Mongolia is an almost total mystery to the outside world, its very name being synonymous with remoteness. For hundreds of years, landlocked between the two Asian giants Russia and China, it seems to have been doomed to eternal obscurity, trapped in a hopeless physical environment of fleeting summers and interminable, bitter winters. And yet, seven hundred years ago the people of this benighted land suddenly burst out of their frontiers and for a century subjugated and terrorized almost all of the Eurasian landmass.
Visitors to the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia will not necessarily find many signs of this today. The modern-day heirs of the Mongol hordes are not only placid – quietly going about their business of shepherding, herding horses and entertaining tourists – but, even here, are vastly outnumbered by the Han Chinese (by seventeen million to two million). In addition, this is, and always has been, a sensitive border area, and there are still restrictions on the movements of tourists in some places, despite the demise of the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, there are still traces of the “real” Mongolia out there, in terms of both landscape and people. Dotting the region are enormous areas of grassland, gently undulating plains stretching to the horizon and still used by nomadic peoples as pastureland for their horses. Tourists are able to visit the grasslands and even stay with the Mongols in their yurts, though the only simple way to do this is on an organized tour out of the regional capital Hohhot – an experience rather short on authenticity. If you don’t find what you are looking for in the Hohhot area, however, don’t forget that there is a whole vast swath of Mongolia stretching up through northeastern China that remains virtually untouched by Western tourists; see the Dongbei chapter.
Genghis Khan (1162–1227) was born, ominously enough, with a clot of blood in his hand. Under his leadership, the Mongols erupted from their homeland to ravage the whole of Asia, butchering millions, razing cities and laying waste to all the land from China to eastern Europe. It was his proud boast that his destruction of cities was so complete that he could ride across their ruins by night without the least fear of his horse stumbling.
Before Genghis exploded onto the scene, the nomadic Mongols had long been a thorn in the side of the city-dwelling Chinese. Construction of the Great Wall had been undertaken to keep these two fundamentally opposed societies apart. But it was always fortunate for the Chinese that the early nomadic tribes of Mongolia fought as much among themselves as they did against outsiders. Genghis Khan’s achievement was to weld together the warring nomads into a fighting force the equal of which the world had never seen: the secret of his success was skilful cavalry tactics, acquired from long practise in the saddle on the wide-open Mongolian plains. Frequently his armies would rout forces ten or twenty times their size.
Led by Genghis, the Mongols unleashed a massive onslaught on China in 1211. The Great Wall proved no obstacle, and with two hundred thousand men in tow Genghis cut a swath across northwest China towards Beijing. It was not all easy progress, however – so great was the destruction wrought in northern China that famine and plague broke out, afflicting the invader as much as the invaded. Genghis Khan himself died (of injuries sustained in falling from his horse) before the capture of Beijing had been completed. His body was carried back to Mongolia by a funeral cortege of ten thousand, who murdered every man and beast within ten miles of the road so that news of the Great Khan’s death could not be reported before his sons and viceroys had been gathered from the farthest corners of his dominions. The whereabouts of his tomb is uncertain, though according to one of the best-known stories his ashes are in a mausoleum near Dongsheng, south of Baotou.
In the years after Genghis Khan’s death, the fate of both China and of distant Europe teetered together on the brink. Having conquered all of Russia, the Mongol forces were poised in 1241 to make the relatively short final push across Europe to the Atlantic, when a message came from deep inside Asia that the invasion was to be cancelled. The decision to spare Western Europe cleared the way for the final conquest of China instead, and by 1271 the Mongols had established their own dynasty – the Yuan. It was the first time the Chinese had come under foreign rule. The Yuan is still an era about which Chinese historians can find little good to say, though the boundaries of the empire were expanded considerably, to include Yunnan and Tibet for the first time. The magnificent zenith of the dynasty was achieved under Kublai Khan, as documented in Marco Polo’s Travels. Ironically, however, the Mongols were able to sustain their power only by becoming thoroughly Chinese, and abandoning the traditional nomadic Mongol way of life. Kublai Khan and his court soon forgot the warrior skills of their forefathers, and in 1368, less than a hundred years later, the Yuan, a shadow of their former selves, were driven out of China by the Ming. The Mongols returned to Mongolia, and reverted to their former ways, hunting, fighting among themselves and occasionally skirmishing with the Chinese down by the Wall. Astonishingly, history had come full circle.
