Central Asia, from the Caspian to western China, was the arena for "The Great Game", the nineteenth-century war of espionage and diplomacy between Russia and Britain. The Russians wanted domination of central Asia; the British wanted to protect India and expand their empire, by influence at least if not by conquest.
Bailey's story comes right at the very end of the Great Game. At the end of the first world war he was sent to Tashkent, in what is now Uzbekistan. The Bolsheviks were taking over Russia which had conquered this part of central Asia (called Russian Turkestan), but at that time, as Bailey says, "no one quite knew what a Bolshevik was or what were his aims and objects". The goal of Bailey's mission was to find out more about what was going on, and if possible persuade them into the war on the Allied side.
Bailey travelled to Kashgar (now in China) and then via Andijan (now in Kyrgyzstan) to Tashkent. Much of the book is about his stay in Tashkent and the deteriorating relationship with the Bolsheviks. As more information came in about the British fighting against the Bolsheviks elsewhere, and as Bolshevik central control improved, Bailey's position became more and more dangerous. He had a good local counter espionage network, and was able to get warning of impending arrests and take measures to neutralize the information against him, but ultimately it became clear he would have to leave secretly or be executed very soon.
After some time (and some adventures) hiding in a village nearby, he returned to Tashkent where he lived using a succession of false papers. When he realized from the limited news he had access to that there was no chance of the regime being overthrown by any of the civil wars or Allied offensives, he decided to head back to British territory. It turned out the Soviet counter-espionage group believed Bailey was in Bokhara, and had sent fifteen agents there to find him; all had been killed. Using his false papers, Bailey volunteered to be the sixteenth and in a move straight from a Bond novel was sent to Bokhara to try to locate himself.
In Bokhara the adventure was not over, as there was a long stretch of hostile desert to cross (what is now Turkmenistan). The group was fired on by bandits as they made the last dash to cross into Persia, then a friendly country.
The book is exciting, primarily because the events are completely believable yet often amazing. Bailey's no great prose stylist, but his writing is clear and straightforward. One oddity that will strike modern readers is that he frequently lists the local wildlife (including the Latin names) in terms of what he was able to shoot. However, after a couple of chapters, the true espionage story starts, and the book becomes absolutely gripping. One other note: Bailey refers to several photographs, but these are not in this paperback edition, which is the one I have.
Strongly recommended. If you're interested in the history of this time and place, you may also want to read Peter Hopkirk's "Setting The East Ablaze", which recounts Bailey's story in considerable detail and provides a great deal more background information and historical setting.