I suppose the most famous Mongol is as good a place as any to start.
When I first decided to visit Mongolia, mostly people reacted with a stunned blink and the question "…Why?" It's one I find impossible to answer briefly without sounding dismissive, and equally impossible to answer at length without starting to ramble and get repetitious, so in the end I gave up and grinned and said, "Because!" or "Why not?!"
Sometimes I'd throw in a comment about Genghis, because he was an astonishing person. And when it comes down to it, the perceptions and misperceptions about Genghis encapsulate and summarise the perceptions and misperceptions about Mongolia in general.
In Western society, Genghis is viewed as a warmongering soul — for obvious reasons.
To Mongolians, he's the man who united the disparate and warring tribes, thereby creating a people, and brought law. The Lonely Planet guide tells me that, at a time when ambassadors were considered fair sport, and their torture and mutilation the best way to send your return message, Genghis proclaimed them emissaries of peace, and inviolate, and from now on you'll send a return message by way of a note, thank you very much — thus birthing what we call diplomatic immunity today.
To say he's admired is somewhat of an understatement.
He presides over Sukhbaatar Square, he's on the money (from the 500 tögrög on up), and you can purchase Chinggis (or Chinggis Gold) vodka (among other similarly named products) at every turn.1 The international airport just outside of Ulaanbaatar has been renamed the Chinggis Khaan International Airport — an exceptionally grand name for an airport which has one gate, and one baggage carousel. I flew in at night, and outside the plane windows was nothing but the impenetrable black of unsettled wilderness, because the city lights don't penetrate out that far. UB is as small a city as the Chinggis Khaan International is an airport.
The first pub I saw, on driving into the outskirts of UB, was the Genghis Khan Irish Pub.
I couldn't find Sukhbaatar Square on my first day in UB — a feat made possible by the fact that Mongolians don't have street numbers and thus don't have street addresses, and their city blocks are often built around an interior courtyard design, which, combined with the Mongolian understanding of maps being "Oh, it just needs to be approximate, doesn't it?" (for values of approximate equalling UTTERLY WRONG), makes it difficult to tell which main street you've stumbled out upon. So I naively showed my map to a passing local and, pointing to the Square, asked by facial gesture for directions. Naive because Mongolians use the Cyrillic alphabet, and don't use maps. I may as well have showed her a soggy noodle and asked her to interpret precisely why I felt bemused by it.
She could, however, understand even my mangled attempt at pronouncing "Chinggis Khaan?", and thus, Chinggis to the rescue, I found the Square.
Where Chinggis was, that day, presiding over a school excursion.
These little punks followed me to the Natural History Museum, which is how I learnt that apparently the best method of punishing trouble is the same as the best method of pre-empting any thoughts of starting it: a swift clout across the back of the head, regularly delivered. Or perhaps, in light of the fact that it was delivered to every single child in the troupe, it's simply their way of counting heads. Hard to say. It appeared to be delivered without malice, possibly even with affection, but it wasn't soft.
Which is a trait I found throughout Mongolia, actually. The people are without malice,2 and I found them universally warm and friendly, with a sly and diffident humour — but they're not a single one of them soft.
I left a little bit of my heart with this man. He was too shy to pose for the camera without his dog, and even then he'd only look at his dog, not at the camera. But his smile says it all, and the lines that time has etched into his face are all good-humoured ones.
This little punk is about a year old (give or take). Mongolian boys have a hair-cutting ceremony at ages 3 and 5 (for girls the ceremony is at ages 2 and 4), and not before, which explains his pig-tails. (He was running around with only a t-shirt and nothing else, not even a nappy; there was no mistaking him for a girl.) His name is Temüjin — the name of a certain most famous Mongol of all, back before he went and conquered the world.
- I may or may not have drunk my own body weight in Chinggis vodka. What happens in Mongolia, stays in Mongolia. [↩]
- Well. By and large. I did speak to one Mongolian woman who told me matter-of-factly that her three elder brothers had all been murdered; and an Australian man living in UB who told me it wasn't uncommon for his staff to stab each other. Alcohol is a bit of a problem in Mongolia, marginally less so since beer is becoming a more popular drink than vodka. And, OK, they did have that nasty trick of pouring off the plateau and, well, conquering the world. So I don't mean without malice in the same way that, say, Tibetans and Bhutanese are without malice. But still. [↩]