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Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan: Mongolia’s "Man Of The Millennium"


It is the ultimate 'rags to riches' story. It begins with a 10-year-old boy in a small family encampment abandoned by his tribe on the harsh steppe, surviving only on what his mother could gather from the land. Forty years later he was well on the way to establishing the largest empire the world has ever known, stretching from the shores of the Yellow Sea to well beyond the Caspian, from the frozen wastes of the north into the tropical heartland of Asia. The boy was Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan, who has been declared by no lesser authority than the Washington Post to be the "Man of the Millennium".

As the new millennium approaches it seems an appropriate time to pay tribute to the man who, from such an unpromising base, established an empire with a reach even a modern multinational company might envy. It was with this in mind that I set out for the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, home to the mausoleum of Genghis Khan. The province, a long, looping strip of northern China, also features a modern, anything-goes culture of which Genghis would surely have approved - something closer perhaps to the mythical Wild West than anything to be found in America today.

The logical starting point is the provincial capital of Hohhot, a one-hour flight or overnight train journey north-west of Beijing. It is a pleasant town, although one without any great pretensions. Coal carts drawn by tiny donkeys that scarcely reach their owners' waist share the roads with the ubiquitous Chinese bicycle ridden by women in plain white Tibetan-style caps, and the modern innovation of three-wheeled motorbikes with attached trays which can carry anything from a couple of huge old sows to a complete bedroom setting. These are invariably ridden by wild-eyed men with the ear flaps of their fur hats waving in the breeze.

Hohhot houses the provincial museum, dusty and ill-lit, but with fine displays on the life of the "minorities" of the region. This now includes the Mongols themselves, for the local population has been overwhelmed by a flood of Han immigrants over the past half century; today they form a mere ten per cent of the province's population. The museum is also home to the remains of older residents of the region, with a fine fossil hall dominated by a magnificent black mammoth skeleton dug from a local coal mine.

The Dazhou and Xiletuzhao Temples, located in the old quarter of the town, are effectively two more museums. Both have been recently restored, and are worth a visit, although they show little sign of being home to a living religious tradition, despite the later being the formal home of the 11th Grand Living Buddha. This is not perhaps surprising since the Tibetan Buddhism, to which the majority of the Mongolian population subscribe, is hardly popular with the communist regime. They do however feature magnificent Tibetan-style silk paintings, attractive papier-mâché animal-shaped floats and fine frescoes showing Mongolian influence in their plump and lively horses, sheep and cattle.

But Inner Mongolia is a vast province, and the mausoleum is still some seven hours away from Hohhot by road, although the varied scenery along the way makes this no hardship. The road follows the edge of rugged and bleak mountains which knife like dinosaur skeletons into the sky, while the steppe stretches away seemingly forever from their base. In these hills a four-hour side trip on a good modern road takes the traveller to the Wudangqhou Monastery, purely Tibetan in style and dating back to 1749. It features 11 halls with a wide variety of artistic styles and moods, ranging from the gloomy forbidding frescoes of the main hall, with surrealist motifs showing Salvador Dali didn't think of anything new, to the brightly-lit hall, glowing with gold, which houses the ashes of the seven Living Buddhas who ruled this monastery.

Beyond the industrial city of Baotou, notable only for its huge clouds of pollution, the road crosses the Yellow River, magnificent even here, far from the sea, and cuts through the edges of the Gobi Desert, with thin lines of trees from modern afforestation projects struggling to hold back the ravenous ancient sands. The land is sliced to its core by river gorges, cut deep into the soft loess soil.

These two features combine to produce a local attraction about an hour from Baotou which the tourist authorities have named Resonant Sand Gorge. It is filled with lines of dunes trapped within steep rock walls. These have the allure of shifting dunes, although the superstitious might like to know that the noise of sliding sand which produced its modern name was considered by Marco Polo to be demons seeking to lure travellers to their death.

The final staging point before the mausoleum is the almost totally Mongolian town of Dongsheng. It has no tourist "sights" as such, but the frontier atmosphere thrills some visitors and intimidates others. Mini-sandstorms swirl through the streets, every corner is filled by battered pool tables hosting very serious games and the only other local entertainment is eating and drinking - generally done by the locals in huge "saloons". These are lively places where the local super-strong alcohol flows freely, the smoke haze falls as the evening progresses, bones and other scraps are thrown on the floor, and the waiters and waitresses are even tougher-looking than their customers.

