous border mix-up. In an ironic Tibetan twist of fate, even though Douglas Mackiernan was the first CIA agent killed in the line of duty, his work remains so sensitive that the Agency still refuses to either confirm or deny his existence. To learn more about the death of this James Bond style Long Rider, The Guild recommends, “Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa,” by Thomas Laird.
There is an amazing equestrian epilogue to Zvansov’s story.
Zvanson’s death in 2012 marked the passing of the last known person who rode, and fed, meat-eating horses.
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