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October 16, 2019

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Journey in the vast grasslands of Genghis Khan

Inner Mongolia, a land of vast azure blue skies, starry nights, expansive grasslands and rich cultural history, has long sparked curiosity and wonder.

One can’t help but marvel at how Genghis Khan came from a humble, nomadic tribe to conquer vast swathes of Central Asia in the 13th century and establish the largest land empire in history.

My trip to Inner Mongolia on China’s border with Mongolia was truly a memorable experience. The autonomous region still retains much of the traditional Mongolian culture and language. In fact, the region still uses traditional Mongolian script, while Mongolia has adopted Mongolian Cyrillic.

In Inner Mongolia, Mongols are the second-largest ethnic group, comprising 17 percent of the population. Traditionally they are a nomadic group, descendants of Genghis Khan.

However, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, they settled in permanent homes with the establishment of rural collectives.

Many present-day Mongolians regard Genghis Khan as the founding father of the ancient Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and pay their respects to the once fearsome leader at a mausoleum built in 1954 to honor him.

The empire that Genghis Khan founded helped to enhance trade and cultural exchange between the East and the West. His achievements have had huge influence on China’s history.

He is credited with bringing the ancient Silk Road under one cohesive political administration, which facilitated greater trade. It might also be said he was an early advocate of what today is China’s Belt and Road initiative.

The Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in the city of Ordos is a shrine to his feats. The fearsome leader came to power after he united the nomadic tribes in Northeast Asia.

When Genghis Khan died in 1227, the Mongol empire he founded ruled over a substantial part of Central Asia and China.

The actual tomb of Genghis Khan has never been discovered and remains a mystery.

He specifically requested he be buried in an unmarked grave, so Mongols worshiped him at the Mausoleum Temple.

The temple is also known by its traditional name, the Lord’s Enclosure, because the shrine never contained Genghis Khan’s remains.

The mausoleum today still serves as a site for Mongols to worship Genghis Khan as part of their native religion Mongolian Shamanism. The relics at the temple are replicas because most of the original artifacts were destroyed during the cultural revolution.

The mausoleum is in traditional Mongolian style and occupies 19,305 square kilometers. The present structure contains three main halls shaped like Mongolian yurts. Corridors link the halls.

The main hall contains Genghis Khan’s headdresses, accessories, saddles, weapons, carts and other artifacts. It stands 26 meters high and features a 5-meter-tall marble statue of Genghis Khan and a map of the territories he conquered.

Connecting corridors are filled with paintings and frescos extolling his achievements and events that led to the founding of the Yuan Dynasty by Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson.

Genghis Khan’s fourth son Tolui — the father of Kublai Khan — and his wife are buried in the east hall. The west hall contains nine banners and suluding, also known as the iron spearheads.

The nine banners represent the nine generals who followed Genghis Khan on his conquests. Legend has said that his soul went into the spearheads, thus the suluding is considered sacred among Mongolians.

As a religious site, the mausoleum embraces the animistic beliefs of Mongolian Shamanism, which reveres Genghis Khan as an embodiment of Tenger, also known as the God of Heaven.

One of the distinct features of the religion is “ovoos,” or sacrificial altars shaped like mounds that are thought to represent heavenly gods, mountain gods and other deities. To ensure that their prayers are answered, natives walk around a mound three times.

Apart from historical and scenic sites in Inner Mongolia, visitors can venture out into the grasslands to experience the essence of Mongolian culture.

The 71,400-hectare Xilamuren Grassland, about 88 kilometers from the capital Hohhot, is popular with domestic and overseas visitors. It sits at an elevation of 1,700 meters.

In Mongol culture, horse riding, shooting and wrestling are essential skills required to survive the harsh climate of the grasslands.

Visitors can try their hand at activities ranging from archery to riding horses or camels.

They can dine on traditional cuisine like roast whole lamb and “kumis,” or horse milk wine, at feasts featuring local folk performances.

On the banks of the Xilamuren River is the Puhui Temple, a Lama holy site. Visitors can see a plaque inscribed in four different language — Manchu, Mongolian, Mandarin and Tibetan — and visit main halls like Daxiong Hall and the Hall of Four Heavenly Kings.

Another visitor site on the grassland is the Hongge’er Aobao. Such stone piles are used for worship. Every year, local Mongols come to the site, and at the end of the sacrificial activities, the traditional Naadam Festival begins.

Naadam means games and entertainment in Mongolian. In 2010, the Naadam Festival was inscribed on the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO.

This traditional festival is held in July and August every year. It stirs up the excitement level across the grassland, where men engage in archery, horse racing and wrestling competitions. The activities end with a nighttime bonfire party where locals sing and dance.

The Xilamuren Grassland provides unique accommodation. Visitors can stay in Mongolian gers — a version of dome-shaped yurt with a roof made of straight poles attached to a circular crown. The wood-lattice structures are covered with waterproof wool felt or animal skins.

The sturdy tents, about 3 meters high, have sheltered Mongols for over 1,000 years. They can accommodate from five to 15 people. A burning wooden stove in the middle is used for cooking and for warmth in winter.

The gers were home to nomadic herders, designed to be easily erected or dismantled.

The shape of the yurts is ideal for the harsh climate. It is designed to withstand strong winds. A ger’s door always faces south to avoid the harsh northeastern Siberian winds.

Sleeping in a ger is an unforgettable experience that binds a visitor to the stark but fascinating environment of Inner Mongolia and to the hardy, outgoing people who live on the grasslands.

The best time to visit the Xilamuren Grassland is from June to September, when the grass is green, flowers are blooming and the weather is comfortable.


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