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Volume 47, Number 5September/October 1996

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The Nomad Route

In the Steps of Genghis Kahn

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

It was the Year of the Monkey, by Mongol reckoning, and it was living up to its reputation for meteorological mischief. One minute we were sunning ourselves by Lake Dörgön, in the foothills of the Altay Mountains; the next we were struggling to keep our campsite from being flattened by a sudden storm. Our drivers formed their vehicles into a windbreak, and we held on grimly to our flimsy one-man tents, but one by one they collapsed and scattered their contents across the steppe.

But then, life on the steppe was never easy— one reason it has produced such fierce nomad warriors as Genghis Khan. And for us sedentary types, the journey across Mongolia in his footsteps was a grueling one.

We were retracing the Nomad Route across the Eurasian steppe, along which wave after wave of horse-mounted nomads—Scythians, Huns and Turks as well as Mongols—swept westward to conquer large parts of the known world.

Besides being raiders and rulers, however, nomads also came as traders and travelers, for the steppe served as a vast trade route between East and West, North and South. Within its broad expanses, cross-country movement was easy for anyone with a horse to ride, and the goods a rider might carry were not only merchandise, but also more abstract valuables: religious teachings, artistic styles, technologies. Pilgrims and merchants carried Buddhism across the steppe, for example, and Islamic culture spread along the Nomad Route and played a vital role along much of its length.

The Eurasian steppe is a vast belt of grassland extending some 8000 kilometers (5000 miles) from Hungary in the west, through Ukraine and Central Asia, to Manchuria in the east. It is divided by the Altay Mountains, in present-day Mongolia, into two distinct parts. The western steppe extends from the Altay range west across Kazakhstan and southern Russia, and along the north shore of the Black Sea to the mouth of the Danube River. The eastern steppe, extending east from the Altay Mountains, encompasses most of modern Mongolia and reaches to the Greater Khingan Range, the 1500-meter (5000-foot) north-south mountain range that forbids entrance to Manchuria from the west.

It was at the eastern end of the western steppe—in the Mongolian town of Hovd—that we began our journey. For me, it was the continuation of a quest begun in 1987 to retrace the Silk Roads, the ancient network of caravan trails that once linked Europe and China. (See Aramco World, July/August 1988.) The Nomad Route was one of the oldest of the Silk Roads, for nomadic tribes migrating westward as early as the sixth century BC carried silk and other trade goods with them to Europe—and the route was old even then. But only since 1991, when Soviet influence in Mongolia ended—along with 70 years of isolation—could I retrace this portion of the Nomad Route.

Travel within Mongolia, which has few paved roads, little transport and very basic accommodations, is still difficult for the individual. So photographer Nik Wheeler and I joined an expedition sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IUNESCO), part of its Silk Roads study project called "Roads of Dialogue." (See Aramco World, November/December 1991.) Our fellow travelers were geographers, historians, archeologists and anthropologists from 21 nations; Mongolian officials, drivers, cooks and journalists swelled our group to more than 100 people.

We traveled in convoy, camping en route, across 2000 kilometers (1250 miles) of bone-breaking steppe trails and tortuous mountain tracks. For transport, we had 13 four-wheel-drive vehicles and three buses; we carried fuel and water in tank trucks, food in a refrigerated van and baggage and equipment in open trucks. Our column also included an incredible old Red Army hospital sterilization unit that served as a kind of chuck wagon: Stuffed with mutton, stoked with wood and unavoidably self-stirred as it bounced across the steppe, it produced a ready, palatable and soon familiar stew almost every time we stopped.

Landing at Hovd airport to rendezvous with our land transport, we were greeted by a large crowd, by Mongolian standards—for Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with only 2.49 million people, according to a 1995 estimate. That's 1.6 people per square kilometer (4 per square mile), compared to 106 per square kilometer for France, or 13 per square kilometer even in Arizona. In fact, there are more Mongolians living outside the country than in it: Some 3.4 million live in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and a further million live in the Tuva and Buryat regions of Russia.

