Tuesday June 29th to Monday July 19th
After a six hour minibus ride to the Chinese border town of Erenhot, we took a train across the border into Mongolia. The train stopped on the actual border line and some very young soldiers stood to attention by the tracks, as the train pulled off they saluted. All the immigration and customs stuff was done on the train. It was time consuming but done with the minimum amount of fuss and at least we didn't have to spend hours in long queues. We shared our cabin with two Chinese men and even though we couldn't speak each other's language we still managed an interesting conversation. It was an overnight journey of about 17 hours, although 4 hours or so was clearing immigration and customs on both sides. We slept fairly well and woke to the vast Mongolian countryside whizzing past. Occasionally we spotted horses, camels and our first gers (traditional nomadic Mongolian round, felt-covered homes). WOW, we were really in Mongolia.
Eventually we arrived in Ulaan Baatar (UB). This is the capital city with over a third of the country's 2.4 million people. It was built (at its current location) in 1778 and was called the City of Felt, then the Great Camp and lastly in 1924 as Ulaan Baatar meaning Red Hero. In 1918 it was invaded by the Chinese and then three years later by the Russians. In the 1930s the Soviets built the city in typical Russian style with lots of ugly apartment blocks, large brightly coloured theatres and cavernous government buildings. The Soviets also destroyed almost all of the monasteries and temples (Tibetan Buddhism was practised). The Soviets 'left' in 1990 and now the city is a bit old and neglected but things are changing fast. There are lots of museums, art galleries and a few monasteries and temples have been restored. There are also some well stocked stores and lots of foreign food restaurants - Austrian cakes, German sausages, French pate, Indian curries, Korean barbeques, Japanese sushi, Chilean red wine, etc. You can even get English fish and chips, steak and kidney pie and Scottish Irn Bru. No McDonalds or KFC, yet! The young Mongolians wear trendy western clothes and, like everywhere else on the planet, are busy texting their friends on their mobile phones. The city is in quite picturesque surroundings with green rolling hills all around, it's just a pity about the old coal power plants in the middle of town and their pollution.
Everywhere else we've travelled independently but Mongolia's transportation infrastructure and travel industry has a bit of a way to go yet, so we thought we'd let someone else take care of the logistics and had booked a 17 day Explore Worldwide trip. These guys usually pack a lot into their trips so we also felt we'd get more out of our Mongolia experience. (We had used Explore before when we were living in London.)
We had arrived a couple of days ahead of the main group and spent our first nights at a great little guesthouse. Although the exterior looked terrible, inside was very clean. It was well run, very central, had some private rooms, hot showers, laundry, internet, kitchen, free brekkie and lots more all for $12 a night. When our tour started we moved into a top end hotel with no water pressure, cold water, a fuzzy TV picture, building works opposite at 7am in the morning and an inconvenient location with an advertised rate of $90 a night.
We met up with our group, a great bunch of Brits and Americans. It was good to get news from back home and to socialise with a group after 2 years of just us two.
From UB we flew south on MIAT (Mongolian Airlines). They use old Russian planes that generally have a bad safety record (120 crashes worldwide since 1962). According to our guidebook overloading is common, often there are 3 people for 2 seats and some people crouch in the aisles. Safety equipment is kept to a minimum but we should at least get a seatbelt! Well we did get a seatbelt and we didn't see any overloading, although we were on a 6.30am flight. There was no safety briefing and the door to the cockpit was unlocked. However, we arrived safe and sound in Dalanzadgad in the South Gobi Desert. Thankfully, this was our only flight in Mongolia, the rest of our travel was overland.
