The thunderous sound of a thousand horses rages in the near distance.
From across the seemingly infinite steppes of the Central Asian
hinterlands, the air is transformed into a deafening roar of hooves,
howls and cries. Huge iron swords ready at the hilt, piercing eyes
gazing from hardened leather helmets, stout bodies shrouded in tough
hide armor, the noses of their fierce mounts flared in flaming fury. In
the long shadow of impending doom, it is then that one realizes: It is
too late. Genghis Khan has arrived.
From the 13th to the 14th
centuries, Genghis and his Khan descendants, the ground quaking under
the weight of their mighty armies, unleashed a fury of global conquests
that became the largest contiguous land empire the Earth has ever known,
ruling over one-fifth of the world’s land mass and subjugating a
staggering 25 percent of the planet’s population. The extent of the
Mongol Empire are nearly impossible to comprehend, stretching across a
huge swath of land from Eastern Europe all the way to the Korean
peninsula, touching the Mediterranean, the Himalayas, Arabian deserts,
Siberia and the shores of the Sea of Japan.
An adventurous start
Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, sand was pouring down from the sky
like rain during a monsoon. It was one of their frequent sandstorms, and
we were stuck in Beijing. After numerous delays and a day-long wait,
making good friends among our hodgepodge group of stranded yet spirited
strangers, we finally took off and, upon landing in Mongolia, the entire
plane broke out in frenetic applause.
Ulaanbaatar and its
surroundings offer some impressive sights, including a mystical temple
in the mountains at Aryabal Meditation Center, a towering
26.5-meter-high golden statue of the Buddhist figure Avalokitesvara at
Ganden Monastery, the magnificent Winter Palace of Mongolia’s last
emperor and a grandiose public square featuring a gigantic statue of
Genghis Khan, seated regally on a majestic throne.
as Ulaanbaatar is, I was eager to get to the destination I had truly
ventured here for, the location where the great Genghis Khan embarked on
his extraordinary campaign across much of the known world.
From whence a mighty cavalry once rode
in a quaint valley, surrounded by soft, rounded mountains, the
legendary town of Karakorum was the capital of the Mongol Empire. It was
from this exact spot that Genghis Khan rallied his troops before
advancing into much of Western Asia. Born as Temüjin, he became a
respected tribal leader and consolidated his growing power base through
politics and warfare. During a kuriltai (traditional council meeting) in
1206, he was elevated to the super status of “Genghis Khan,” meaning
supreme leader or king of kings, uniting all the regional nomadic
peoples as the head of “all who lived in felt tents”.
very little remains that reveals Genghis Khans’ once powerful presence
in Karakorum, save for some old fire pits and palatial foundations, his
power can be felt just by trekking atop the very soil that his mighty
cavalry embarked from. When all was quiet, I could almost hear the
rumbling of horses as the Mongol’s fierce armies charged their way into
Europe and China. Eventually undone by overextension and infighting, the
ambitiousness and brutal rule of Genghis Khan and his successors still
reverberates centuries after their fateful demise.
A run-in with a modern Genghis Khan
among grazing cattle, curious camels and meandering sheep, we made our
way to Erdene Zuu, the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.
While exploring the extensive grounds and remarkable temples, I met a
large Mongolian man whose intense eyes were imbued with strength and
confidence. He was wrinkled and weathered. He wore a thick moustache, a
dark leather coat with fine embroidery and an enormous silver-studded
belt that looked like it belonged to an emperor’s tunic. His appearance
was imposing, and I felt as if I was staring at Genghis Khan himself.
As I gazed up at him, I reached my hand out. He shook it and smiled warmly, his dark-hued eyes staring straight into mine.