At Hovd, we watched a performance of music, song and dance that reflected the ethnic mix of Mongolia's western aymags, or provinces, which border on China, Russia and Kazakhstan. Besides Mongols, their populations include over 400,000 Muslim Kazakhs, plus other minorities.

What steppe nomads lack in numbers, however, they make up for in hospitality. All along our route we were warmly welcomed, often in traditional Mongolian fashion: presented with platters of white ewes' cheese and bowls of kumiss—fermented mares' milk—with which to wash it down.

Mares' milk nurtures a Mongolian cultural legacy that dates back to the days when the nomads first domesticated the horse, some time in the third millennium BC. Not only is it the nomads' staple drink, but it also features in most of their ceremonies. At the horse races staged for our entertainment en route, for example, winning steeds were anointed with kumiss, and each time we resumed our travels, kumiss was sprinkled in our wake to wish us a safe journey.

In fact, there was little chance of a traffic accident. In three weeks of traveling from Hovd to Karakorum—ancient capital of the Mongol Empire—we passed only six vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. And only on the last leg of our journey, from Karakorum to Ulaanbaatar, capital of today's Mongolia, did we travel on a paved road; because of fuel shortages, there was hardly any traffic on that, either. The horse, which played a leading role in the nomads' migrations, hunting and war, is still Mongolia's principal means of transport—and will probably remain so until the intensive oil exploration now under way in the Mongolian Plateau begins to bear fruit.

Humans have roamed the steppes since earliest times. We found evidence of that on the very first day of our three-week journey across Mongolia. On a low rocky hill known as Ishgin Tolgoy, near the confluence of the Urd, Dund and Holt Rivers, we counted nearly 150 animal figures carved on rock: horses, bison, deer, elk, antelope, camels, goats, sheep, snakes and lions. The scientists traveling with us attributed this art to the paleolithic period, the early Stone Age. Our Mongolian guides said that many paleolithic tools, such as knives and spear-points knapped from river pebbles, had been found in the adjacent valley too.

In a nearby cave we saw rock paintings depicting other animals, including elephants and ostriches. Large numbers of dots painted over some of the animals—a characteristic feature of paleolithic art thought to indicate animal population sizes—implied that ostriches were once plentiful in Mongolia, and underscored the changes in the environment since then.

It was these environmental changes that prompted the wandering and the warfare of the hunting and herding communities that dominated the steppelands during the second millennium BC. For by then, the increasingly arid terrain could no longer sustain their growing herds, and many clans began to move with the seasons in search of fresh pasture, gradually developing a nomadic way of life.

These horseriding herdsmen punctuated their pastoral life with raids on settled communities and on each other. But although the nomads' view of sedentary society was essentially predatory, the relationship between the steppe and the sown was not one of unbroken hostility. Diffuse cultural contacts linked these two dissimilar worlds, and—especially when settled states were strong and raiding them was risky—so did trade.

In exchange for livestock, leather and wool," the nomads received tea and grain. Carpets from southwest Asia and ceramics and silk from China also found their way into the steppes and were traded onward to other groups. The nomads were active intermediaries, and caravan routes crossed the steppes in all directions; thus, by way of the nomads, Greek ornaments made their way to the Caucasus and vases from Achaemenid Persia reached the foothills of the Ural Mountains.

The valley of the Urd, Dund and Holt Rivers, where we spent a fitful first night under canvas, is still an important pathway for migrating nomads, and we passed one family as we resumed our journey the next day. First came a small herd of horses driven by two young men; next, the head of the family and his wife, leading camels laden with provisions and possessions, including tents, bedrolls and cooking pots; finally came some cattle and many sheep, herded by young women and children. All were on horseback.

Mongolia is the only steppe nation where large numbers of people still lead a nomadic existence and practice a culture particularly suited to a mobile way of life. Sheep provide most of their needs: skins for clothing; mutton, milk and cheese for food; dung for fuel; and wool for the manufacture of the characteristic felt gers, or yurts, that are the nomads' homes. Although many ancient movements of peoples took place along the Nomad Route, today's nomads—technically transhumants—travel mainly between summer and winter grazing grounds, and the distances they move are short compared to past migrations. In the middle of the sixth century, for example, a people called the Juan-juan, driven from Mongolia by the Turks, ultimately migrated as far west as today's Hungary.