We headed to a ger camp and spent a couple of nights in our own ger. These camps are for tourists and its certainly fun sleeping in one. They're set up as bedrooms for 2 people, rather than for a family who would cook, eat, sleep and live in one (more on gers later). From this camp we did a bit of horse riding. Horses are hugely important in Mongolia and there are few nomads, if any, who haven't learned to ride as soon as they can walk. Mongolian horses are short but very sturdy and strong and can endure the harsh winters. They have long manes and tails - they look quite majestic galloping across the countryside. Mongolians have over 300 different words to describe horses, mostly relating to colouring. There's also an old saying "A Mongolian without a horse is like a bird without wings". There are many horse riding holidays available in Mongolia but neither of us are experts so an hour or so was enough. This was mainly due to the saddles. These look very ornate with silver trimmings etc but are made of wood and are very narrow. In fact our guidebook says that "only a masochist on a short horse-trip should consider using a wooden saddle". They weren't kidding. We enjoyed our hour of meandering across the Gobi as the sun set but when we came off the horse it was sore bums all round and we're talking red raw sores!
The Gobi Desert is one of the world's largest deserts but today only 3% can actually be described as true desert. It has 33 different ecological systems, 400 different plant species and over 100 different types of birds. (It was a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word Gobi on Marco Polo¡¯s part that lead to the entire region being called 'Gobi'). It is also home to the rare snow leopard - we had no luck seeing one, unless you count a stuffed one in a museum!
We also had a visit to a ger and met some nomadic people. As you approach a ger you should shout out nokhoi khor, which roughly translates can I come in? but literally means hold the dog, a good idea since they are guard dogs and many are rabid. We had to learn a bit of ger etiquette. We entered the ger, ladies sat on the right and the men on the left. We were immediately offered tsagaan idee or 'white foods' which are essentially dairy products. We tried cheese, dried curd, salted milky tea, goat's milk vodka and airag. This is fermented mare's milk and is quite sour, definitely an acquired taste. Mongolians love it. It's rude not to accept the food and drink but you can always pretend to nibble/sip. When accepting food and drink you must use both hands with palms facing upwards and hold a cup or glass by the bottom not by the rim.. More ger etiquette: keep your sleeves rolled down covering your wrists; don't whistle inside a ger; and don't lean against a support column (we don't know if this is really ger etiquette or just common sense). The family in this ger had been in this place for about one month, they usually move 3 or 4 times a year. They move to find new pastures for grazing for their animals and to places with some protection from the wind for the winter months. This family had sheep (for wool/felt and food), 9 goats (for cashmere), 5 cows, 3 camels and, of course, many horses. When we left the ger a few of us gave small gifts as a thank you. Gers are thought to have been around for 3000 years and most Mongolians still live in one, even in the suburbs of UB. Wood and bricks are scarce and expensive, especially out on the steppe and animal hides are cheap and readily available. Nomadic people obviously have to be flexible and mobile and gers can be moved easily. A ger can be assembled in one to three hours. (We're not sure if that includes the time it takes to align the satellite dish.)
The next day we headed out on a 10km trek through the Yol Valley (vulture's mouth). This green, grassy valley is in a nearby mountain range. As we set off we saw alpine flowers, yaks and huge cinereous vultures circling overhead. The valley narrowed to a rocky gorge and, as we twisted and wound through it, we couldn't see what was up ahead. The green eventually disappeared and was replaced by ice sheets! In winter this ice can be 10 metres thick but now, even in summer, parts are still over a metre thick. It's incredible, here in the Gobi Desert there is ice in summer. The valley is so narrow that very little sunlight reaches the bottom to melt the ice. As we continued through the valley it slowly got drier and widened again. We saw some great rock formations and explored a little cave. As we reached the other side, the valley widened out as far as the eye could see. It was a very pleasant walk.
Back on the road, we headed north to Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs). This was quite a sight as we were driving along and then suddenly the earth seemed to drop away and we were at the top of these red cliffs. Back in the 1920s an American paleontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews, found the first dinosaur eggs and skulls in central Asia at this place. He had actually come to Mongolia to find the missing link between apes and man. He never found this but did uncover traces of a 20,000 year old people, which he dubbed Dune Dwellers. As Chinese bandits and Soviet secret police placed unbearable strains on field work, he abandoned his incomplete excavations after about five expeditions. From his books and biographies, he was a real-life adventurer who took the expedition's ambushes, raids, bandits, rebellions and vipers in his stride (the camp killed 47 vipers in their tents one night). Andrews worked for US Intelligence during WW1 and also explored Alaska, Borneo, Burma & China. Always kitted out in a felt hat, khakis and a gun by his side, Andrews is widely regarded as the model on which Indiana Jones was based. Over a period of 2 years Andrews' team unearthed over 100 dinosaurs, including several Velociraptors (swift robber) and a parrot-beaked Oviraptor (egg stealer), which had died trying to steal eggs from another dinosaur's nest.
