Tag Archives: Genghis Khan

On The Golden Eagle Across Siberia (Part X) – Lands of the Great Khan

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It is established that the burial of Genghis Khan was always to remain a mystery. Warriors escorting the body fired arrows at any open windows en route and killed anyone they saw on the way to the burial ground. They then killed those who built the burial tomb, finally committing suicide themselves.

IMG_1619Stories of the great treasure, said to be buried with him, have always circulated among Mongol tribes.The site of his former palace is located about 150 miles from today’s capital, Ulaan Bataar. Despite rumours and many searches (even, most recently, by satellite), nothing has ever been found. In the city itself, the main city square is dominated by the seated statue of Chingghis (Genghis) Khan on the approach to the National Museum.
In the museum, maps show ancient Mongolia as a land between Siberia and the Great Wall of China (while a Chinese sage is quoted as having written of a time when “Mongolians were compared to wolves and the Chinese peopleIMG_1631 to sheep”). Traditionally a nomadic people, they were accustomed to live in relative isolation from each other. Once guided by Shamanism then by Buddhism, they were ruled from the legendary capital of Karakorum, the center of power moved later by Kublai Khan to Shengdu, an event imagined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his memorable verse

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea….”

In fact, our first glimpse of “pleasure-domes”, from the Golden Eagle, was a traditional Ger-tent, a circular latticewood and sheep-felt structure, in this case adapted to a modern function.. a Burger King outlet !
We had passed the Russian border control at Naushki, all formalities handled expertly by Train Director Tatiana and the Golden Eagle team while we slept. Soon we reached Ulaan Bataar itself, located 1300 metres(4,300 ft) above sea level and the coldest capital on earth.
We are told that new arrivals to the city, which contains almost half the total population of Mongolia ( 1.3 out of 2.9 million), mostly cope in their Ger tents sharing basic services and, in the harsh winter months, a highly polluted atmosphere from their wood burning stoves. Although overcrowded, according to a recent Financial Times report,IMG_0145 the city still has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia.
The modern skyline is dominated (since 2009) by a curved sail-like building known as the Blue Sky Tower.
It has 25 floors and is over 100 meters high, with three bedroom apartments for sale at one million dollars each!! It also contains Louis Vuiton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Loro Piana boutiques as well as a 200-room luxury hotel. Ulaan Bataar is fully up to date! English is in use everywIMG_1584here. A popular restaurant, DGH, is subtitled “Dreams Get Happiness” while another sign reads “DESTROY, Hair and Beauty Salon”?! The largest commercial enterprise is the STATE DEPARTMENT STORE, “All Needs are Fulfilled,100% cash back guarantee”. It is full of Western and UK brands that, according to our British fellow-travellers, are offered at 2/3 the price of Marks and Spencer.
It is a long cry from the days when all modern ideas came from Russia, even when a Mongolian astronaut was sent into Space on Soyuz 39 (in 1981).Vodka also came from there and quickly became popular. It is now a major industry, together with the production of leather goods and, of course, cashmere.

Mongolia is also a vibrant democracy. Near the National Museum, a large but simple black marble monument proclaims in Cyrillic,      Mongolian and English) “NO TO DEATH PENALTY”.

IMG_1618While two of our intrepid travellers, Bob and Geraldine, head out of the city to see the enormous (40 meters/about 130 ft tall) Genghis Khan statue by the Tuul river, the rest of us leave for the dramatic rocky Terelj National Park. The tour is led by our local guide Buyana, whose name, we find out, means “heavenly light”. It is a chance to catch a glimpse of wild Mongolia.

An interesting traditional lunch is included (though not the grilled sheep’s head I hear is popular with the herders for breakfast). It is served at a spotlessly kept GER vacation motel. We also visit and examine a Ger tent where we are told that the two supporting posts represent a man and his wife (the word Ger itself means”home’), while a loose cord is always left hanging for prosperity. Doors must always be south-facing and the inner felt layers are increased from a single one in summer to  2-3 in winter. Fermented mares’ milk is offered to those seeking different flavours and tastes.The host family tell us how Mongolian boys ride a horse as soon as they can walk. We too explore the surroundings with a ride on those famoussturdy Mongolian horses, in a fabulous rocky setting, including a prominent rock resembling a huge turtle. On the way back to Ulaan Bataar we stop to watch Yak at pasture.
The evening dinner is served on the 17th floor restaurant of the Central Tower building. Dishes are Mongolian-modern, the view is panoramic and the wi-fi is not connected for security reasons, as President Putin is coming for dinner next day, on his visit to discuss the oil situation.We are entertained by an amazingly flexible contortionist, then a traditional band demonstrating the unique, haunting throat singing. It is explained that male herders developed these strangely harmonic sounds in a landscape where echoes carry a great distance. It completes what has been an unforgettable day.
So back to the Golden Eagle and a goodnight’s sleep in time to reach Sukhe Bator for the Mongolian passport checkat 6.45 am.IMG_1582