The Turks too eventually migrated westward, leaving behind in Mongolia the first written record of steppe history and many stone statues—actually anthropomorphic stelae—erected in honor of their leaders. Five of these statues we encountered near Hovd, as our convoy began its climb through the mountains separating the eastern from the western steppes. (See Aramco World, March/April 1994.) Our destination that day was Huhner Camp, a primitive mountain resort nestled among pine trees in an alpine valley watered by a foaming stream, high in the Altay Mountains—and very low in temperature. With an average elevation of 1580 meters (5180 feet), Mongolia is one of the highest countries in the world, and Siberian winds make the eastern steppes chilly even in summer.

As the milder temperatures and higher rainfall in the West made for far richer pastureland than in the East, nomatls tended to migrate westward. Any greener grass, however, was likely to belong to someone else—for nomads had a strong concept of tribal ownership of land-use rights—and attempts by newcomers to graze others' land often led to war. Typically, then, the movement of one people precipitated a domino series of other migrations. In the second century BC, for example, the Hsiung-nu—known in the West as Huns—expelled the Yueh-chih from western China. The retreating Yueh-chih pushed the Sakas into Bactria, where they contributed to the downfall of the Greek kingdom established there by Alexander the Great (See Aramco World, May/June 1994), causing much of the Bactrian population to take refuge in India.

Some of the earliest evidence of these westward migrations are so-called deer-stones: upright stone slabs engraved with images of the sun; of weapons, including daggers and bows; and of stylized running deer, with bird-like mouths, large round eyes and elegant curving antlers. Common features of the Mongolian landscape, deerstones were erected singly or in groups by Bronze Age and early Iron Age inhabitants of the steppe; they may have been tombstones, boundary stones delineating tribal pasture-lands, or hunting signs of some kind. A few stones with similar deer carvings have also been found in Kazakhstan and in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, indicating that this ancient art form—apparently first created in Mongolia in the second millennium BC—was carried westward by migrating nomads.

We first came across deerstones at Ehbulag, en route from Huhner Camp to the former fortress town of Javhlant, modern Uliastay, one of the most remote aymag capitals of Mongolia. Hemmed in on all sides by mountains, set at an altitude of 1750 meters (5740 feet), Uliastay was once the headquarters of the commander-in-chief of the Chinese Manchu forces that occupied Mongolia in the 18th century—an occupation that lasted until the Manchu Dynasty itself fell in 1912.

The hillsides around Uliastay are dotted with ger communities, as are the outskirts of most Mongolian cities, for most Mongolians still live at least part of the year in these traditional tent-like structures of felt—or often, nowadays, of canvas laid over felt—stretched over light, collapsible wooden frames. Building materials are scarce on the steppe, and the ger, besides being portable, is ideally suited to Mongolia's rigorous climate: Its round, squat shape can withstand strong winds—unlike the "modern" one-man tents we were camping in—and the felt insulates well and is impenetrable by rain or snow.

The next leg of our journey took us over the spectacular Zagastain Pass through the Hangayn Nuruu, the country's second-highest mountain range. Stopping at its crest, our drivers walked three times around a large cairn and added more stones to the pile, which also included rusting tin cans, animal bones, empty bottles and pieces of iron pipe with torn strips of cloth tied to them. This, we were told, was an ovoo, a kind of shaman shrine, and this ritual too was meant to ensure us a safe journey.

