Genghis Khan (ca. 1158–1227), silent, authoritative, paternal, presides over present-day post-imperial, post-totalitarian, successfully democratic Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world (pop. ca. 2.8 million; density 1.76/sq km), with a land area about the size of Alaska. Genghis Kahn is their mono-hero, so it seems, present on all their money (as Mao is in China and Gandhi is in India), his statue and (imagined) likeness everywhere.
I had read (or rather listened to) Jack Weatherford’s marvelous Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World before coming on the trip. In it I learned that Genghis Khan—or Chinggis Khaan the way it’s spelled in Mongolia—spent the first 60 years of his life bringing the warring Mongolian tribes together into a single nation and fighting force, then having consolidated his power, went on to conquer the surrounding territories and make them his vassals.
His innovations in military strategies began with a strict meritocracy that avoided nepotism. One of his very successful military tactics was based on the assumption that his foe would underestimate him, so he had his troops pretend to flee, and then when the enemy was sufficiently stretched out, they would turn and attack mercilessly. He used terrifying siege tactics, including hurling burning oil over the city walls—an anticipation of napalm—and h invented the cannon by putting gunpowder and various heavy objects into a metal tube and firing it off.
His sons extended the Mongol conquest westward, becoming the scourge of Eastern Europe, and, by defeating so many aristocratic-based armies, dealt a death blow to feudalism. Unlike the Christians, he never tortured his enemies, although he did come up with some novel ways of putting his enemy chieftains to death, such as sewing a group of them up in a carpet and having them trampled.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that as a world figure and the most successful Mongol in history, he has become the guiding spirit of the country. It is apparently impossible to name too many things after him.
But in the 20th Century, Mongolia became famous for something else: dinosaur fossils. In 1922 under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Roy Chapman Andrews led an expedition into the Gobi desert, where he found fossilized bones lying on the ground, no digging necessary. Shifting sands and soils had apparently uncovered them, but no one had disturbed them for centuries. Armed with a side pistol against bandits, and sporting a wide brimmed hat, Andrews became the scientist-adventurer model for Indiana Jones, and he is venerated in Mongolia. I had read his children’s book All About Dinosaurs in the fourth grade (1955-56), and now I had a chance to see the sites where he had made his great discoveries.
I had emailed GobiTours based on their website, and they had responded with some suggestions and also left phone messages at our hotel. Once we got moving Monday morning, after having arrived so late, Enktuya Banzrachg, a perky middle-aged Mongolian woman, came to meet us at our hotel and took us to an ATM close by and also the airline office where we bought our tickets to Dalanzagdag, the major city that is the jumping off place for tours of the Gobi. Since flights were every other day, we took her offer of a two-day tour starting that very day, to Terelj National Park, about two hours from Ulaanbaatar, and the monumental statue of Chinggis Khaan, and including a horseback ride. We would sleep in a yurt or ger that belonged to a family living in a ger camp in the park. Conditions would be primitive. Were we ready?
Of course! This is exactly what we wanted, to be in the wild, to get to know the locals with roots in nomadism, after the programmed and controlled environment of Beijing.
Our driver came about 3 pm, and we headed for the park, arriving about 5. On the way we passed what looked like a number of tourist camps, including one with gray life-size dinosaur models. This looked much more like an ongoing established business than our guidebooks had given us to understand. There were volleyball courts, what looked like a small soccer field with goal posts, some very colorful buildings in bizarre shapes, and many, many gers. It was right before the official start of the season. No swimming facilities were in evidence.
We checked in at the yurt we were assigned to. I distributed gifts, and then we set out to see the surroundings, famous in the country for the landscape. It was a breathtaking natural emplacement, surrounded by mountains, with rock sloping up on three sides, like a small cirque. We began to hike up the slope on away from the access road. It was past 5 pm, and the sun was low overhead, with a cloud cover that distributed the sun’s light in focused sweeps across the landscape. As we climbed higher the various planes of mountain, tree lines and rocky outcroppings darkened and brightened, creating a series of lighting variations on the magnificent diorama spread out before us. We had passed right by a dark towering rock on the way in, and now it was the centerpiece of three-tiered system of mountains. The moving spot-lighting over the grandiose vista reminded me of my favorite 19th Century landscape painters from Caspar David Friedrich to Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt. Growing close to the ground were delightful miniature irises, while forests of diverse mosses and lichens covered the rocks.
It was soul-calming to be up there, just to be surrounded by the wide embrace of the close-by rocks and mountains to the horizon. We saw a monastery off in the distance, and above it some colorful writing on one of the vertically sloping rock surfaces.