In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan
Unifying force or genocidal conqueror, Genghis Khan excites debate. What of his legacy in Inner Mongolia today?
Article by Andrew Threlfall
An inner driving force of Wanderlust and a desire to experience the yurt life, (too old for Glastonbury tent life now) has always driven me to find out more and more about Monoglia – and specifically it’s genocidal conquering maniac or great unifying democrat of religious groups and orders (the jury is still out) Genghis Khan. We seem to think we have an accurate psychoanalysis of the likes of Napoleon, but venture back almost a thousand years or more and legacies get muddled.
Genghis Khan was the touchstone by the end of my adventure when I found my yurt, and an inner peace (no social media and actually no WiFi in the yurt itself) in the uniquely appealing deserts of Inner Mongolia, a destination once considered completely off the map – but far more accessible than you ever thought possible. Think the islands of Southern Thailand in the early 1970s and that is roughly how westerners consider Inner Mongolia today.
First though – that all important Chinese visa; the UK has recently made it much easier and (much) cheaper – for Chinese citizens to visit however, unusually, this has not been entirely reciprocated so far. The possibility of endless visits to the Chinese embassy did not appeal so I handed over my £150 for the Visa plus an £65 administration fee (taking the stress out of the situation) to Trailfinders and left them with my passport. Two weeks later it came back and a two year multiple entry Visa was mine.
Next up. My man, whisper it, but sort of a hero, Genghis. Where exactly did he rule with an iron fist and no little charisma eight or nine centuries ago? Where did he and his offspring (and their offspring) not at least attempt to conquer would be an easier question as they pushed as far west as the Mediterranean.
I was aware that Mongolia bore all the historical hallmarks of (an autonomous region) Tibet, or, for a more up-to-date version, Hong Kong; namely that China had been clawing back land Soviet era style for a good while now.
Just how Chinese or Mongolian would Inner Mongolia actually feel? And, like with the ever disappearing Mao statues (the Russians have similar dilemmas over their Lenin and Stalin collections) how celebrated would that unforgiving, genocidal (some historians argue) Chinese foe Genghis Khan be within actual Chinese borders?
I flew in to the Inner Mongolian city of Alxa League or Ālāshàn League as it is otherwise known from neighbouring Yinchuan, the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Historically the former capital of the Western Xia Empire of the Tanguts and with a population of two million, it’s worth a day’s sightseeing, especially as every second shop sells Goji berries. It’s the only region in the world that grows them and the Goji shops are as omnipresent as western coffee shops (which you won’t find as they don’t drink the stuff).
The next morning my driver (costing only £35 a day) arrived in a local taxi. The taxi he owned and as he regaled with hand sign language he occasionally transported livestock. If that was unconventional, what was to follow was truly insane. First, a trip highlight: a 10 km drive out of the centre to a sprawling Buddhist Temple complex (complete with resident five star hotel should you want to actually go the full Edina and Patsy and stay for a week). For Feng Shui reasons, this had been constructed high up in the mountains, even though that had not stopped Chairman Mao from destroying many similar structures during his draconian religious clampdown. As the monks invited me in to watch them chant – they had wondrously summoned each other with seashells – echoes bouncing off the mountain walls – I saw Genghis Khan for the first time. Not quite omnipresent in this serene setting, but there nonetheless, in the most beautiful murals with his horses, along with other, more traditional deities. I felt elated. It was indeed a place close to the Heavens. Spectacularly so and, as my shortened breathing could accurately attest, altitude wise also.
Four hours exploring the temples sped by, the ravens dive-bombing just overhead adding to the dramatic scene. It was a place full of juxtapositions; monks deep in chant or deep in WeChat conversations on their iPhone 8s. All under the same temple roof. Beautiful.
I got back in the taxi and we headed back to Alxa. But what was that moving a mile off the highway in the heat haze? Wild horses or – a bigger prize to this westerner – a caravan of wild camels?
I asked the driver to slow down. He interpreted my request in the most comical fashion imaginable suddenly careering off the smooth tarmac on to a three feet deep potholed dirt track. We were off. The track disappeared – no matter, we were now moving on pure desert. Chasing camels –as you do, in the exact equivalent of a New York Yellow cab. Even 10 per cent of the cost to his suspension was not going to be covered by my £35, but it mattered not. This was a case of national Mongolian honour and those camels had better be home-grown Mongolian camels not horses. In the end we got both. Wild horses and amazingly approachable two humped creatures just out there for Saturday afternoon stroll.
Three days in Alxa, using the same driver each day, was sufficient to discover yet more overwhelming Temple compounds (I actually can’t think of a better word to describe them. I’d never felt more at peace there in the mountains but I wanted to see the capital city, where Genghis Khan was celebrated and adorned tourist mementos as well as open plan squares.
At first glance Hohhot looked a little dodgy (I had the kind of face screaming only European in Inner Mongolia to make the train station a brief yet nervy experience) but I’d been advised that the Muslim quarter, called Jade Spring in English, was where to stay and explore. It was simply riveting. Even if the domestic cat waistcoats – £25 each with a zipper down where the backbone used to be – were only slightly eclipsed in bad taste by the tiger claws for sale everywhere on the street markets. Banned in China this was flipping the finger at Beijing, Mongolian style.
Veganism, safe to say, has not reached this far outpost, judging by all kinds of animal head, let alone body, parts I sampled on day one; for the record goat brain and eyeball complement each other. I could see where those early morning Tai Chi octogenarians got their admirable vigour from even if not a single gym existed in Hohhot, local red wine and red meat consumption combining further to send its populace to far earlier graves than the rest of China. At least in the afterlife there would be an astonishing 200 feet tall Buddha With A Thousand Arms to greet them. This giant gold statue, along with at least 12 more half its size, were to be found in a local Buddhist temple site by the Muslim quarter, free of charge and completely mindblowing.
Hohhot had delivered. A compelling city scape of unusual sights, sounds and smells and plenty of Genghis references. With not a single word of English spoken by anyone and not a foreigner or Irish pub in sight. Quite frankly as it should be.
I needed to push on to the desert hinterland itself. And find myself reclaiming the discomfort, yet joy of that first Glastonbury experience but in a yurt. Firstly a horse ride, bareback naturally, in the style of Genghis Khan. The chosen destination was three hours away, and the driver this time arrived in an immaculate black Mercedes Benz. I had a flashback to the taxi and the camels. Oh well. Here goes.
The ride was phenomenal across barren grasslands. The yurt? Well, less so. A little too nomadic perhaps but lapped up by the hordes from Beijing who keep the tourism alive. Reeking a bit of horse dung seemed appropriate as on day two I headed in the Benz to the desert sands for camel riding. There were yurts here as well. Everywhere you looked. I didn’t have to imagine too hard what Genghis Khan’s everyday existence had been like. Even down to no WiFi by now such was the remoteness of the location. Deprived of social media for the previous two weeks in China I was now fully knackered. Or liberated. The latter as it turned out.
Thank you Genghis Khan. Your legacy is that the curious and adventurous will come looking for you to walk in your footsteps.