Shamans once had considerable influence among the nomadic tribes of the steppes, acting as healers, judges and priests, and shamanism remained the main religion of Mongolia until the 16th century. But in their drive for empire, the Mongols came into contact with Islam, which slowly established its spiritual ascendancy over the temporal conquerors. The Golden Horde of the Volga and the Il-Khan Mongols in Persia became Muslims, followed somewhat later by the Chagatai Khans of Central Asia. The Mongol Yuan dynasty of China adopted Buddhism, and in Mongolia itself Lamaism—a strain of Buddhism that incorporates shamanist elements—became dominant. Today shamanism is a marginal cult, though some of the superstitions surrounding it are still widespread.

Descending Zagastain Pass, we drove along the fertile Ider Göl valley, populated by semi-sedentary nomads who, in addition to ger encampments, built more permanent structures such as corrals and log cabins in which they kept animal skins and supplies. There were also impressive signs of past habitation: earth and stone mounds, some 10 meters high and 30 meters wide (33 by 100 feet) that had been erected over ancient graves of the nomadic aristocracy.

Excavation of these so-called kurgans in recent decades has shed new light on the life of the early nomads. The most remarkable find was in a series of kurgans at Pazyryk, in the Altay region of Russia. Although the graves had been robbed long ago of anything of intrinsic value, the permafrost had preserved a large collection of cloth, felt, wooden and leather artifacts that, in a different climate, would have decayed to nothing. Among them were Persian pile carpets and delicate Chinese silks, concrete evidence of long-distance trade as early as the fifth century BC.

Chinese silk was first transported to the Eurasian hinterland by migrating nomadic tribes such as the Yüeh-chih as they retreated westward before the pressure of the Hsiungnu. From there it spread to Europe by way of the Scythians: Silk fabrics, and silk fringes sewn onto woolen garments, have also been found in sixth- and fifth-century BC graves in what are now Greece, Germany and Luxembourg. And recently, strands of silk thread of Chinese origin have been found dressing the hair of an Egyptian mummy that is dated firmly to about 1000 BC. Evidently, much more remains to be learned about trade on the Silk Roads.

The expansion of the Hsiung-nu empire significantly increased trade and other contacts between East and West. Along the Nomad Route, the artistic and cultural products of the Hellenic Near East were delivered to the Hsiung-nu aristocracy, and wool fabrics, tapestries and embroideries were brought from Sogdiana, Bactria and Syria. Along a southward extension of the route to China, silk cloth, lacquerware and other luxuries from the Han Empire moved in the opposite direction.

We enjoyed comparative luxury ourselves the next two nights, staying at a tourist encampment of traditional Mongolian gers pitched on a picturesque river bank at Ih Uul Sum. Each ger contained five beds ranged around the wall, brightly painted wooden tables and stools, bedside cupboards, a washstand and a stove. Young women from the nearby town served us hot meals prepared in an adjacent trailer, including fish fresh from the river for breakfast. Some of us even managed a hot shower, the first and last of our trans-Mongolian journey.

Our stay at Ih Uul Sum was all too brief; soon we were battling sleet and icy winds through the steep Solongat Pass. We spent a cold and hungry night at Terhiin Tsagaan Lake when our valiant mobile kitchen—as well as the baggage truck with our extra clothing— failed to arrive. Their road had been flooded by a swollen stream, and we were forced to light fires to keep warm and break into our emergency supplies of dried fruit and nuts.

Although we had been scheduled to spend another night under canvas by the lake, we decided to compensate ourselves by moving into the nearby town of Horgo. Our enterprising hosts found Wheeler and me a room in a local hotel that possessed two critical virtues: It was warm, and—at the equivalent of 70 US cents a night for the two of us—the price was right.

Emerging the next day from the Hangayn Nuruu range, we reached Tsetserleg. Sited picturesquely on a grassy plateau 1700 meters (5600 feet) above sea level, the town grew uparound a 16th-century monastery, most of whose buildings serve today as a museum complex. We strolled through Tsetserleg's street market, though there was precious little to buy. From 1921, when the Soviet army helped the Mongolians shake off Chinese control, until 1992, when Mongolia shook off Soviet control, the country had been a client state of the USSR, useful as a military buffer against China. Mongolia's economy was entirely dependent on that of the Soviet Union. With the disintegration of the USSR, however, subsidies ceased and sure markets evaporated; Mongolia found itself obliged to make the difficult transition from an essentially colonial economy to an independent national one in a world without subsidies. It took an important step in that direction in mid-1996, when what had been the democratic opposition won 50 out of 76 parliamentary seats, defeating the communist government elected in 1992.

