What is Chingis Khan’s Legacy?

Chingis Khan waves to his great grandchildren in his homeland of Khentii province, Mongolia.

Chingis Khan waves to his great grandchildren in his homeland of Khentii province, Mongolia.

Ghengis Khan's grandchildren

Some of the uncountable offspring of Chingis Khan. The Buryats were riding the steppe before he came to power, and when he did, they rode with him.

The third and final part of 10,000 Miles to Altargana will be posted soon!

What is the legacy of the most prolific vanquisher in history? If you are a non-historian from the west, then all you were taught in school about Chingis (Genghis) Khan probably cemented him in your head as a rapacious bloodletter. In these parts, Siberia, Mongolia and the Central Asian Steppe, he is honored as a conqueror and saint, his halo brightening as the centuries stretch. In Mongolia he is admired like a founding father, his image is embossed on Mongolian currency, he sits in state over Ulaanbaatar’s main square. His image is everywhere. In Siberia, among native people he is viewed the same way. His image however is significantly absent from public places. This is because his image to the Soviets and Russia’s current governing powers alike is seen as dangerous and thought to encourage separatist ideas. All the same, his stoic image on carpets can be found gracing the walls of dwellings or watching over diners in restaurants and cafes. His name still rides the wind.
To dismiss Chingis Khan as meglomaniacal barbarian would be extremely short sighted. He must fall somewhere in the middle of bloodthirsty and saintly. Certainly he was a man of unmatched intelligence and sage judge of both character and potential. In a political atmosphere of constantly changing allegiances punctuated by internecine battle, Chingis kept from being slaughtered, or poisoned as his father before him. Over a quarter of the world’s population was under his dominion. He allowed religious freedom, put power in the hands of the capable instead of his relatives, he forbade the selling or kidnapping of women, a common steppe practice. He brought an incredible law system to a people who traditionally followed bowed to tradition and the whims of their clan leader. A man of stupendous talent, he is worth getting to know.

Click here for what the History Channel has to say about Chingis Khan.

Flower of the Steppe: Altargana

A steppe flower indeed.

Walking toward the entrance of Nadaam stadium, the central stadium in Ulaanbaatar, I was unsure of what to expect. Stepping through, a sunlit, grassy field opened before my eyes. Milling about on the green grass were Buryat wrestlers dressed in “gutal”, Buryat/Mongol style calf high boots with turned up toes so as not to scuff the ground, hats, and not much else! Amongst them sauntered wrestling referees in burgundy, sky blue or gray raiment, and conical red fringed, blue hats. At the west end, archers dressed in every color under the sun, though predominantly blue, a favorite of the Buryats, launched volley after volley of practice arrows. The view before my eyes reminded me of the famous picture called “A Day in the Life of Mongolia”.  Flags fluttered in the breeze under Mongolia’s famous blue skies. Buryats from Russia, China, and Mongolia cheered wildly for their favorite wrestlers, chatted each other up, and watched as Fffffffft! Fffffffft! Ffffffft! arrows whizzed from the line of archers to targets. In a color buzz, I went camera happy, snapping everyone I saw in this nomadic kaleidoscope.

Referees, coaches, and heralds, these men kept the order in wrestling matches.

Wrestlers preparing for the next match.

Matching whits. Size does not matter, mental quickness does. Wrestler in red was the champion at Surharban 2010 in Ulan-Ude. (He is small compared to most!)

Blue seems to be a favorite among Buryats.

Archers take a break from the rays of the burning steppe sun.

Enjoying wrestling, or catching a snooze.

I don’t speak Buryat! Yet. A working command of the language would have been handy, as it seems the schedule traveled by word of mouth only. Typical to native Buryats, (and native peoples in general), it was problematic for me as a foreign visitor, leaving me stranded and ticketless outside of several events amongst the Mongolian pickpockets systematically working the crowd. Sometimes I found Russian speaking Buryats, when I didn’t I had to investigate, and work out from advertisement banners hanging on theaters, stadiums and the Wrestlers palace the date and time that some event was in a particular venue. I missed a lot.