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IX) – Ulan Ude and towards Mongolia

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The old stories have a life of their own. Leaving Baikal, we discover the old Mongol myth that suggests the grave of Genghis Khan is on a lake Baikal island. His mother came from the local Buryat tribes who believed that they should be buried as close to the lake as possible.
Archaeologists speculate that this really could be the case, so the search continues, most recently through satellite imaging from outer space.This “virtual exploration” particularly coordinated by the University of California San Diego may lead to unimaginable treasure being found…

Before turning towards Mongolia however, the Golden Eagle makes a longer stop at Ulan Ude, a city whose name means the “Red(river) Ude”(while Ulan Baatar means “Red Warrior”). It was, like Vladivostok, closed to foreigners during Soviet times until 1991.Today it is “twinned” with Berkeley, California.
On the main square of the city is the world’s largest Lenin monument. It is a head 7.7 meters (yes, 25 ft !) tall, created using 42 tons of bronze, to celebrate the centenary of Lenin’s birth. This Lenin portrayal, unlike that of the handsome hero we saw on our visit to Kazan University, is closer in intention to the preserved figure in the mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow. It seems to confirm the appraisals of Lenin by Pasternak as the worship of narrowness, or Ossendowski in his 1931 Lenin biography describing him as a “God of the Godless (which made Ossendowski a man high on the wanted list of Stalin’s NKVD secret police). Of course for our UK English travelers, the way the head dominates the rather featureless government buildings on this otherwise empty square, recalls a powerful sonnet by Romantic poet Percy Shelley entitled Ozymandias, which several of our group mention :
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works ye Mighty and despair !
Nothing beside remains.Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away…

Soon we leave the city for a trip back inIMG_1065to Russian tradition and a fascinating visit to an Old Believer community, exiled to Siberia centuries ago for refusing to accept reforms aligning the liturgy with that of the Greek Church. During the visit we have lunch, enjoy village songs and jokes, admire the colorful painted houses and their gardens. Soulful Russian poet Yesenin, once lover and husband of Isadora Duncan, came from an Old Believer peasant family. We hear about even more traditional Old Believer communities such as those in Estonia that still follow ancient prohibitions such as the one where men who die without a beard have to be buried in an unmarked grave or another about women who, unable to enter a church bareheaded, must have their scarves pinned under their chin for tying a knot is symbolic of the suicide of Judas by hanging. Otherwise the traditional icons are similar, the “onion domes” of churches still represent the flame of a candle, while the lower bar on the crucifix, at an angle to the cross, represents pointers signifying up to heaven, down to hell, a reminder of the choices made by the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ on Golgotha. Another window on the Russian soul.

Back on the Golden Eagle we have time to prepare our visit to Mongolia by considering its origins. A BBC series historical film on Genghis Khan arouses comparisons with earlier and more recent portrayals. “Mongol”, an award winning film by Russian director Sergei Bodrov, was filmed not long ago in Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It was such an artistic and financial success, though thematically placed on the early life of Genghis Khan, that a sequel is being made. Some still remember Omar Sharif in the 1965 Hollywood production made in Yugoslavia. Maybe the closest in spirit, if not historically accurate and actually filmed in Spain, is the cartoon-like “Conan the Barbarian” series, which brought Arnold Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition. His Conan,
when asked how best to live, paraphrases Chinggis/Genghis Khan when he intonesIMG_0125 - Version 2

Crush your enemies
See them driven before you
hear the lamentations of their women.

We find out later that Mongolians ride ponies as soon as they can walk, an ancient tradition. Genghis Khan would lead an army of 100,000 horsemen to found, in 25 years, the largest empire in the history of the world, six times larger than the one it took the Romans 400 years to establish.
An interesting discussion followed, on how they managed to do it wether through superior organisation or the aid of magic plants.Those 13th century Mongol warriors fed Sea Buckthorn (see your local health food store !) to their little horses, to increase their strength and make their coats shine. In no time, their speed made the armoured knights of Europe obsolete. The warriors also ate this plant’s orange berries to give themselves strength for battle, and used them to treat their wounds. This gave them greater endurance and faster recovery than their foes. We were reminded that geneticists today are fascinated that 1 in 200 men carry the Y chromosome (that is some 16 million or 0.5% of the male population of the world) making them in direct line of descent from Genghis Khan, while his grandson Kublai Khan (and protector of Marco Polo) contributed by adding 30 virgins to his harem every year !

Maybe the aura of Mongolia is best conveyed in the words of the legendary Ferdynand Ossendowski in his Beasts, Men and Gods. Describing his escape from communist Siberia through Mongolia he feels that “Mongolia with her rude and terrible mountains, her limitless plains, covered with the widely strewn bones of the forefathers gave birth to Mystery. Her people frightened by the stormy passions of Nature, or lulled by her deathlike peace, feel her mystery”.