Tsetserleg's market did yield us a large, handmade metal ladle that I intended to use on the rest of our journey to make bathing in Mongolia's shallow rivers easier, if not warmer. But at Undursant, where we next pitched our tents, it was much too cold to even think about bathing. Instead we watched a dazzling display of horsemanship as local herders rounded up horses scattered across surrounding grasslands

Steppe-dwellers are still horse riders far excellence, typically starting to ride at the age of four, if not earlier, and taking part in grueling long-distance races from the age of six. The nomads' military strategy of the past was based entirely on equestrian maneuvers; at the same time, they perfected the art of archery, and were in fact sometimes referred to as "the archer tribes." Their national sports today are still war-oriented: wrestling, archery and horse-racing

By the fifth century, horse-riding Turkic tribes controlled much of the steppe, carving out a huge nomad empire stretching as far west as the Black Sea. Control over the Central Asian trade routes meant control over the lucrative silk trade between China and the West, and the Turks concluded treaties with the Persian and Eastern Roman Empires and provided security for caravans traveling across Central Asia. They made their headquarters in the Orhon River valley—a traditional locus of power in the steppe—along which we now made our way to the ruins of Karabalghaun. This was Mongolia's first walled city, built by the Uighur Turks as their capital after they emerged victorious, in 745, from a three-cornered power struggle among tribes of the Turkic empire.

Less than a century later, in 840, Karabalghaun was sacked by another Turkic people, the Kyrgyz (See Aramco World, May/June 1996), but its ruined fortifications still rise from the surrounding grasslands, and stone pillars, marble carvings and ceramic artifacts found there indicate that the Uighurs enjoyed a standard of living unparalleled in medieval Central Asia. That sophistication, and the centralized power that made it possible, were not to reappear on the steppes until well after the rise of the Mongols began some two centuries later.

In fact, it was not until after the death of Genghis Khan in 1227, when the Mongol Empire was well on its way to reaching its zenith, that the Mongols began to build their own capital on a site that their great leader had chosen. Like the Uighurs, they too built in the Orhon Valley, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) downriver from Karabalghaun, and they named the city Karakorum. The name lives on in the nearby present-day town of Harhorin, and for a few days we too made our headquarters there.

Construction of Karakorum began during the reign of Genghis Khan's successor and third son, Ögödei, who was named khagan, or great khan, by a pan-Mongol assembly, or kiriltay, in 1229. But it was not until the reign of Möngke (1251-1259), the son of Genghis Khan's fourth son, Tolui, that Karakorum became the true center of the Mongol Empire. It was a small, cosmopolitan town where one could meet Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, or trade with Arabs, Chinese and Europeans, for besides being an administrative center, Karakorum was also an important intersection on the Silk Roads.

Contemporary travel accounts give lively descriptions of the town. The Franciscan monk William of Rubrouck, ambassador of the French king Louis IX, visited Mongolia in the middle of the 13th century; he found Karakorum "not as large as the village of Saint Denis"—its population in fact never exceeded 10,000—but he was greatly impressed by the khan's palace, which, he wrote, was built with a central nave and two aisles, like a church. In his book Travel to the East, Friar William describes a large artificial tree placed at the entrance of the palace. Devised by William Buchier, a Parisian sculptor living in Karakorum, this showpiece was made of silver, and "had at its roots four lions of silver, all belching forth white mares' milk ... and gilded serpents, twined round the tree, from which flowed wine; caracosmos, or clarified mares' milk; bal, a drink made with honey; and rice mead."

