Not every mass-murderer gets an international airport named after him. But Genghis Khan wasn’t a run-of-the-mill genocidal dictator. He was a larger-than-life figure whose massive empire was the precursor to modern-day Mongolia, and who’s therefore regarded by Mongolians as kind of a founding father of their country and accorded commensurate respect. The fact that tens of millions of people died as a direct result of his commands – some as casualties in wars that were fought in his name, and some being outright murdered in extermination campaigns that he initiated – doesn’t detract from the esteem in which he’s held in Mongolia today.
In June 2017, I visited Mongolia’s capital, Ulanabaatar, as well as a couple of areas outside the city. As well, I sought to make Mongolia the 49th country on my World Karaoke Tour, after singing in Nepal and Bhutan during the preceding week and a half. Here’s the story of how my visit went.
Background: a little bit about Genghis Khan
Initially, it must be noted that Genghis Khan – or Chinggis Khaan, as Mongolians refer to him – was not the actual name of the medieval warlord who led the Mongol hordes; that moniker is an honorific meaning “Supreme Ruler.” When he entered this world in 1162, his birth name was Temujin. Although, I have to admit that “Temujin” doesn’t sound nearly as badass as Genghis Khan. 🙂
Regardless of what you call him, Genghis has his defenders and was admittedly a complicated figure. In recent years, some historians have attempted to rehabilitate his image, seeking to contextualize the massive body count that resulted from his policies. For example, this video hails him as a unifier of rival clans. It also asserts that many of the cities that Genghis destroyed only met that fate when they rebelled after surrendering to him – as if their refusal to meekly submit to a warlord’s conquest could justify such wholesale slaughter. As you might have guessed, I don’t go along with the revisionist whitewashing of Genghis’s legacy. In my view, notwithstanding the purported justifications for his conduct, Genghis ranks on a short list of the most brutal and murderous people in history. And that doesn’t even include the melee he incited in a southern California shopping mall in the late 20th century. 🙂
Yet in May 2017, to enter Mongolia, I flew into an airport that proudly bears his name. I mean, what’s next? Pol Pot International Airport in Cambodia? Josef Stalin International Airport in Russia? Adolf Hitler International Airport in Germany? Vlad the Impaler International Airport in Romania?
For all the controversy over how to evaluate his actions, his signal accomplishment is undisputable and impressive: Genghis helped build the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen. Stretching all the way from the Pacific Ocean to western Asia, his domain covered some 5.2 million square miles at the time of his death in 1227. (His grandson Kublai Khan expanded the size of the empire to about 9.1 million square miles, and extended its western boundaries to central Europe. While the British Empire at its peak contained possessions with land areas aggregating to the astonishing total of 13.01 million square miles, those possessions weren’t all physically connected to each other.) Modern-day Mongolia occupies a relatively small portion of the Mongol Empire’s former territory – just under 605,000 square miles, ranking it 18th among the world’s nations in land area. (The exact figure varies slightly, depending on which source you consult.)
Ulaanbaatar: where the people are
Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Mongolia is the least densely-populated; as of 2016 it counted slightly more than 3 million inhabitants, which works out to just under 5.1 residents per square mile. (Monaco, the most densely populated nation, averages 18,589 persons per square mile.) But that figure actually understates how sparsely peopled Mongolia is. The capital city, Ulaanbaatar (sometimes Anglicized to Ulan Bator), is home to nearly 1.4 million citizens, or roughly 45% of the population of the entire country. That means that outside of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia averages a paltry 2.7 or so inhabitants per square mile. Its sprawling steppes and other forbidding terrain create endless stretches of desolation. Most of my visit to Mongolia was spent in Ulaanbaatar.
Genghis Khan was no square
At the heart of Mongolia’s capital is Grand Chinggis Khaan Square, the name of which reflects yet another posthumous honour bestowed on Genghis. On the day that I visited the square, a festival was being held there in celebration of International Children’s Day; this caused the plaza to be much more crowded than usual.
Here are a couple of videos depicting some of the activities that were held in and around the square on International Children’s Day:
One form of entertainment that I didn’t witness during my foray to the square is the throat singing that’s a distinctive aspect of Mongolian musical culture. Here’s a YouTube video I found that shows an outstanding example of the art form of throat singing:
Marco Polo slept here (or did he?)