Per our Lonely Planet guidebook:
Subsequent expeditions have returned to the Gobi and added to the picture of life in the late Cretaceous period (70mya), the last phase of dinosaur dominance before the mammals inherited the earth. One of the most famous fossils so far unearthed is the "Fighting Dinosaurs", discovered by a joint Polish-Mongolian team in 1971. This fossil is of an 80 million year old Protoceratops and Velociraptor locked in mortal combat. The raptor's claws remain hooked in the Protoceratops' belly, which is fighting back by clamping the raptor's right arm in its mouth. It is thought that this and other fossilised snapshots were entombed by a violent sand storm or by collapsing sand dunes. A picture of the Gobi has emerged as a land of swamps, marshes, rivers, lakes with areas of sand studded with oases. It was inhabited with dinosaurs such as the huge duck-billed Hadrosaurs, the Anklysaurs, which was up to 25 feet tall, armour-plated and had a club-like tail, which acted like a giant mace. There was also the Protoceratops with a distinctive frilled head, huge long-necked sauropods like Nemegtosaurus, which may have grown to a weight of 90 tonnes. These were hunted by three-toed therapods like the Tarbosaurus, a carbon copy of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, with a 1.2m long skull packed with razor sharp teeth 15cm long. Other weird and wonderful beasts that once roamed the South Gobi include the bone-headed Pachycephalosaurs, which used their reinforced skulls as battering rams and Eblotherium, with a periscope-style nose that allowed it to breathe under water. Huge rhinos, over 4 times the size of an adult elephant and thought to be the largest land mammal ever to have lived, shared the land with tiny rodents, the forerunners of modern day mammalian life. A recent discovery of fossilised Gobi marsupials has shown that these animals originate from Asia and not Australia.
Around the "Flaming Cliffs" we went in search of dinosaur bones. We found gazelle and camel skeletons but, alas, no dinosaurs. Although we did find what we think might be a nest of dinosaur eggs (or maybe just some round lumps of mud). We took a photo, what do you think? Back in UB we visited the Natural History Museum and saw the famous "Fighting Dinosaurs", some great nests of dinosaur eggs (up to 100 million years old) and huge, gianormous bones. The American Museum of Natural History in New York also has some of the dinosaurs from the Gobi. We haven't checked it out yet but there's a virtual tour of the Gobi Dinosaur Collection at www.amnh.org.
We carried on to our camp. The next 6 nights we slept in regular tents and washed in chilly rivers. We stopped near the ruins of an old Buddhist (Tibetan) monastery and temple complex. In 1921 Mongolia became the world's second communist country. However, at this time there was a very large and strong religious establishment - 110,000 lamas (a third of the male population) living in 700 monasteries and they controlled about 20% of the nation's wealth. In time the communists seized property and livestock and redistributed them. Arrests and executions came in 1932. Young lamas were 'reclassified' and conscripted into the army and it was forbidden to build new monasteries. In 1937 the bloody purge began in earnest. It is estimated that over 17,000 monks were arrested, never to be heard from again. The monasteries were closed, ransacked and burned. Only 4 monasteries (of 700) were preserved as museums, but even these were damaged. Except at the monastery Gandan Khiid in UB (which was kept as a showcase temple to impress foreigners) all religious worship and ceremonies remained outlawed until 1990. We visited the temple complex near our camp. At one point this had 17 temples and over 1000 monks. It was totally destroyed. Now it has one adult monk and 7 youngsters (aged 7-10) who pray and study in a ger. There is a very slow restoration process going on. As we looked at the crumpled buildings we realised what a huge task this is in this remote place. We saw some religious artifacts that were hidden and saved. We also saw a memorial to the local monks who lost their lives. We were invited into the ger to listen to the monks reciting prayers while they banged drums and clashed cymbals. It was an interesting experience for us but the kids looked bored to tears.
