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Ghengis Khan & the Mongols

In 1206 a former Mongolian goat herder named Temujin was named the Ghengis Khan – or great leader- of ‘All those who live in felt tents.’ By this stage he had already united the warring tribes of his land and conquered a swath of central Asia, Northern China, Southern Russia, and was thrusting ever onwards towards Eastern Europe. His mounted armies sweeping across the steppe moved at lightning pace covering up to 100 miles per day –winter and summer-, and although usually outnumbered by more than two to one they easily crushed resistance. After pausing to water and feed their horses they would press on, leaving only pyramids of skulls where towns and cities once thrived. These warriors routinely saddled up in the middle of the night with lard smeared all over their faces to push on in –50 degrees, sometimes drinking their own horse’s blood just to sustain themselves. There were rumblings in London and Paris of an unknown horse-riding people spreading out across the steppe like wildfire, but no one really knew from where or under whose guidance. This was just the beginning of an empire that would eventually stretch from Korea in the east to Hungary and Poland in the west, Siberia and Russia in the North and Vietnam and Arabia in the south. At 13.8 million square miles it was the largest in history (the British empire was 12.7 million). In fact, at the height of the empire the hordes were poised to takeover Europe. Then, with scouts already inside the suburbs of Vienna things took a dramatic turn that changed the course of history; their great Khan chief died. Out of tradition everyone packed up and returned to Mongolia to elect a new leader. In the process conquering Europe was forgotten. Although the empire gradually receded over the following centuries these mounted warriors had left their mark on history and their memory is still deeply entrenched in the minds of people today. Unlike any Empire since, the Mongolians were essentially nomads, moving seasonally to better pastures. They had little respect for our understanding of civilisation and its trappings, and the evidence of their own history today cannot be found in the form of self-built ancient cities, literature, or architecture. Their history was written by the vanquished, not the conquerors, and many argue that this has led to a heavily biased view of the Mongols in the west. In reality they were one of the most sophisticated peoples of the time with a great appreciation for art and culture; these weren’t just barbarians. One of the many positive outcomes attributed to the Mongol empire by some historians was the opening of the Silk Route to the west. To explore the legacy of Ghengis Khan today one has to voyage deep into the consciousness and land of the present-day Mongolians who are still very much nomadic and renowned for legendary horsemanship; in some ways not much has changed since Ghengis’ time. It must also involve getting a feel for the whisperings of the steppe; what it was like to forge across its ocean-like vastness on horseback, to drink fermented horse milk day in day out, and live in peculiar round felt tents (a yurt or ger). Furthermore it would make sense to follow in the Khan footsteps to discover the kaleidoscope of people, cultures and landscapes left in his empire’s wake. The surviving legacies from Kazakhstan, a traditionally nomadic society, to the Ukraine, where the Mongols exposed the soft underbelly of civilisation, will be better understood arriving by horse from the steppe just as Ghengis did himself. In the process some of our own misconceptions about this largely inaccessible part of the world may be illuminated and the history better understood. The route of Tim’s journey will begin from Qaraqorum, the ancient capital of the Khan Empire in Mongolia, and finish on the Danube in Hungary, hence reaching the most westerly boundary of the Empire. All of the countries that he will pass through –Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary- were part of the empire and have been heavily effected by its rule. Whilst the journey will not be a blow, by blow reconstruction of the army’s push west –there is no one route anyway-, it will touch on many historical paths of travel, and Tim will be seeking out current day connections where possible. Importantly, Tim will be riding the same horses as the Mongols, experiencing the same harsh conditions, enduring the same physical hardships, and in many cases living on a very similar diet. All of this will add to the sense of following “in the footsteps of Ghengis Khan.”