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.

Even 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 practice 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 China had been completed. His body was carried back to Mongolia by a funeral cortege of ten thousand, who murdered every man and beast within 16km 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 the mausoleum outside Dongsheng.

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