Chinggis Khaan (or Genghis Khan) and Me
John Man is an author and Mongolia specialist who has a special interest in the history of Genghis Khan. Panoramic Journeys was delighted to be able to interview John, who has been friends with the company for a number of year, on his return from the literary Festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
1) How did your love affair with Mongolia begin? What initially sparked your interest?
While working as an exchange teacher in Vienna I became intrigued by the Iron Curtain. I drove out to the Czech border and stared over the wire, longing to travel beyond it. When I returned to Oxford for my final year reading German and French at Keble College, I saw on the notice board a request for anyone to join an expedition to Mongolia. All I knew was that Mongolia was a Warsaw Pact member. I suggested that as a linguist I could act as interpreter. There was one little problem… I did not speak Mongolian! So after my degree I booked myself into SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London) with the great Mongolist Charles Bawden. The expedition never happened, of course. It was a crazy idea! After that I joined Reuters, went into publishing and forgot all about Mongolia – until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when suddenly Mongolia opened up. A publishing contract led to a summer in the Gobi, and my first book on the subject.
2) How often do you travel to Mongolia these days? Where are your favourite places in the country to visit?
My trip to the Gobi showed me that the key, of course, is Genghis Khan. I could not rival academics. What I could do, as a writer, was travel. There were mysteries to be solved, in particular where he died and where he is buried. So I went in his footsteps, and have been back almost every year, mostly to the Mongol heartland, Khentii.
3) Mongolia celebrates Independence Day on 26th November – what would Genghis Khan make of Mongolia’s place in the world today? What would he be doing differently if he was still in charge?!
He would have been gratified by the conquests of his grandson, Kublai, who conquered all China. He would not have been surprised by the fall of the dynasty, because they had abandoned the nomad roots which made the conquests possible in the first place. Heaven, which had been on their side, had become displeased. But he would have been somewhat reassured by the survival for 800 years of the nation he founded.4) What lessons can we learn from Genghis today? Indeed, what is his legacy?His legacy is the impact of the empire across Eurasia. There are today 23 nations whose history cannot be understood without reference to Genghis. His most significant legacy is modern China, which is pretty much as created by Kublai, inspired by his grandfather Genghis’s dream of world conquest. The major difference between then and now is that Mongolia, once part of Kublai’s empire, became independent a century ago. Genghis’s legacy reaches from the distant past into the future.
5) Why does Genghis remain such an enduring figure in people’s imaginations today?
He was a brilliant leader. He created the world’s greatest land empire. Starting as an illiterate nomad, he constructed a bureaucracy with its own script. No wonder his heirs assumed that Heaven was on their side! Of course, he has a reputation for being ferocious, and the Mongols were always going to be the elite. But he was no racist – he was always ready to employ talent, whether Chinese, Persian, or Turkic. The combination of ruthlessness, success, and flexibility makes him unique among leaders.
6) How was your trip to Almaty for the Central Asia Literary Festival?
Firstly, I was struck by the intensity of the Kazakh admiration for Genghis Khan. Since his family intermarried with Turkic tribes, he is considered as much Turkic as Mongol, and therefore as much the father of Kazakhstan as Mongolia. After my talk, a dozen Kazakhs gathered round, eager to insist on their direct descent from the great man. One of them gave me an immense chart following the family down about 40 generations to the present day.
Secondly – and this also has a little to do with Genghis – I heard that the coming Netflix 10-part film on Marco Polo, launching on December 12, was partly filmed in Kazakhstan, one of the locations being the gorgeous Charyn Canyon. It’s only 200 kilometres from Almaty, so I drove out to see it. Yes, it’s a fabulous location all rock- towers and cliffs, especially suitable for Marco’s escape from a bunch of Karagunas, who were freebooting Mongol marauders left over from Genghis’s invasion. Check it out for Christmas and consider buying my book on Marco Polo which tells the real story!
John Man has lead an overland expedition for Panoramic Journeys guests to sites in Mongolia connected with Genghis Khan, offering a unique insight into the man and his legacy. If you are interested in joining a similar trip in the future, do get in touch.