Mongolia is an almost total mystery to the outside world, its very name synonymous with remoteness. Landlocked between the two Asian giants of Russia and China, it seemed to have been doomed to obscurity, trapped in a hopeless environment of fleeting summers and interminable, bitter winters. And yet, 700 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 Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region 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 almost nineteen million to fewer than four 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.
Nevertheless, traces of the “real” Mongolia remain, in terms of both landscape and people – and not just the Mongol script, used alongside Chinese throughout the province. 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, a whole vast swath of Mongol territory lies across the border in Dongbei province, much of it untouched by Western tourists – see To Russia on the Trans-Manchurian.
One man’s name is synonymous with unleashing Mongol armies on an unsuspecting world: the great Genghis Khan (1162–1227), under whose rule much of China and pretty much the whole of Central Asia were conquered. After his immediate successors had wrested control of Eastern Europe, Mongol forces were poised in 1241 to make the relatively short final push across Europe, 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.
The Yuan dynasty
By 1271 the Mongols had established their own dynasty in China – the Yuan. It was the first time the country had come under foreign rule, and the Yuan is still an era about which Chinese historians can find little good to say, though the empire was expanded considerably by incorporating 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 Sinicised, 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, after less than a century on the imperial throne, the Yuan were driven out of China by the rising Ming dynasty. 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.
Thereafter, Mongolian history moves gradually downhill, though right into the eighteenth century they maintained at least nominal control over many of the lands won by Genghis Khan. These included Tibet, from where Lamaist Buddhism was imported to become the dominant religion in Mongolia. 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 in too, 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 effectively came under the control of China. In the 1930s, Japan occupied much of eastern Inner Mongolia as part of Manchukno, 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.