Book reviews

Mongolia Monday- Explorers and Travelers: Friar Giovanni DiPlano Carpini

Mongol warriors escorting Chinggis Khan's mother, Hoelun: National Naadam opening ceremonies, Ulaanbaatar, July 2009

Mongolia has always been considered an incredibly remote and exotic destination by most westerners. The shorthand expression for the farthest a person could be from any place has been to say that they’ve gone all the way to “Outer Mongolia”.

The reality today is that it is quite simple to get there from the United States and Europe. I fly to San Francisco (one hour) to Seoul, South Korea (11+hours) to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia (three hours). There are non-stop flights to Ulaanbaatar from Berlin and Moscow. But before air travel, before trains, before the country was essentially closed to foreigners by the communist government from 1921 to 1990 (other than the Russians who were stationed there), Mongolia was a challenging place to get to and travel in.

This will be an occasional series about westerners who have traveled to Mongolia in times past and left written accounts of their experience.

Epic. Journey.

First up is a man known in English as John of Plano Carpini, sent to Mongolia by Pope Innocent IV in April of 1245 to find out all he could about the “Tartars” who had beaten every army of European knights sent against them, but had then mysteriously vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

He and his party were stopped for a time in Russia at the camp of Batu, one of the most important Mongol princes, who finally ordered them to travel on to the court of Guyuk, who was the grandson of Chinggis Khan through his father, Ogedei Khan. 106 days and 3,000 miles later, in July of 1246, they arrived at the Mongol imperial capital of Kharkhorin. Carpini was in time to witness the Great Khural during which Guyuk was elected Great Khan.

Guyuk declined their invitation to become a Christian, although there had been Nestorian Christians present and living in the empire for some time. He did, however, give Carpini a letter to take back to the Pope demanding that he travel to Kharkhorin and submit to Mongol authority.

One page of the letter from Guyuk to the Pope

Guyuk allowed them to begin their journey home in November. They re-traced their route across the length of the Central Asian steppes through the winter and on into spring, then summer, finally arriving at Kiev in June of 1247. Traveling on, they delivered the Khan’s letter to the Pope in Lyon, France, who was not inclined to obey.

This epic journey was really a spy mission. The Mongols had withdrawn from Europe, it turned out, due to the death of Ogedei Khan (the cause is presumed to have been acute alcoholism) and the requirement to return to Mongolia to choose his successor, but the westerners, not knowing any of this, had no choice but to assume that they might return at any time and pick up where they left off, on the verge of entering central Europe. Carpini’s mission, which he courageously carried out, was to gather all the information he could, not only about the Mongols themselves, about whom nothing was known, but everything he could find out about their military: numbers of men, armor, weapons, tactics. Of course, if this had become known to the Mongols, it would have been a one-way trip for all of them.

The edition I have.

Once home, he wrote it all down in a report for the Pope, which has become the book, “The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call The Tartars”, the first account of the Mongols by a westerner. It has been translated into English and is a fascinating read for anyone interested in history, Central Asia, the military, travel and the Mongols themselves. You can get a hardcopy translation by Erik Hildinger at Amazon or read a free online version, translated by Richard Hakluyt here, which also has various download options.

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