China // The Yellow River //

Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum

The first thing to be said about Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum (成吉思汗陵园, chéngjísīhàn língyuán) is that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be: it probably isn’t the tomb of Genghis Khan, and it isn’t a particularly attractive place anyway, but can nonetheless be fascinating as an insight into the modern cult of the famous warrior. There are no English captions for the exhibits.

Genghis Khan is known to have died in northern China, but while his funeral cortege may have passed through this region on its way back to Mongolia, the story that the wheels of his funeral cart got stuck in the mud here, resulting in his burial on the spot, is almost certainly apocryphal. At best, scholars believe, the site contains a few of the warrior’s relics – perhaps weapons. The real tomb is thought to be on the slopes of Burkhan Khaldun, in the Hentei Mountains, not far to the east of Ulan Bator in Outer Mongolia. The reason it came to be so strongly believed that the Khan was buried here in China appears to be that the tribe who were charged with guarding the real sepulchre eventually drifted down across the Yellow River to the Ordos – but continued to claim the honour of being the official guardians of the tomb.

The tomb’s alleged relics have a murky political history. Several times they have been removed, and later returned, the most recent occasion being during World War II, when the Japanese seized them. Apparently the Japanese had plans to set up a puppet Mongol state, centred around a Genghis Khan shrine. They even drew up plans for an elaborate mausoleum to house them – plans that were then commandeered by the Chinese Communists who, having safely returned the relics from a hiding place in Qinghai, built the mausoleum for themselves in 1955 as a means of currying favour with the Mongolian people.

The site

The main part of the cement mausoleum is formed by three connecting halls, shaped like Mongolian yurts. The corridors connecting the halls are adorned with bizarre murals supposedly depicting the life of Genghis Khan – though note the women in Western dress (1890s-style). In the middle of the main hall stands a 5m-high marble statue of Genghis before a map of his empire. Whatever the truth about the location of his burial place, the popular view among Mongolians, both in China and in the Republic of Mongolia, is that this is a holy site: the side halls, all very pretty, have ceremonial yurts, altars, burning incense, hanging paintings and Mongolian calligraphy, and offerings as though to a god. Some bring offerings – not the usual apples and bread, but bottles of rotgut baijiu on sale in the souvenir shop – and bow in penitence. Others, including several of the female staff, get drunk early and keep sipping until they’re surly – or extremely affectionate; be prepared for anything as the site attracts its fair share of dodgy characters, including about fifteen “hairdressers” just outside. There’s a small, free museum by the ticket office with a few relics.

Special sacrificial ceremonies take place here four times a year on certain days of the lunar calendar – the fifteenth day of the third lunar month, the fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month, the twelfth day of the ninth month and the third day of the tenth month. On these occasions, Mongolian monks lead solemn rituals that involve piling up cooked sheep before the statue of the khan. The ceremonies are attended not only by local people, but also by pilgrims from the Republic of Mongolia itself.