In the footsteps of the great Khan

For June WAG’s “Power Trips” issue, our resident China expert, Audrey Ronning Topping, took on one of the ultimate power trips, Genghis Khan’s conquest and consolidation of an empire that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan in the 13th century. Here’s her recollection of following in his wake in the 1970s:

Almost eight centuries (after Genghis Khan’s conquests), my husband, Seymour Topping, and I flew in a Soviet TU-154 airliner over the snowcapped wastelands of Central Asia and landed on a yellow grassland plateau in Mongolia that had not changed since Genghis Khan led his Mongol hoards out to conquer the world. I was a journalist on assignment for National Geographic magazine, and “Top,” then managing editor of The New York Times, was doing a story for the magazine. An official car carried us over a grass road past herds of magnificent horses, cattle, huge yaks and two-humped Bactrian camels.

Before long, to our amusement, we were escorted by young men with typical Mongol features – high cheek bones, highly colored faces and athletic frames, mounted on sturdy Mongolian ponies. They twirled their lassos and challenged our fur-hatted driver to a race. The ponies kept up to 45 miles per hour. Time stood still. It was not hard to imagine riding with Khan’s elite “Golden Horde,” thundering through Central Asia.

We stopped to watch a wrestling match, which is the Mongols’ favorite sport. It was not surprising that many of them resembled the pictures of Genghis Khan. In Mongolia alone, as many as two million people could be Khan descendants. In addition to most of the Mongol nobility up to the 20th century, the mother of Babur, the Mughal emperor of India, was a descendant. Timur (Tamerlane), the 14th century military leader in Samarkand, also claimed descent from Genghis Khan.

We whizzed past small wooden houses and conical, tent-like dwellings—white wool felt stretched on pine frames. These homes of the nomads, known as yurts or gers, can be dismantled and loaded on camels in a few hours. They have not changed in a thousand years.

There is little arable land as much is still covered by yellow grassy steppe with snow-covered mountains to the northwest and the Gobi desert to the south. Some 30 percent of the population is still nomadic or semi-nomadic, but the cities are modern.

Our out-riders waved goodbye at the bridge over the Tola River, which glistened with a sheen of ice. Suddenly, we came back to our own time: The skyline of a modern city rose above the horizon – high-rise apartments in pastel shades, construction cranes, spewing factory smokestacks. We arrived in the capital, Ulan Bator, a city of 400,000. Men and women in traditional, long-padded gowns tied with wide silk sashes shared the crowded sidewalks with young women in smart, Western-style leather jackets and high-heeled boots. Here and there a saffron-robed Buddhist monk hurried past strolling Russian soldiers on leave from posts on the Chinese frontier.

Three days later, we met the man who, for the younger generation, had replaced Genghis Khan as the national hero. He was the one and only Mongolian astronaut, Jugdermedidiyn, a darkly handsome 33 year-old son of a herdsman who became the first Mongolian to orbit the earth – instead of conquering it.

For more on Genghis Khan, look for Audrey’s story in WAG’s June “Power Trips” issue.—Georgette Gouveia

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