As we drove northwards we stopped at remote district capitals with very few people. This was mainly to get petrol and to re-supply us with beer. There were usually a couple of derelict Soviet brick buildings, wooden huts, some gers, a couple of shops and dogs. They were pretty depressing places; goodness knows what they are like in the -30C winters. As we drove we saw camels, horses, goats, sheep, cranes, steppe eagles and kites. As we started to leave the arid, sandy steppe and the landscape got greener we saw cows and yaks. At one point we spotted a horse race, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. We stopped to investigate but we had just missed the race. However, we did have fun taking photos of the young riders and their horses. They were happy to pose as several of us had digital cameras and they liked looking at the screens. One of our group had a Polaroid instant camera, which was a great idea. You could take a photo and give it to them as a pressie. The winner of the race won a new ger!
We also stopped at a crossroads with a few gers and wooden buildings dotted around. It was milking time for the mares and we were welcome to take photos. To milk the mare they take the foal up to it, let it have a short drink, then hold the foal near the mother while they milk it. There were lots of kids here who were very excited to see a bunch of foreigners. Our tour leader raised the hysteria even more by swinging the kids around until they got dizzy. One little boy's shorts kept falling down, so we all kept our fingers crossed when it was his turn. A bare bum in front of the girls would not have been cool!
We reached Karakorum and camped on the outskirts of town by a river. In 1220 Chinngis Khaan decided to move his capital to Karakorum. Building began after Chinngis' death by his son Ogedei. Karakorum served as the political, cultural and economic capital of the Mongols for only 40 years, before Kublai Khaan moved it to Khanbalik, present day Beijing (more on the Mongol Empire at the end). Now there is virtually nothing left to see except the restored temples of Erdene Zuu Khiid (built from the remains of Karakorum). This was the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It was started in 1586 but wasn't finished until 300 years later. It had between 60 and 100 temples, about 300 gers were set up inside the walls and up to 1000 monks were in residence. The Stalinist purges destroyed all but three of the temples. However, some statues, tsam masks, scroll paintings, etc. were saved.
We visited the monastery which is enclosed in an immense walled compound. Spaced evenly along each wall are 108 stupas, each containing the remains of a monk. Inside the restored temples are some fantastic statues, masks, scroll paintings and silk applique. We watched the monks as they blew conch shells to indicate that prayers were about to start. Then we followed them into the temple and listened and watched as they chanted their scriptures. This was a great place to visit and there's some interesting stuff to see but too many tourists were in the temple at prayer time.
Back on the road, this time we headed east. Lunch is usually a packed one eaten by the roadside - there wasn't much traffic so that wasn't a problem. A good toilet spot was harder to find in this very flat, treeless, bushless landscape. Our Russian bus was reliable but did tend to overheat now and again, although we weren't sure if the driver just fancied a cigarette some of the times we had to stop. We occasionally stopped if we saw an ovoo. This is a pyramid shaped collection of stones, wood and other offerings, like vodka bottles and silk scarves. It's usually placed at the top of a hill or a mountain pass in a shamanistic traditional offering to the gods. You should walk around the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction and make an offering of anything (a rock, vodka bottle or a small amount of money) and make a wish. Mum, have you won the lottery yet?
Arburd Sands - Camel Trek
We camped in a valley and watched as the local herdsman used his motorbike to round up his goats and sheep. The next day it was a long, hot, bumpy ride to Arburd Sands and the start of our 2 day camel trek.