Speaking of the local culture in what’s now Mongolia, one unanswerable question is whether Marco Polo, the great Venetian explorer, ever came across any of it in person. Polo famously wrote about meeting Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, and claimed to have become a confidant to Kublai and to have served as an envoy on his behalf. In the present day, Polo is perhaps even more renowned for giving his name to a game that’s popular in swimming pools. 🙂 The most legendary visitor to the Mongol Empire is immortalized via a statue in front of the mall that’s next to Grand Chinggis Khaan Square:
However, the reverence for Marco Polo that inspired this statue may be based on a lie. Historians dispute whether Polo, a notorious fabulist and embellisher, ever actually visited China or any part of the Mongol Empire — let alone entered Kublai Khan’s life. It’s entirely possible that the two men never even met. But whether or not Polo’s tale of becoming Kublai’s BFF is to be believed, he has his statue in Ulaanbaatar. And you can still play his eponymous game of tag in swimming pools. 🙂
A Buddhist monastery in east Asia; who’d have thought?
Ulaanbaatar isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, which suited me just fine. When I go somewhere, I don’t need 285 TripAdvisor-listed attractions to choose from. One site that I did enjoy hitting up in the Mongolian capital was the Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monastery, often referred to as the Gandan Monastery. It offered me the novel opportunity, which I’d never previously experienced in my East Asian travels, of entering a Buddhist temple with Buddhas inside. 🙂 The centerpiece of the Gandan complex is the Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara:
Inside that temple stands a 26.5-meter-high gold and copper statue of Avalokiteshvara, a boddhisatva who “embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.” (Source: Wikipedia, because I’m too lazy to conduct the in-depth research I would require to understand the concept of boddhisatvas and how Avalokiteshavra fits in. 🙂 ) It’s the tallest indoor statue in the world, and was completed in 1996. (A previous version of the statue was destroyed in 1938 by the Communists who then controlled Mongolia.) Also in the temple are two common accoutrements of Buddhist houses of worship: some prayer wheels, and scores of miniature Buddhas in recessed niches.
Hitchhiking for tögrögs
While most of Mongolia consists of wide-open spaces where people and motorized transportation are few and far between, vehicular traffic in Ulaanbaatar is heavily congested. But despite that city’s profusion of automobiles, taxis can be extremely difficult to find there. Hailing one on the street is well-nigh impossible. And don’t even think about asking whether Uber is available in Mongolia. 🙂 However, a market-oriented solution has arisen to help folks get around the city without driving themselves. If you need a ride, you stand at the side of the road with your hand upraised. Before long, a random driver will stop to offer you a lift. When you reach your destination, you ask the driver how much he wants. Or, in the case of one motorist from whom I procured transportation who didn’t speak English (To communicate my destination to him, I showed him a photo of my hotel, as well as its name written in Mongolian), you hand him a sum of cash while being prepared to go higher. In that instance, I handed my driver 2,000 tögrögs (equivalent to about 80 cents U.S.!) at the end of my approximately one-kilometer ride, and he gladly accepted it. Evidently, the cost of living in Ulaanbaatar is quite low.
The system I’m describing can be characterized as hitchhiking for money. It may seem somewhat risky for the passenger, just as hitchhiking was in its heyday in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s; what if the person who pulls over for you is an axe-murderer? Or what if your ride ends up like the time when a rogue taxi driver picked me up in Mexico City in 2011? (Keep in mind, though, that in a hitchhiking scenario, the driver is taking a similar risk by welcoming a potential robber or killer into her car.)
Still, while stranger danger can’t be discounted, in my experience the system in Ulaanbaatar works. Admittedly, in my case it helped that both of the solo rides that I took in random cars were confined to a relatively small part of the central city; and I had a pre-planned exit strategy to which I could resort if needed. In each instance, I knew the route back to my hotel, and the automobile wasn’t equipped with power door locks; so if the driver diverged from the correct path, I was prepared to jump out at the next stoplight. But it never came to that.
