Descending from Genghis Khan

By Jheri St. James

Volatile and dramatic, the history of Mongolia includes tales of nomads, herders, plunderers, and the great Genghis Khan and his armies. From his late teens to age 38, in the year 1200, Temujin rose as the khan or ruler over the local tribes. In 1206, Temujin took the title “Universal Ruler,” which translates to Genghis Khan. During his lifetime, he conquered more territory than any other warrior in history--nearly all of Asia and European Russia, with army forces in central Europe and Southeast Asia--and his successors established the largest contiguous empire on earth. Without Genghis Khan there would not be a Mongolia. Khan's subjects considered themselves at the center of the universe and favored by the gods. They claimed that Khan was the rightful master over the entire world. Why?

Because: he improved military organization and broke up what was left of old enemy tribes. He made it law that there was to be no kidnapping of women, and declared all children legitimate. Khan made it a capital offense to steal animals, regulated hunting, improving the availability of meat for everyone, introduced record keeping and created official seals and a supreme officer of the law. His grandson Kublai Khan conquered China, established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD), then gained fame in Europe through the writings of Marco Polo. But the Mongol’s strength declined rapidly after their dynasty in China was overthrown in 1368. This 168-year empire took place on the surface of the soil of Mongolia.

Slightly larger than Alaska, Mongolia lies in central Asia between Siberia on the north and China on the south. Elevation ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 feet, while numerous rivers, with exotic names as the Hovd, Onon, Selenga and Tula flow throughout the country. Much of the Gobi Desert falls within Mongolia.

The early Mongols, illiterate and religiously shamanistic, were herdsmen on the grassy plains north of the Gobi Desert and south of Siberian forests. Before 1200, the Mongols moved around in small bands headed by a chief, or khan, and lived in portable felt dwellings. They endured frequent deprivations and had sparse areas for grazing animals. Perhaps the manhole children are relatives of this hardy stock?

Mongolian nomadic tribes began plundering China long before the time of Christ. In fact, the Great Wall of China was constructed around 200 B.C. to protect the country from the Mongols. Mongolia came under Manchu control in 1691 as Outer Mongolia. In 1727, Russia and Manchu China concluded the Treaty of Khiakta, defining the border between China and Mongolia that exists in large part today. Following World War II, the Mongolian Government shifted to postwar development, focusing on civilian enterprise. In the early 1960s, Mongolia attempted to maintain a neutral position amidst increasingly contentious Chinese-Soviet tensions. Mongolia and the Soviet Union signed an agreement in 1966 that introduced large-scale Soviet ground forces as part of Moscow's general buildup along the China-Soviet frontier. During this period, relations between Mongolia and China deteriorated. In 1983, Mongolia began expelling the 7,000 ethnic Chinese in Mongolia to China.

In a perplexing twist of fate in Mongolia, it is now the Han Chinese who are building a Genghis Khan theme park in Ordos City in Inner Mongolia. With the help of the city government, the Donglian Group has built a luxury hotel, including a vast banqueting hall in the shape of a round Mongolian felt tent, or ger where visitors can watch a song and dance reenactment of Genghis’s life over a meal. The theme park includes what is described as the world’s largest Genghis Kan museum surrounded by hundreds of giant cast-iron figures of warriors on horseback and their camp followers. In 2006, Mongolia poured millions of dollars into celebrating the 800th anniversary of Genghis’s unification of the Mongol tribes into a single state, which became the biggest empire the world has ever known, stretching from Beijing to the Balkans. From cigarette packets and vodka bottles to bank notes and the capital’s recently named Chinggis Khaan (Mongolian spelling) Airport, Genghis’s image is everywhere: a statue in front of the parliament building; his face in chalk from a hillside. The battles between China and Mongolia continue in this day and age over whether Ghengis and Kublai Khan were really even Mongolian, or Chinese, as it was Kublai who founded the Chinese Yuan dynasty in the 13th century, making Genghis himself an honorary Chinese emperor.

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Life in sparsely populated Mongolia has recently become more urbanized. Nearly half of the people live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in other provincial centers. Semi-nomadic life still predominates in the countryside of Mongolia, but settled agricultural communities are becoming more common.

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism was the predominant religion. However, it was suppressed under the communist regime until 1990. As liberalization began, Buddhism has enjoyed a resurgence. About four million ethnic Mongols live outside Mongolia; about 3.4 million live in China, and 500,000 live in Russia.

The birth of perestroika in the former Soviet Union and the democracy movement in Eastern Europe were mirrored in Communist Mongolia, in early 1990 when the first organized opposition group, the Mongolian Democratic Union, appeared. In May, the constitution was amended, deleting reference to the Communist MPRP's role as the guiding force in the country, legalizing opposition parties, creating a standing legislative body, and establishing the office of president. The 1992 constitution provided that the president would be elected by popular vote rather than by the legislature.

Economic activity in Mongolia has traditionally been based on herding and agriculture. Because of Mongolia's remoteness and natural beauty, the tourism sector has recently shown signs of rapid growth. The soil in Mongolia contains many mineral deposits--copper, coal, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, and gold. Investors have recently taken interest in Mongolia’s minerals. As a result of rapid urbanization and industrial growth policies under the communist regime, however, Mongolia's deteriorating environment has become a major concern. The burning of soft coal by individual home or “ger” (yurt in Russian) owners, power plants, and factories in Ulaanbaatar has resulted in severely polluted air. Deforestation, overgrazed pastures, and efforts to increase grain and hay production by plowing up more virgin land have increased soil erosion from wind and rain. With the rapid growth of newly privatized herds, overgrazing in selected areas also is a concern. Recent rapid and relatively unregulated growth in the mining sector for minerals (gold, coal, etc.) has become the focus of public debate, and the real environmental concern is the sharp boom in the number of informal gold miners, who frequently illegally use mercury, which may lead to an epidemic of mercury poisoning.

Camel in foreground. Ger in background

The Common Ground 191 soil collector in Mongolia was an American man there named Cory Johnston. The site was Hardgait Park, north of Ulaanbaatar, “a beautiful park, home to some of the little forests that Mongolia has.” When asked how he heard about the project, he said his boss tasked him with this chore. Thank you, Cory.

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What would the Universal Ruler Genghis and his grandson Kubli Khan think if they read the stories in today’s newspapers about the “legitimate” children of their heirs who live in manholes under the soil? In the capital city Ulaanbaatar, where temperatures dip below minus 30 degrees Celsius, Southern California Daily Pilot photographer and journalist, Kent Treptow, photographed these children in the month he spent with them, and is responsible for spearheading a relief effort. Why manholes? Because they are dry, and underground water pipes provide heat and water. Most of them spend their days as panhandlers, pickpockets and working at manual labor jobs where they can find them. Nights are spent under the streets in the company of garbage, filth, rats and vermin. In another perplexing irony, the swastika symbol tattooed on many of these young bodies is a Buddhist symbol of luck and endurance, the same swastika used by another “soil collector.” Please go to to read about and see the amazing photos of these very special Mongolian children, boys and girls aged seven and up--the progeny of Genghis Khan.

Mongolia is a country, like all countries, with a continuing surface story, nearly always highlighted by warfare and bloodshed. Mongolia is a country with a sub-surface story as well. The catacombs in Europe are big tourist attractions. Will the descending manhole-dwelling children of the great Universal Ruler Ghengis, and Kublai Kahn and children of Mongolia stay warm and dry and receive the help they need? Will they be remembered in a theme park, or become a tourist attraction?

In Mongolian, the phrase for peace is “enkh taivan,” written in Cyrillic.

A Mongolian forest scene from collector, Cory Johnson




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