A portal into the past
wind howls through a small opening at the top of the simple, round
tent. Through the ger’s opening, I can see eagles roam and horses
saunter while dust blows over the stark, dry terrain and the lingering
goats — a moment that seemed frozen in time. A ger is a traditional,
portable Mongolian tent, made from a wooden frame and covered with skins
or felt. Surprisingly spacious, they seem almost impossibly larger
inside than outside. No trip to Mongolia would be complete without a
crisp night under the infinite arrays of stars in a local tent, the same
way the nomads of the world have been living for thousands of years.
a pleasant stay in a cozy ger camp, it was time to head back to
Ulaanbaator. Luckily for us, a special treat was in store: From out of
nowhere emerged the 80km stretch of giant sand dunes known as Mongol
Els, part of the outer extremities of the mighty Gobi Desert. Here, the
hot grainy sands of the arid landscape stream over mounds of gold,
conspiring to form magical mirages and drifts of dreams. Genghis himself
may have traversed these very same trails. In this wondrous place one
can meander under the soaring sun, frolic about in the sea of sand or
take a ride on the affable two-humped Bactrian camels that trudge along
The jubilant romp in the sand worked up quite a big
appetite, so we stopped for a traditional Mongolian lunch. After we were
seated, a huge bowl of hardy meat and vegetable soup was placed in
front of me. Thinking the gigantic broth was to be shared with everyone,
I readily pushed it to the middle of the table, so that all could enjoy
the steaming scrumptiousness. Much to my surprise, more of the titanic
soups emerged from the kitchen — it was then that they told me that the
bowl was all mine. It seems that in this vast country of grand places
and larger-than-life people, the word “small” doesn’t exist.
The undiscovered mystery
final destination was in order before our adventure in Mongolia was
complete. We stopped at Tsonjin Boldog, just east of Ulaanbaatar, where a
recently-built colossal figure of Genghis Khan towers a remarkable 40
meters over the surrounding countryside. The world’s largest equestrian
statue is made of a staggering 250 tons of gleaming stainless steel. The
site has myth and intrigue floating in the air, as legend holds that on
this very location Genghis found a golden horsewhip, considered by
Mongolians to be a very good omen, and that he was inspired by this
fortuitous find to become the ruler of all Mongols. The statue rises
from the Earth with the same awe Genghis’ army did as it thundered
across the world. Though the man passed away nearly 800 years ago, he
left an extraordinarily indelible mark on the world, as permanent as the
global connections he formed, yet as fleeting as the free-loving
nomadic lifestyle he led.
Perhaps, then, it is fitting that
Genghis’ burial site remains undiscovered. It’s one of the world’s
greatest unsolved mysteries. According to legend, every one of the 2,000
people who attended his funeral in 1227 was executed by a total of 800
soldiers, who in turn were killed to ensure his eternal resting site was
undisturbed. Folk stories whisper that a river was diverted over his
grave to make it impossible to find. Other legends say that trees were
planted over the site to conceal it.
Perhaps his final resting
place will be found some day — either way, his spirit will forever
linger in this vast, astounding land.
for Mongolia are required for Chinese citizens with the exception of
Hong Kong residents. Ulaanbaatar is the only international airport.
Airlines mostly connect from Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo or Moscow. For a
grander adventure, the famous Trans-Mongolian Railway also gets you to
Ulaanbaatar, departing from either Beijing or Moscow. While in Mongolia,
it is recommended to get a four-wheel drive vehicle due to the rugged,
Where to stay:
Mongolia will be basic hotels or guest houses in the cities and main
towns. In rural areas, Ger (traditional felt tents) camps are available.
Travel agents can also arrange for you to camp with a nomadic family.
Ger tents or village homestays are a wonderful experience, but they are
also the only option in between the sparsely situated towns.
Avoid the winter months due to the brutal cold, strong wind and
impassable roads — the best time to travel is between May and September.
Although fresh food is abundant in populated areas, it is recommended
to carry protein bars and snacks when you travel to more remote areas.
Bottled water is mandatory.
• A flashlight is essential. Do also
bring sturdy shoes, a rain parka, toilet paper and layered clothing, as
it gets pretty hot during the daytime, but nighttime can be very cold.
Mongolia is predominately Buddhist and also has gone through numerous
political changes in the past century. Respect the local culture.