Thereafter, Mongolian history moves gradually downhill, though right into the eighteenth century they maintained at least nominal control over many of the lands to the south and west originally won by Genghis Khan. These included Tibet, from where Lamaist Buddhism was imported to become the dominant religion in Mongolia. The few Tibetan-style monasteries in Mongolia that survive bear important testimony to this. Over the years, as well, came settlers from other parts of Asia: there is now a sizeable Muslim minority in the region, and under the Qing many Chinese settlers moved to Inner Mongolia, escaping overpopulation and famine at home, a trend that has continued under the Communists. The incoming settlers tried ploughing up the grassland with disastrous ecological results – wind and water swept the soil away – and the Mongols withdrew to the hills. Only recently has a serious programme of land stabilization and reclamation been established.
Sandwiched between two imperial powers, Mongolia found its independence constantly threatened. The Russians set up a protectorate over the north, while the rest came effectively under the control of China. In the 1930s, Japan occupied much of eastern Inner Mongolia as part of Manchuguo, and the Chinese Communists also maintained a strong presence. In 1945 Stalin persuaded Chiang Kai-shek to recognize the independence of Outer Mongolia under Soviet protection as part of the Sino-Soviet anti-Japanese treaty, effectively sealing the fate of what then became the Mongolian People’s Republic. In 1947, Inner Mongolia was designated the first autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China.Read More
Staying in a yurt
Staying in a yurt
In regions that still harbour semi-nomadic herders, such as Inner Mongolia’s grasslands and around Tian Chi in Xinjiang, it’s often possible to ask a local family to put you up in their yurt (mengu bao in Mandarin). The genuine article is a circular felt tent with floor rugs as the only furniture, horsehair blankets, a stove for warmth, and outside toilets. Though it’s a well-established custom to offer lodging to travellers, remember that few people in these regions have had much contact with foreigners, and misunderstandings can easily arise. You’ll need to haggle over the price with your hosts; around ¥55 should cover bed and simple meals of noodles and vegetables. In addition, it’s a good idea to bring a present – a bottle of baijiu, a clear and nauseatingly powerful vodka-like spirit, rarely goes amiss. Liquor stores, ubiquitous in Chinese cities and towns, are the obvious place to buy the stuff, but you’ll also find it on sale at train and bus stations, restaurants, hotels, shops and airports. You might also want to bring a torch and bug spray for your own comfort.
Local tour companies may be able to arrange yurt accommodation, though where Chinese tour groups are commonplace, you may be treated to a very artificial experience – often basically just a concrete cell “dolled” up in yurt fashion, with karaoke laid on in the evenings. If you want something better than this, it’s worth at least asking to see photos of the interior when making a booking.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree…
Immortalized not only in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge but also in the memoirs of Marco Polo, Kublai Khan (1215–94) – known to the Chinese as Yuan Shizu – is the only emperor popularly known by name to the outside world. And little wonder: as well as mastering the subtle statecraft required to govern China as a foreigner, this grandson of Genghis Khan commanded an empire that encompassed the whole of China, Central Asia, southern Russia and Persia – a larger area of land than perhaps anyone in history has ruled over, before or since. And yet this king of kings had been born into a nomadic tribe which had never shown the slightest interest in political life, and which, until shortly before his birth, was almost entirely illiterate.
From the beginning, Kublai Khan had shown an unusual talent for politics and government. He managed to get himself elected Khan of the Mongols in 1260, after the death of his brother, despite considerable opposition from the so-called “steppe aristocracy” who feared his disdain for traditional Mongolian skills. He never learned to read or write Chinese, yet after audaciously establishing himself as Emperor of China, proclaiming the Yuan dynasty in 1271, he soon saw the value of surrounding himself with advisers steeped in Confucianism. This was what enabled him to set up one hundred thousand Mongols in power over perhaps two hundred million Chinese. As well as reunifying China after centuries of division under the Song, Kublai Khan’s contributions include establishing paper money as the standard medium of exchange, and fostering the development of religion, Lamaist Buddhism in particular. Above all, under his rule China experienced a brief – and uncharacteristic – period of cosmopolitanism which saw not only foreigners such as Marco Polo promoted to high positions of responsibility, but also a final flowering of the old Silk Road trade, as well as large numbers of Arab and Persian traders settling in seaports around Quanzhou in southeastern China.
Ironically, however, it was his admiration for the culture, arts, religion and sophisticated bureaucracy of China – as documented so enthusiastically by Marco Polo – that aroused bitter hostility from his own people, the Mongols, who despised what they saw as a betrayal of the ways of Genghis Khan. Kublai Khan was troubled by skirmishing nomads along the Great Wall just as much as his more authentically Chinese predecessors, forcing the abandonment of Xanadu – in Inner Mongolia, near the modern city of Duolun – his legendary summer residence immortalized in Coleridge’s epic poem, The Ballad of Kublai Khan. Today virtually nothing of the site remains.