Did I mention it was HOT! This young man has fur on!

Checking arrow integrity.

Upon opening one of the double doors to the central Drama Theater, a no holds barred scrum ensued. A couple hundred nomadic Buryats from north Mongolia charged the door like a crash of rhinos, pushing, shoving, squeezing through said door three at a time. Picture Alex, sandwiched in this writhing mass, with old ladies leveraging their weight on his frame in a mad bid for good seats.  (Later, I discreetly picked up my left arm on the way out.) Having survived entry, I found a suitable perch, and watched the drama competition unfold. Buryats acted out comedies and dramas, centered around nomadic daily chores, giving daughters away in marriage, intrigue with neighbors, shepherding herds, and yes, drinking. The juxtaposition of technology and nomads led to a bizarre evening of laughter at Buryat comedy, interspersed with loud one sided cell phone dialogues of spectators chattering with relatives still on the steppe!

These are Western Buryats, distinguishable by flatter headwear and different stripe pattern on their outfits.

Slapstick, Buryat style.

Soaking up the rays of a four o’clock August sun, Buryats gathered under the watchful eye of Chingis (Genghis) Khan, who sits enthroned overlooking Sukhbaatar Square keeping track of his children. Families strolled in their finery or gathered in crowds to empty their pockets for ice-cream vendors. Ice-cream must be like the nectar of gods for nomads, who have no place to keep it. This is the memory that will keep in my mind of Altargana, colorfully garbed Buryat families promenading, each one licking ice-cream on a stick.

Cold creamy goodness!

Ice-cream behind the back pose!

Altargana means “Golden Rod” in Buryat. The festival was named in esteem of the hardy qualities of this flower, similar to the stalwart qualities of the Buryat people. Golden Rod’s extensive root system allows it to flourish on rocky mountain ridges, arid steppe lands, and sandy dunes, just as Buryats have done for centuries. In two years Buryats will again gather in the city of Chita (Siberia), like so many flowers in a mountain meadow, and we hope to be there, shining like stars in the universe, as we hold out the word of life.


Erigjeedma’s Escape to China!

Erigjeedma at ninety-five.

On the eve of Erigjeedma’s* fifteenth birthday a wave of unrest had spread through the people of Aga.  Stalin had craftily managed to take control of the Bolshevik party, and he was laying the heads of his enemies low. Any one who owned livestock was considered rich and therefore an “enemy of the people”. A dark cloud hung over Erigjeedma’s people, Aginsky Buryats, who were traditionally livestock herders.

In 1918, during the Civil War in Russia, groups of her people had fled to China, and Mongolia. Maybe they could join them? Her people gathered and weighed the options. It was late March, sub-zero on the steppe. A cold trek to China, Mongolia, or stay put and hope for the best? Erigjeedma’s family threw in their lot for China. The escape was on!

Thirty families collected their livestock together for their flight across the border. The sheep herd Erigjeedma decided, had become a lake of bleating, roiling bodies stretching to the horizon. In the flurry of preperation, the people realized they would have to abandon the sheep, taking only their cattle. Bundled in long fur-lined deels (traditional clothing), under cover of darkness they mounted up and rode for their lives.

The people fled from the small encircled area, (Aga) toward Borzya and into China.

In the inky blackness of early morn, Erigjeedma dozed off on the back of her plodding horse, fears forgotten. She awoke to the bark of voices demanding in Russian for them to halt. Commotion, screams, two flashes of rifle fire pierced darkness!

Presently the caravan began trudging southward again. Erigjeedma’s eyes fell upon the soldiers carelessly smoking as they stood over motionless black shapes. Riding into China, her last memory of Russia sat like a black mark on her mind.

Her people rode across the steppe until midday. Gathering everyone together they found one more was missing. His disappearance remains a mystery. This was Erigjeedma’s welcome to a land called Shenehen, her home in China.

(*The facts of Erigjeedma’s story are true, I have dramatized it for better reading.)