The camels pulled carts loaded up with our luggage, camping gear, food and cooking/dining ger. The herdsmen travelled on horseback and there were a couple of extra camels if we wanted to ride rather than walk. The camels were the two-humped Bactrian type. They are only found in Russia, China and Mongolia, everywhere else has the one-humped dromedaries. They are perfect for long-distance travel in the Gobi as they can last over a week without water and a month without food. They can carry up to 250kg and provide wool, milk, meat and dung! If their humps are drooping then the camel is in poor health or needs some food or water.
We both started out on the back of the camels and as no one else wanted to ride; we sat, gently swaying for a few hours. They were much more comfortable than the horses or dromedaries. We trekked for a while across the dry steppe, stopping to fill up at a well, have lunch or just to rest. It was a fairly easy day. We camped by a little oasis. Our herdsmen rode off to buy dinner - a sheep from a nearby nomadic family. "Barbie" (we named her) arrives full of life, not knowing what lay ahead. We watched as one of our guys skillfully made a small slit in the sheep's belly, put his hand in and pulled/disconnects the aorta (we think). The sheep died very quickly without any apparent distress; it didn't struggle or make any sound. He then quickly pulls off the wooly skin/coat using his fist and then starts to dissect the body. All of this was done with a little Swiss army knife. It sounds a gruesome thing to watch but there was hardly any blood. It was actually very interesting and it certainly makes a change from visiting Tescos and buying your lamb/mutton off the shelf. Our cook got a dung fuelled fire going and then used hot stones to barbeque the meat. Dinner was good.
The next day we trekked across the dunes. We actually had quite a bit of heavy rain, so we were wearing Gore-Tex and ponchos in the desert! The rain firmed up the sand so it was easier going underfoot. We investigated a huge vulture's nest with a chick inside. Wolf tracks led up to and away from the nest, maybe it had eaten its little brother or sister. The walk was not that hard and after several hours we reached camp. After a cuppa and a biccie we visited a nearby ger. As usual, the family welcomed us in and we were offered cheese and dried curd. This family was quite wealthy -- they had a huge satellite dish and a solar panel outside the ger. Inside, the head of the household was watching some sumo wrestling on a small black and white TV. Just like men across the world -- watching sport on a rainy afternoon. Sumo is popular in Mongolia as they have a few Mongolian sumo wrestlers in Japan. In fact the number one guy just now is Mongolian. The family has about 80 horses and the youngest son is a jockey. His grandfather is a very well known horse trainer in Mongolia and he has over 300 horses. Back at the camp we said cheerio to the camels and herdsmen and head back to UB. Tomorrow the Naadam festival begins.
The Naadam Festival
As per LP, Naadam is part family reunion, part fair and part nomad Olympics. Naadam (meaning holiday or festival) has its roots in the nomad assemblies and hunting extravaganzas of the Mongol armies. Even today, Chinngis Khaan's nine yak tails, representing the nine tribes of the Mongols, are ceremoniously transported from Sukhbaatar Square to the Naadam Stadium to open the festivities. As we left our hotel the parade with the nine yak tails passed by. At the stadium we had great seats for the opening ceremony. The nine yak tails were placed on a podium and guarded throughout the three day event. The prime minister gave a speech and after the national anthem there was an extravaganza with dancers and acrobats. The costumes were fantastic, the dancing very energetic and the music rather odd, but all very entertaining. Then it was down to business. The three main (and manly) sports are wrestling, archery and horse racing. Mongolian wrestling is similar to Greco-Roman wrestling except there are no weight divisions, so the biggest wrestlers are often the best. The wrestling also has no time limit so the bout will continue (with short breaks) until the first wrestler falls or when anything other than the soles of the feet or open palms touch the ground. Before each elimination bout, wrestlers limber up and honour the judges and their individual attendants with a short dance called a devekh or "eagle dance". After the bout the loser must perform the takhimaa ogokh, walking under the right arm of the winner, who then makes a lap of honour around the nine yak tails and does some more eagle dancing. The wrestlers wear heavy boots called gutul and tight unflattering pants called shuudag. On top they wear a small, sleeved 'vest' with a bared chest. This garment was modified to show the bare chest after a woman entered one year and beat all the men. The eagle dancing was great fun to watch and many bouts took place at the same time.