The palace of the khan and his entourage was surrounded by a high wall; nearby were the palaces of court officials. The town itself had two mosques, a church and Buddhist temples, and was divided into a quarter for the Muslims, where there were bazaars and many traders, and a quarter for the Chinese, who were mostly craftsmen. The town was surrounded by a mud wall with four gates. Grain was sold at the eastern gate, sheep and goats at the western one; at the southern gate, oxen and wagons were sold, and at the northern gate, horses.

Little now remains of Karakorum save scattered stones and a stela, believed to be from one of the town's two mosques, inscribed in Arabic with a verse from the Qur'an.

With the creation of the Mongol Empire, the Eurasian trade routes benefited from the organization of an official road system that linked Mongolia with Europe as efficiently as it interconnected all parts of the empire: the routes of the Mongol yam, or mounted courier service, which included traditional Silk Roads trade routes. Possibly based on a Chinese concept, the yam was organized by Genghis Khan and improved by Ögödei, and proved to be not only an important tool of control and governance but also a great catalyst of trade. Merchants were allowed to use the facilities of the yam, entrepot towns grew up around the post stations, and security along the routes was such that, in an oft-repeated claim, a young woman could walk the nearly 8000 kilometers (5000 miles) from one end of the empire to the other carrying a golden dish on her head without fear of being molested. The system was based on a series of relay stations about a day's journey apart where wells were dug, grain was stored and cattle pastured, and horses were stabled.

Among the greatest beneficiaries of the yam were Muslim merchants from Persia and Central Asia, who were the most active in developing trade throughout the Mongol Empire. The main West-to-East route began in Mongol-ruled territories in Russia and proceeded east across the steppe north of the Aral Sea and south of Lake Balkash. Crossing the Chu and Il Rivers, it then proceeded—as we had done on our journey—through the Altay Mountains and the Hangayn Nuur range to Karakorum, a distance of some 4800 kilometers (3000 miles).

In the 13th century, Kubilai Khan (1260-1294), grandson of Genghis Khan and Möngke's second brother, conquered China. Departing from his ancestors' principle that "the people of the felt-walled tents" should live as nomad warriors, taking tribute from the settled world but never joining it, he moved his capital from Karakorum to Khanbalik, site of present-day Beijing. Though he continued to rule over all the Mongol khanates, most of his revenues came from China, and he used foreigners—including Marco Polo—to counterbalance the pervasive Chinese administrative bureaucracy he inherited. Mongolia itself soon reverted to a collection of feudal fiefdoms, and Karakorum fell into decline. In its ruins today is a circular stone floor 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter, all that is left of a huge ger set up in 1658 for a kiriltay of the Mongol khans.

In this century, during Mongolia's seven decades of communist rule, all reference to Genghis Khan was outlawed: Communist regimes deeply mistrusted pre-socialist popular heroes. But with the return of democracy the ban was lifted, and today the 13th-century ruler is very much back in vogue, in spirit and in commerce, lending his name, for example, to the nation's first five-star hotel.

We eventually caught up with the spirit of Genghis Khan in Ulaanbaatar—the coldest capital on earth, where temperatures annually plunge to 25 below zero centigrade (-77°F)—at the Nadam Festival, which marks the end of the harsh winter and the onset of spring. A fur-hatted Genghis Khan impersonator, flanked by fierce-looking warriors on stocky steppe ponies, led the national Nadam parade around Ulaanbaatar's main square.

Today, Mongolian scientists are searching for the undiscovered tomb of Genghis Khan using satellite-mounted remote-sensing technology. There is much debate, however, over what they should do if they find it. Some Mongolians want the tomb scientifically excavated, hoping to obtain more detailed knowledge of their country's history; others believe it should remain undisturbed. In the meantime, however, the search is expected to reveal more information about the Nomad Route across Mongolia and beyond, one link in the chain of trade connections that are the heritage of every nation.

John Lawton and Nik Wheeler  have traveled across much of Asia onAramco World assignments. They respectively wrote and photographed the whole of the magazine's special issues "Islam's Path East" and "Muslims in China," and Wheeler photographed portions of "The Silk Roads," another issue written by Lawton.

This article appeared on pages 8-19 of the September/October 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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