Genghis' last resting place is about two hours from Dongsheng, located incongruously in a tiny hamlet with only one main street, dominated by the three golden domes of the mausoleum. In summer tourist buses rule, but in winter the street is home to a free-ranging herd of Mongolian horses that might be directly descended from the Khan's own steeds. Nowadays they have a more humble role, mostly pulling carts filled with coal or local produce, although the equine tradition obviously remains, with every animal looking sleek and well cared-for.

The visitor climbs towards the mausoleum on a long, straight path, somewhat reminiscent of a traditional Chinese spirit way, although it is broken by a purely Mongolian structure: an obo, or collection of stones placed at holy places to placate the spirits. The building luckily escaped the socialist realist style which characterised its period and instead is a fine structure modelled on the traditional Mongolian yurt - in fact three yurts linked by corridors.

The central "yurt" of the mausoleum is dominated by a five metre white marble statue of the Great Khan, surely depicted late in life, with a substantial girth that must have put considerable strain on his mounts. The essentially religious nature of this memorial is reinforced by the yak-butter lamps burning in front of the statue, although Genghis might better have appreciated the offerings of Mongolian vodka. Both are left by reverent Mongolian pilgrims. Thirty thousand came from Outer Mongolia on the 800th anniversary of the Khan's supposed birth.

As befits the memorial of a truly nomadic ruler the mausoleum is not cluttered by objects. It is dominated instead by the lively frescos, cartoon-like in their realism, which line its walls and tell the story of Genghis' rise and rule, as recorded in The Secret History of the Mongols, the great chronicle recovered from Chinese records early this century.

One memorable scene shows the Great Khan, very much in control and dominating the scene, studying plans for further conquests in consultation with his sons. Splendid white horses stand waiting to take the warriors into battle, while women wearing the enormous head-dresses much noted by contemporary travellers stand in attendance. In another scene the Khan appears on a Chinese-style throne with his principal wife, Berta, although her smiling expression seems somewhat at odds with the historical evidence, which says she was a powerful woman who took no nonsense from anyone, including the Great Khan himself.

As to whether this is properly a mausoleum - a building housing a great figure's remains - or more properly a memorial building, is a debate for the historians. Tradition states that the two subsidiary yurts house the remains of the Genghis Khan and important members of his family, each within splendid silk yurts. However there is considerable historical evidence to refute this. Persian sources state that after his death in 1227 (from natural causes) he was buried on the slopes of the great mountain Burkhan Khaldun, in whose shelter he several times escaped early enemies. Whatever the fact, there can be no doubt that whatever is housed here has attained great importance, and today this is the principal place dedicated to the Great Khan's memory.

Of course some might protest that it is hardly appropriate to pay tribute to a man remembered as a butcher, a demon at the head of his Mongol hoards. But it should not be forgotten that history was written by and large by the people the Mongols conquered, or at least those who felt menaced by their strength, such as the Europeans who believed the earth had split open and the Mongol warriors had ridden up from Hades.

By the standards of his own society the Great Khan was simply making war in the normal way. The aim of war was the joy of battle and the spoils of victory, and if the latter were granted freely, the lives of the enemy were spared. And mercy could never have ruled the vast empire he established, as the Mongol army never totalled more than 130,000 men. Furthermore, the Great Khan never bothered about a person's antecedents, with many of his confidants being drawn from conquered peoples. With a truly multinational army, a vast empire governed with fast and efficient communications and renowned strategy and tactics, he might be the very model for a modern "mover and shaker"!


Tours: The CITS (China International Travel Service) and CTS (China Travel Service) both organise tours which can include most or all of the above sights. Also popular are "grasslands" tours which purport to show Mongolians still living the traditional lifestyle, and often include traditional feasts and cultural activities. Some private tour operators are also starting up and may offer more attractive and better organised tours, although it is as yet early days. The CITS has several offices in Hong Kong and in other capital cities, although it may be easier to book its tours through a private travel agent.

Accommodation: Although tourism is obviously expanding rapidly in this region and many new hotels are being built, accommodation options in Inner Mongolia rarely extend beyond three-star, but there are some quite reasonable establishments in this range, notably the Zhaojun Hotel in Hohhot. "Traditional" yurts can be hired at the mausoleum, complete with electricity for those wanting to pretend to be the Great Khan, although it is doubtful if he ever slept beside the tourist bus car park.

Food: Traditional local food tends towards filling rather than tasty, but a range of Chinese food is available in the better hotels.


Text by Natalie Bennett; Photos by Pictures From History - © CPA Media