Later we watched some archery. This sport originated from the warring era (about the 11th century). Archers use a bent composite bow made of layered horn, bark and wood. Arrows are usually made from willow and the feathers are from vultures or other birds of prey. Traditionally dressed male archers shoot 75m to the target, while women shoot 60m. Near the archery some anklebone shooting was also going on. Here, competitors used a hand propelled mini crossbow to knock over sheep anklebones, a row of which are set up as a target. Men lined either side of the target and hummed and sang as the matches went on.
Later that night we went to see a great cultural show with traditional music, folk singing, dancing, a contortionist and some very unusual throat singing. This style of singing produces a whole harmonic range from deep in the larynx, throat, stomach and palate and incredibly produces two notes and melodies simultaneously - one a low growl, the other an ethereal whistling. It is like nothing we had ever heard before.
The next day we drove out of town to the site of the horse racing. This seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, although UB had emptied as a continuous line of one way traffic headed to the 'race course'. There was no actual track or course, just open countryside. There are usually six categories of horse racing depending on the age of the horse. The younger horses run the shorter distance of 15km but the older ones run 64km! The jockeys are boys and girls between 5 and 13, some ride bareback. We watched some of the racing, although most of that was through binoculars as it was so far away. Back in UB we watched a bit more wrestling and then headed to the mountains for a 3 day yak trek.
Khan Khentii - Yak Trek
We were in the Khan Khentii Protected Area, a forested mountainous park with fast flowing rivers. After the Gobi this was a beautiful place with lots of greenery and meadow flowers. We had 5 yaks that pulled wooden carts with all of our stuff. We trekked up hills and along ridges to admire the views. It seemed no one else was here but our little group. The weather was hot and sunny but we took it at a nice easy pace and at the end of the day relaxed in a cool little river with a beer in hand. The next day was similar with unusual rocky outcrops and our last day very easy with a flat walk following the river. We also took the opportunity to ride part of the way on the yak carts. That night we bought another sheep for dinner, we called him "Ken". He too, was delicious.
That evening we had a go at putting up the ger. First we placed the door facing south (it must always face south), then the latticed sides. We then attempted to tie them together but we were not doing it correctly so the crew stepped in. Next the was main supports that hold up the cartwheel-shaped roof supports. Someone held this while we tried to put in place the roof poles. Then the inner canvas went on, in winter a layer of felt would be added and then the outer canvas. Sounds simple, well there certainly is a technique to it!
The next day we said cheerio to the yaks and crew and drove back to UB. That night we had a farewell dinner and a few beers. The following morning the group headed off back to the UK or the States. This made us a bit homesick, maybe we're missing you guys after all :-)
We spent a few more days in UB visiting museums, shopping, uploading photos, doing laundry etc. Then we boarded a train for a 24 hour journey back to China.
Mongolia, you were great fun, thanks for all the mutton!
Bye for now,
Jackie & Peter
Some Mongol Empire History
Essentially Mongolians have always led a nomadic herding lifestyle. They belonged to tribes and would only group together if under threat. Throughout time they had numerous military clashes with the Chinese. The Chinese referred to them as the Xiongnu (The State Holding the Bows Beyond the Great Wall) and had their first major war with them in the 3rd century BC. The Xiongnu engaged in fierce and effective military tactics. Their warriors charged on horseback firing arrows and wielding lances and swords. This was a forerunner of things to come. In the first century AD some remnants of the Xiongnu moved west and their descendants, the Huns, united under Attila and terrorised central Europe in the last days of the Roman Empire.
