We Go Chasing Through Mongolia on the Trail of Genghis Khan
Come along and see what it means to party like a Mongol.
“A foreigner actually gave the name Chinggis [Mongolian for Genghis] Khan to his dog,” says Munkhtsatsral, 26. “I’m very against it—to name your pets after Chinggis! How can you name your pet with the name of Mongolia’s Great Khan?”
It’s a damp Friday night in July in Genghis territory: Dadal soum (town) of Khentii aimag (province) in remote northeastern Mongolia is only about a half hour from the grassy hillock where Genghis Khan was supposedly born and buried.
Munkhtsatsral was born in Dadal, but moved to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, where he performs with a theater troupe.
Wrestling Champ from Dadal Naadam
Everyone is drunk or tipsy (including my translator and I). Earlier that day, the town celebrated its local Naadam, an Olympic-esque annual festival featuring horse racing, wrestling, and archery. It's believed that Genghis Khan adapted crucial battle skills into these sports to cultivate able warriors when he founded the Mongol Empire in 1206.
Munkhtsatsral trekked back to Khentii for the event. We’re chatting at the “soum party,” a dance and performance fete held at the cultural center. Some revelers arrive on horseback in the traditional Mongolian deel jacket. Others, including most of the younger folks, arrive in modern western garb.
To celebrate, bottles of Chinggis brand vodka are purchased in alarming quantities with tugrik (Mongolian currency) bearing the Great Khan’s likeness.
Lhagvasuren Gerelt-Od, the governor of Baljaa baga—a tiny sub-soum of Dadal—tells me he’s a direct descendant of the Borijin clan, which he says once handled the finances of Genghis Khan.
The western world represents “Chinggis as a bloodthirsty warrior, but it’s not like that,” he says. “He was a skilled politician, and he opened up a lot of unknown cultures to the world.” It’s an argument I’ve heard often during my three months in Mongolia.
About 370 miles away in the capital, Genghis Khan sits calmly on the steps of parliament. His giant equestrian statue holds court in Terelj National Park. The country’s main airport bears his name. It seems like he’s around every corner. On the tip of everyone’s tongue. Genghis Khan is trending culturally—nearly 800 years after his death.
The morning after Naadam, the simple monument marking Genghis Khan’s birthplace is deserted. Horses graze on a nearby meadow. A light wind blows through the wildflowers. The terrain—very near to the Russian border—differs from the open steppes typically associated with the country. Lush forest flanks the mountains. Dampness pervades.
It’s believed Genghis Khan was buried nearby, though his tomb still eludes researchers.
“According to Mongol belief, the body of the dead should be left in peace,” cultural anthropologist Jack Weatherford writes in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. To ensure an undisturbed rest, the entire area, dubbed the “Great Taboo” (Ikh Khorig) was sealed off by Mongolian soldiers for hundreds of square miles for hundreds of years.
When the country fell under Soviet rule in 1921, Communist leaders continued to guard the area, renaming it Highly Restricted Area to quell any kernel of nationalist pride. (Mention of Genghis Khan or traditional Mongolian culture was banned as anti-revolutionary during the Communist era.)
Only in the early ‘90s, when Democracy supplanted Communism, were Mongolians able to explore the land—and their ancient history.
Around the same time, scholars finally cracked the coded text of a 13th century document referred to as The Secret History of the Mongols, a long-lost chronicle detailing the life and times of Genghis Khan.
The Secret History, told from a Mongol perspective, recast the conqueror and his people as “much more than barbarians who harassed the superior civilizations around them,” according to Weatherford.
“The revelations…seemed to come from Genghis Khan himself, who had returned to his people to offer them hope and inspiration,” Weatherford writes. “After seven centuries of silence, they could, at last, hear his words again.”
The Secret History details several specific historically significant locations in Genghis Khan’s life. Five companions and I, as well as two skilled drivers, trekked mostly off road for four days to visit (and photograph) some of those key locations and the people we met along the way.
The Blue Lake With the Black Heart (Khukh Nuur, in Mongolian)
Considered one of the most important geographic loci in Mongolian history. In 1189, Temuujin was crowned a clan chief here and took the name Genghis Khan. The Secret History of Mongols specifically mentions Khukh Nuur and Mount "Kharzurkh" [Black Heart Mountain]. Weatherford on locating the spot based on the text of the Secret Histroy: "The identity of that place had been preserved for centuries and was easily found by anyone."
Wooden Monuments (including a carving of Genghis Khan)
Modern-made carved statues. There is one of Genghis, as well as his mother, father, and wife, Borte. Statues representing the 36 kings of Mongolia are arranged in a semi-circle around the family carvings.
Visitors covered the Genghis Khan monument with blue khadags, ceremonial silk scarves symbolizing Tenger, the open sky and sky spirit.
The Onon River originates in the Khentti Mountains and runs through Russia and Mongolia. It is believed Genghis Khan was born near the upper Onon.
The Secret History opens: "There came into the world a 'Borte Chono' (blue-gray wolf) whose destiny was Heaven’s will. His wife was a 'Gua Maral' (beautiful doe). They traveled across the inland sea and when they were camped near the source of the Onon River in sight of Burkhan Khaldun, their first son was born, named Bat Tsagaan.”
The Soviets deliberately built no roads or bridges near the Highly Restricted Area. We had to cross the Onon River by raft.
Grassy hills located about two miles from Dadal soum. Considered to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan in 1162.
According to Weatherford, "Tomor-ochir, the second highest ranking member of the government, authorized the erection of a concrete monument [in 1962] to mark the birthplace of Genghis Khan near the Onon River....For his traitorous crime of showing what [Soviet] party officials labeled as 'tendencies directed at idealizing the role of Genghis Khan,' the authorities removed Tomor-ochir from office, banished him to internal exile, and finally hacked him to death with an ax."
From Lonely Planet: "The inscription says that Chinggis Khaan was born here in 1162. Behind it is a large ovoo emitting a pungent smell thanks to all the food offerings."
Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue
The statue was built in 2008 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the Mongol Empire. It's located about an hour and half outside the capital, in Tsonjin Boldog. Legend has it that Genghis Khan found a golden whip here.
Here's its seen through a thick haze; wild fires in Siberia muddled the Mongolian sky for several days in late July.
Baldan Bereeven Monastery
The monastery was established in 1654. During its peak in the mid-19th century, it was one of Mongolia's three largest monasteries, housing more than 5,000 lamas. Communist forces destroyed the temple in the religious purges of 1937.
It was restored, but now only houses around ten lamas.
Marmot is considered a delicacy on the Mongolian steppes. It's traditionally prepared by filling its insides with hot stones and torching it on the outside.
(This is what actual "Mongolian BBQ" looks like.)
Every karaoke bar in Mongolia that I went to had "Genghis Khan" (1979) by the German band Dschinghis Khan...
Salt water lake located between Chinggis City and Ulaanbaatar.
It's the closest thing to a Mongolian beach...
Ancient burial markers used in the Bronze and Iron ages.