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In Mongolia, a search for Genghis Khan’s legacy
2016-01-13
By John S. Hamalian

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

In 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 interesting 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

Sitting 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”.

While 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

Driving 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.

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A portal into the past

The 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.

After 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 this area.

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

One 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.

Getting there:

Visas 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, barren terrain.


Where to stay:

Accommodation in 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.


Travel tips:

• 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.

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