Until the end of the 12th century, the Mongols were little more than a loose confederation of rival clans. Then in 1162 a Mongol named Temujin was born. He emerged from a power struggle becoming the leader of the Borjigin Mongol clan and later managed to unite most of the Mongol tribes. In 1189 he was given the honorary name of Chinngis Khaan, meaning 'universal' (or oceanic) king. In 1206 he declared the formation of the Mongol empire and himself as supreme leader. He launched his cavalry against China and Russia. He was very successful and was just about to finish off China when news arrived that a group of Mongol merchants in Central Asia had been killed and several ambassadors roughed up. Chinngis turned his fury to the west. In 1219 the Mongols took Otrar (modern day Kazakstan), swept through Uzbekistan and reached the Caspian Sea. The great Central Asian cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Merv, Balkh, Herat (1.6 million killed) and Ghazni were all destroyed. After 6 years of campaigning, Chinngis Khaan finally returned to Mongolia. By the time of his death in 1227 the Mongol empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian Sea. After his death his son Ogedei continued the military conquests, sweeping through Russia, Poland and Lithuania and then swung south into Hungary and Bohemia. The Mongols were poised to inflict more carnage, as the rest of Europe prayed in their cathedrals for a miracle. However, in 1241 the Mongols suddenly stopped, turned around and headed back to Mongolia. Ogedei had died and custom dictated that all noble descendants of Chinngis had to return to Mongolia to elect a new leader. Europe was saved. Although, the Mongol conquest did continue as they swept through Iran (1.7 million killed) and destroyed Baghdad (800,000 killed). Up to 30% of the people in Central Asia were massacred.
Why were the Mongols so successful? The Mongol military technique was honed in epic hunting expeditions and they were masters of psychological warfare. Cities that surrendered without a fight were spared, while those that resisted were utterly obliterated. Yet rarely was torture used, killing was business-like with soldiers given strict quotas on the number of civilians to kill. Chinngis perfected the techniques of feigned fight, mobility, hostage taking, surprise attack and human shields. He also developed a large intelligence network of spies and traders who sent information along an efficient communications system. Contrary to popular belief, diplomacy was chosen over warfare whenever possible. At the root of their dominance was the Mongol's horsemanship. Each soldier took 5 horses on campaign and could ride for weeks, allegedly surviving on mare's milk and horse's blood. Technology was also on their side. They had the best stirrups in the world. Their bows were twice as long as the European longbow and they could shoot while riding, forwards or backwards.
In 1259 Chinngis' grandson Kublai Khaan came to power. Kublai completed the take over of China and became emperor of the Yuan dynasty. He realised that the empire had reached its limit of expansion and he wanted to establish a more lasting system of government. His winter capital was Khanbalik, today's Beijing. It was here in 1274 that he met, and subsequently hired, a young Marco Polo. Kublai's summer camp was further north at Shangdu, later immortalised as Xanadu by the opium inspired poet Samuel Coleridge (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:...).
Kublai worked on keeping the vast empire together. This was the height of the Mongol's glory. The empire stretched from Korea to Hungary and as far south as Vietnam, making it the largest empire the world has ever known. They improved the road system linking China with Russia and promoted trade throughout the empire and with Europe. In China, the Mongol Yuan dynasty instituted a famine relief scheme and expanded the canal system which brought food from the countryside to the cities. It was the first empire to enforce paper money as the sole form of currency. Kublai Khaan died in 1294 but the grandeur of the Mongol empire lasted over a century. However, by the mid 14th century Mongol rule had begun to disintegrate until they were expelled from Beijing by the first emperor of the Ming dynasty in 1368.
The Mongols left a mixed legacy. Though demonised by foreign historians, Chinngis Khaan managed to introduce a written script for the Mongolian language and instituted a religious tolerance and initiated the first major direct contact between East and West. He introduced a legal code that influenced Mongol government for centuries and brought back craftsmen into Mongolia to create an artistic renaissance period. There was, however, a darker legacy. The Mongols introduced the Black Death (bubonic plague) to Europe in 1347 and its war machine destroyed great cultures, many of which were never to recover.
Eventually the Mongols resumed their nomadic lifestyle and reverted to their small clans.
PS. Occasionally bubonic plague still appears in modern day Mongolia - don't eat the marmots.
Click here for China (Part 2)