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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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

One source described how the Soviets severed the heads and boiled the skulls of the crash victims to remove the hair and flesh. From another source he obtained a photograph of the Soviet specialists at a dinner with Mongolian officials at the site. The centerpiece was a huge roasted ram, horns still intact.

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He also learned that the visiting Soviets were from the 3rd Medical Institute in Moscow and that one of the lead pathologists was named Vitali Tomilin. Armed with this promising material, Hannam used some of his free-lance earnings to buy an Aeroflot airplane ticket to the Russian capital.

But that trip turned out to be the low point of his quest. It was August, 1993. The 3rd Medical Institute, for one thing, no longer existed. By visiting morgues all over the Russian capital and showing photographs of the Russians feasting on the horned ram, Hannam finally met someone who knew Tomilin and where he could be found, working as a consultant in a military morgue.

But Tomilin, who held the official rank of professor-general, refused to talk without permission from the KGB.

“Was Lin Piao among the dead found in the crash?”

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“Can’t say.”

“Why not?”

“Oath of secrecy.”

August is the month many Russian officials spend in their rural dachas. It was clear that Hannam’s visa would expire before he would hear from the KGB. He would need to return to Moscow a second time.

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He discovered, noting the irony, that round-trip air fare prices to the United States were less expensive than a one-way ticket back to Ulan Bator. Despite the setbacks in his story, U.S. News had chipped in with a modest advance to help him follow his leads, so Hannam opted to travel to Washington and Los Angeles, stay with friends and pursue leads on a Taiwan angle of his story.

Among those he interviewed was former Taiwan intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Chang Shih-chi, 74 years old and retired in Alhambra. Chang gave details of an exchange of secret messages allegedly initiated by Lin Piao to Chiang Kai-shek.

The messages suggested that Lin Piao, although viewed internationally as Chairman Mao’s most faithful supporter, had fallen from favor and might be willing to defect to archenemy Taiwan.

In Washington, Hannam met someone who knew Zhang Ning, the former fiancee of Lin Piao’s son, Lin Liguo, alleged by the Chinese to be one of the principal authors of the plot against Mao. Zhang, who now lives in New Jersey, had been present in the Beidaihe resort compound on the coast of China the night Lin Piao’s plane took off and headed toward Mongolia and the Soviet Union beyond.

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Tracking her down through a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, Hannam arranged to meet Zhang at the Plaza hotel on the edge of Central Park. A former dancer, daughter of one of the men who accompanied Mao on his famous Long March, Zhang had lost little of her beauty that won the heart of Lin Piao’s son.

Amid quacking ducks, she spoke for several hours with Hannam in Central Park. She described the Lin family desperation and frantic drive to the airport on that night in 1971.

Hannam’s biggest breakthrough, however, came on his return trip to Moscow on Oct. 31, after the Moscow capital’s first heavy autumn snowfall. Tomilin, he was delighted to learn, had been granted permission to speak. Walking between stretchers and autopsy materials in a main Moscow military morgue, Hannam and an interpreter went to Tomilin’s fourth-floor office.

Joining Tomilin was Gen. Alexander Vasilievich Zagvozdin, a retired KGB investigator who had been part of the Mongolia Soviet autopsy team. The pathologists, inured to the morbidity of the surroundings, ordered tea and cakes from the morgue’s bakery. It was Zagvozdin who said that, before this date, they had shared their findings with just two other men, then-KGB chief Andropov and Communist Party leader Brezhnev.

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“Virtually the second sentence in the conversation was the confirmation that Lin Piao had died in the crash,” Hannam said.

Pulling out a sheaf of grisly photographs and materials, Tomilin detailed how he had matched wartime wounds to Lin Piao’s head, documented in the old Soviet medical records and in rare photographs, with grooves in the skull found at the crash site.

The Soviets, it turned out, had extensive medical and dental records on Lin from a 1938-41 stay in Moscow when he received extensive treatment.

“Dead people don’t talk,” Zagvozdin told Hannam. “There are not names written down on their skulls or identification. You have to have photos of them when they were alive, and then compare the smiling person and the photograph of the rotten corpse.”

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The KGB, for example, had in its files a rare photo of a hatless Lin that showed clearly an indentation on the right side of Lin’s skull where he had been wounded. Dental records (“they had a lot of gold in their mouths”) also matched perfectly. Measurements of the lengths of the corpses matched the heights of the couple.

“I could have made my determination from the shape of his earlobe alone,” Tomilin told Hannam. “Or just by comparing the dental work. Or just by photo-fitting the skull and his photograph. All three tests proved conclusive, plus the height, age and his wartime wounds. It couldn’t have been better.”

Tomilin said the Soviets carted the heads of Lin Piao and his wife back to Moscow, where in all likelihood they are stored in a KGB vault.

But just to be absolutely sure about the identity, he said the pathologists returned to Mongolia a second time and dug up the bodies, searching for a trace of tuberculosis in Lin’s charred lungs that they had neglected to find on the first autopsy. Tuberculosis causes the lungs to harden, leaving a bony material detectable to specialists.

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The Soviets had X-ray records showing the tuberculosis. “We found it there, on exactly the same spot on the right lung,” Tomilin said.

This was clearly the high point of Hannam’s quest. Yet he said he felt a strange letdown hearing the overwhelming proof of the Soviet pathologists.

“I guess I was hoping that they would say there was no Lin Piao among the dead. But after the first wave of disappointment, I realized that I was looking at something historic. It was the first independent proof that Lin was in Mongolia.”

Hannam celebrated his success over a bottle of Italian white wine at a Moscow pizza parlor. The wine and pizza were a stunning extravagance. But after solving an important part of the mystery of Lin Piao, he felt he had earned it.

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