Genghis on a horse
One of my favourite things I saw in Mongolia was a gargantuan statue of Genghis Khan astride a horse. The Mongols under Genghis were known for the formidability of their cavalry; it’s been observed that they elevated horsemanship to an art, and Genghis himself said, “It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse.” In 2008, Mongolia unveiled a stainless-steel statue of Genghis on horseback about 34 miles east of Ulaanbaatar, at a spot where Genghis reputedly found a golden whip. Rising 131 feet above its base, it’s the tallest equestrian statue on the planet. Yes, the size of the thing constitutes yet another fawning tribute to a dude responsible for the demises of an unfathomable number of humans.
The base of the statue, itself 33 feet in height, contains a visitor’s centre and a museum displaying artifacts from the Mongol Empire. In addition, the grounds contain a number of much smaller statues of mounted Mongol horsemen, as well as replicas of the gers (also known as yurts) that were traditional Mongol dwellings (and which remain a traditional form of abode in the hinterlands of Mongolia even today, as you’ll see below). A ger is basically a conical-shaped felt tent.
The best meal in a ger that I’ve ever eaten
My excursion to the Genghis statue was part of a more comprehensive organised day-trip from Ulaanbaatar. After we left the statue, my tour guide took me to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. At a settlement inside the park, I had lunch with a herder of yak and cows inside his ger. The herder’s name was Baterdene, although he goes by the nickname “Baagi.” Naturally, he learned of my “H-Bomb” sobriquet. 🙂 He has a television but no internet access. Prior to our meal together, which was prepared by his wife Chimgi, Baagi had never heard of New York City. (Presumably, the shows he’s been watching on his TV haven’t included 30 Rock, Friends, or Sex and the City. 🙂 ) But Baagi has no need for such distant megalopolises. He only gets to Ulaanbaatar — which is roughly 40 miles from his ger — about once a year; and he disdains those visits, as he considers his country’s capital too crowded and fast-paced.
Although the food that Baagi served me was quite delectable, I did get violently ill in Beijing the following evening; but I don’t know whether the severe gastrointestinal distress that I endured was caused by foodborne pathogens that I ingested along with my lunch. It’s at least equally possible that my symptoms were attributable to a virus — perhaps a norovirus that I was exposed to on my flight from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. All I know for sure is that I enjoyed my lunch with Baagi, and dining in a ger was fun.
The dog that didn’t bark (or bite)
When I was planning my trip to Mongolia, my travel doctor’s nurse urged me to get rabies shots before my departure. She explained that rabid stray dogs are rampant in Mongolia, even in Ulaanbaatar; and that the hospitals in Ulaanbaatar lack any supplies of immunoglobulin, a medication that’s part of the treatment protocol for unvaccinated people who suspect they may have been exposed to the rabies virus. Thus, in the event I were bitten by a dog while in Mongolia, I would have to be evacuated to Beijing, China to receive the necessary medication. (The nurse didn’t mention that immunoglobulin also often triggers some unpleasant side effects, such as pain at the site where it’s injected into the bloodstream; fever, and headache. Of course, those reactions are still preferable to the death that almost always ensues once someone has contracted rabies; the disease has a fatality rate of virtually 100% in people.)
But I consulted the website of the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and learned that the CDC doesn’t recommend the rabies vaccine for all travellers to Mongolia, but only for those who fall into certain categories:
None of those categories applied to me. I wasn’t going to be participating in outdoor adventure activities or other pursuits that would put me at risk for animal bites; I wasn’t going to be working with or around animals; my stay in Mongolia wasn’t going to be a lengthy one; and I’m not a child. Plus, the nurse told me that my travel doctor’s clinic charges $1,000 for the course of 3 shots that comprise vaccination against rabies. While I’m sure I could have found a hospital or clinic in my home city of New York that charges less for rabies vaccination, it still would have been expensive. (Elective vaccinations that people obtain for travel-related purposes are usually not covered by health insurance.) Given that the CDC’s guidelines didn’t indicate that rabies prophylaxis was needed in my case, I opted to forego the protection. Note: I’m not a physician, and nothing I write in this blog post is intended as medical device. All travellers to Mongolia need to make their own decisions, in consultation with their own medical professionals, about whether to inoculate themselves against rabies.