Wow, get those passports ready !

 

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part II) – From Moscow out!

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We began with an assembly at the Royal Aurora Hotel in Moscow. The travelers had gathered from various parts of the world. Some had taken a comfortable river cruise from St.Petersburg, most had been met after arrival at Domododevo Airport. En route to the city we were greeted by numerous hoardings featuring a large Gerard Depardieu, a new Russian passport holder (and 13% taxpayer), advertising something forgettable. Others announced the release of some torrid film called “Sin City 2”. There are many new Orthodox churches with beautifully gilded domes, countered by 7 storey Munich-style glass walled motor car showrooms. Traffic lights on major roads have a 60 second numbered countdown for drivers. We pass branches of  “Makdonalds” (several recently closed down in retaliation for sanctions, though officially on “health and hygiene” grounds). The Dostoyevsky monument stands out  in front of the Russian State Library. Nearby, a flower-selling cabin is offering a 24 hour service.

Unlike the old Soviet days, when even luxury hotels, like the huge Rossyia, were controlled by the floor ladies and it was advisable to bring your own toilet paper and rubber washbasin stoppers, our hotel was fully equipped (while the old Rossyia has been demolished  to be replaced by some complex inevitably designed by the ubiquitous Norman Foster). Like all Marriott managed hotels, the Aurora included a drawer containing a Bible, a Book of Mormon and a company mission book, in which Bill Marriott assures us that “if you treat your employees well, they’ll take care of the customer”. There were magazines offering very complicated watches, and cocktails, also a large catalogue of jewelry by ultra refined Boucheron from Paris (who have a branch in the hotel building). The nearby GUM department store even contains an unofficial but very Apple Store-like retailer.

The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express has prepared drinks, dinner and briefing in the elegant Petrovsky Room. Our fellow participants have come from Montparnasse and Monceau, Ballerat and Peppermint Grove, Hawick and Clapham, Totness and Cardiff. Some others from Anchorage and Manhattan, New Forest, Toronto and even Taiwan. All inspired by the romance of this journey, a rich mix of stories and experience.

We are introduced to our traveling on-board physician, Dr Judy, from the Cotswolds, and even our own Oxford Don, Professor Healey from St.Antony’s (so all aspects seem covered, taking note of Paul Theroux’s warning that travelers may not know where they are going, but tourists don’t know where they have been).

Next morning Golden Eagle have arranged a privileged early entry to the Kremlin Armoury buildings. We walk past President Putin’s office on our way to the building that contains the most important exhibits, including the Imperial Faberge Egg - Trans Siberian Railwayrenowned Fabergé display. This includes a tiny Trans-Siberian train of five carriages, which used to be rolled up inside an egg. It can stand freely, while the little mechanical engine can pull the carriages two whole inches.

On the way to the Kazansky station, we pass near Lubianka square. The ex-KGB building is being renovated. The organisation is now known as the Federal Security Bureau. There is talk of the Feliks Dzerzhinsky statue, removed in 1991, being returned. This founder of the Cheka, set up to counter so-called internal threats, ordered the execution of thousands of political opponents without trial. Now his bust is already back at the Moscow police headquarters. In a 2013 poll, some 45% of Russians would approve the return of the 15 ton monument. At present the memorial to the Victims of the Gulag stands near the empty original plinth. Dzerzhinsky himself was twice sent to Siberia during Czarist days, a reminder of a more recent deportee, the oligarch who developed the Siberian oilfields, Mikhail Khodorovsky, whose ordeal evolved from an economic and political opposition to a simple defense of his human rights. Sent to Siberia near Chita (where our train is scheduled to stop briefly  on the way to Khabrovsk and Vladivostok) in 2005, Khodorovsky was finally pardoned by President Putin and released last December. He is now based in Switzerland.
On the train, regular briefings/talks/debates are scheduled, as well as the 2-part BBC documentary  “Putin, Russia and the West” also providing a background to the Khodorovsky confrontation. Other topics will include a discussion on Stalin and a film on Genghis Khan. We will be fully invophotolved with the different regions every day and will hardly have time to access the comprehensive  and relevant DVD library on board.

For now, champagne awaits us in the Imperial Waiting Room of the station, our enthusiastic young train attendants are introduced, a band plays and we board the elegant blue coaches of the Trans-Siberian Express. There are fifteen carriages: accommodation for our 50 passengers, two restaurant cars, a bar lounge with live music, a kitchen car, a staff car and a generator. Each guest compartment includes private toilet and shower facilities. Secure safe-deposit boxes are a standard feature. The attendants take turns to be on duty 24 hours. Ready to begin our classic journey of over 10,600 kms, the train moves out, towards Tatarstan and its capital Kazan tomorrow.

 

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