In Search of Genghis Khan

by Natalie Bennett

It is the ultimate “rags to riches” story. It begins with a 10-year-old boy with 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 in the north to the tropical heartland of Asia. The boy was Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan, who has been declared by no less an authority than the Washington Postr 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, and 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 northwest 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 bywomen in plain white Tibetan-style caps. The modern innovation of three-wheeled motorbikes with attached trays 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 10 percent 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 restored recently, and are worth a visit, although they show little sign of being home to a living religious tradition,despite the latter 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.

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 modem road takes the traveller to the Wudangqhou Monastery, purely Tibetan in style and dating back to 1749. It features II 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. Thin lines of trees from modern afforestation projects struggling to hold backthe 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 junes of dunes trapped within steep rock walls. The superstitious might like to know that the noise of sliding sand which produced its modem name was thought 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”. Strong alcohol flows freely, the smoke haze rises 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’s 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 who 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-meter white marble statue of the Great Khan, surely depicted later 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 lamp burning front of the statue, although the Great Khan 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’s 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 Wudangzhou Monastery 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 tents. 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 hordes. 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”.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post Sunday Magazine in 1997


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