I knew I was taking a risk, although frankly, I was at least as concerned about the physical effects of a dog bite as I was of exposure to rabies in the event of such a bite. Things like laceration, muscle damage, and the potential need for surgery weren’t very appealing to me. By many accounts, feral stray dogs – many of which carry rabies – do remain a problem in Ulaanbaatar, although the city has made great progress in reducing their numbers. They’re also abundant in the rural areas that make up most of Mongolia, including in communities of gers. So I simply hoped that I wouldn’t be attacked by any wild dogs while walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar, or while strolling to or from a ger in Ghorki-Terelj National Park for my scheduled lunch with a local herder. I did wish that I could be carrying sausages injected with a tranquilizing drug to toss towards any canines that might pose a threat to me. 🙂
As it happened, I didn’t see a single dog in Ulaanbaatar; and I only spotted one dog near Baagi’s ger, which turned out to be docile and never approached me. So my informed gamble worked out. No rabies for me!
Singing in Mongolia: karaoke everywhere yet nowhere
As regular readers of this website know, one recurring theme of my travels in east Asian countries is that karaoke is not hard to find in that region – but it’s predominantly available there in the form of venues with “private rooms” — i.e., rooms that you can rent out with your friends for a designated length of time. Bars or restaurants where you can karaoke in public in front of an audience of strangers are rare or nonexistent in many of these countries. But as I’ve also frequently written that I have an aversion to private-room karaoke, especially when I’m travelling solo. Where’s the fun in singing to myself? That’s why I ended up inviting myself to a gathering in a private karaoke room in Beijing; riding in a karaoke-equipped taxi in Taipei, Taiwan; and not singing at all in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
That situation repeated itself in Mongolia. Establishments with private rooms were ubiquitous in that city; it seemed that just about every hotel offered private karaoke rooms on the premises (although the Ramada I was staying in lacked that amenity), and there were many stand-alone facilities that offered the same thing. But despite numerous Google sessions and consultations with the front-desk staff at my hotel, I was having no luck in finding a joint where I could croon in public. Was Mongolia fated to join the select list of countries that I entered and exited without having karaoked inside their borders?
Finally, I received a hot tip from my tour company – the same tour operator that had delivered my outstanding outing to the Genghis Khan statue and Baagi’s ger, and had supplied me with an excellent tour guide. My contact at that tour company had somehow gotten wind of a nightspot called the Julie Center that had public karaoke! (It may well be the only venue in all of Ulaanbaatar that has it.) So here I would like to give a shout-out to Selena Travel for going above and beyond and locating a suitable karaoke place for me when all my other resources had failed! (In case you’re wondering, I paid for my tour with Selena Travel, and haven’t received any compensation of any kind from them. I’m just legitimately grateful for the service they provided.)
The uniqueness of the Julie Center’s public karaoke room didn’t translate into an abundance of patrons in that room – even on a Friday night. In fact, when I performed my first song of the evening, the video of which you’re about to see, there was only one other guy present, and he refused to be captured on video and left the room when the recording started (and then returned). He also placed his hand over his face when I attempted to film him performing a Mongolian song. A few more singers did arrive later. (In the video, you’ll see a couple of people walk in front of the camera; they were actually only passing through the area en route to the section of private rooms.) Otherwise, the only other sentient creatures in the public lounge with me were staff members, including the one who served as my videographer. It was almost as if I actually was in a private room myself. 🙂
Due to the dearth of live onlookers, I chose a low-key song: Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” Although that tune doesn’t reside on my karaoke A-list, it’s one of the songs I’ve been performing the longest; I first sang it in 1991! Here I am singing it in 2017:
Just to prove that I wasn’t the sole singer in the public space on that evening, here you can watch a trio of the late arrivers belting out a Mongolian song. Check out the lyrics in the Cyrillic alphabet on the monitor above them!
And that is how, on June 2, 2017, Mongolia became the 49th country in which I’ve karaoked. I would attempt to hit the “Big Five-Oh” when I visited the Mediterranean island nation of Malta the following month. At that time, I would seek to make Malta the 50th country on my World Karaoke Tour!