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.

Mongolia Monday- Proverbs About Being A Mongol

Buddhist priest chats with two women, Baga Gazriin Chuluu mountain blessing naadam, July 2009

There are many proverbs in Mongolia concerning good and bad character traits. Many are meant to teach children how they are expected to act. Others are intended as reminders about how to get along in life.

A good character and name is very important and is shown (or not shown) in one’s actions:

Take care of your deel when it is new
Take care of your name when it is clean

Person who has bad character loses his name
Person who works hard will tell his name

Being humble is considered a very good character trait:

A large sea is calm
A knowledgeable person is humble

Many proverbs encourage people to work hard and finish what they start:

If you are bold, work will be finished
If you are persistent, happiness will come

Mongolia Monday- Book Review: Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World


This book is on my short list of “must reads” for anyone interested in Mongolia. It’s not simply a history of the Mongols and their empire, but what they did that still influences us today in ways that you might find quite surprising. Weatherford effectively demonstrates how the way of life dictated by the vicissitudes of living on the steppes of Central Asia formed Mongol society and, indeed, Genghis (hereinafter called by the more accurate rendition, “Chinggis”) Khan himself.

After reading “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”, I was left almost wishing that the Mongols had been able to keep going to the Atlantic and beyond. So much of what people know about them was, unusually, written by the “losers”, historians and chroniclers in the countries that the Mongols conquered. Not surprisingly, the emphasis is often on the destruction and disruption that they caused wherever their armies appeared. The only surviving source of information on Mongol history by the Mongols themselves that is available in English is “The Secret History of the Mongols”, a book that will deserve its own post once I’ve acquired the latest translation, which, with luck, will be this summer.

Chinggis Khan was not a man to take “no” for an answer and he and his sons and grandsons had the warriors and tactics to back it up. Being practical people, they went with what worked. Not reveling in, or particularly liking, bloodshed, their campaigns were designed to minimize it, at least for themselves. Against other armies, they used the same methods as when they hunted game on the steppes back home. Retreating to draw the opposing army onto favorable ground was a common tactic that seems to have worked every time. Against cities, they used Chinese-designed siege engines, re-routed at least one river and, in another siege, when the inhabitants had barricaded themselves within their city walls, built an entire second wall around the perimeter to demonstrate who was really in charge.

When the Mongol army arrived at a city, it was given the opportunity to surrender and if it did, then everyone, except leaders who could foment revolt, was pretty much allowed go on peaceably about their business, but under a Mongol administration. Defiance was met with total destruction, hence their reputation for violence and ruthlessness in the West.

The boundaries of the empire expanded until they were defeated by the Mameluke army of Egypt in the west, failed twice to conquer Japan in the east and were more or less defeated by the hot, humid climate to the south. Kublai Khan, Chinggis’ grandson, over the course of twenty years, defeated the Sung dynasty of China and founded the Yuan dynasty, which ruled for over 100 years until overthrown by rebels who established the Ming Dynasty. The other parts of the empire more or less faded away over time and the Mongols were assimilated into the local populations.

For most Westerners, that’s the end of the story. But as dramatic as it is, it’s what happened during the existence of the Mongol Empire that I found fascinating and which is the heart of this book.

The Mongols, over three generations and thirty years, created the largest land empire the world has ever seen. They created countries, Russia is one example, that hadn’t previously existed. Within that empire the Pax Mongolica reigned. It turns out that Chinggis Khan wanted peace for himself and his people. The irony, of course, is that he waged war for most of his life to achieve it.

So, how does any of this relate to the modern world? Well, here are a few highlights from the book…..

-Chinggis Khan established the supremacy of the rule of law, which he applied to himself the same as to the poorest herder. It’s known as The Great Law and was based, not on divine revelation or the codes of settled lands, but the customs and traditions of the nomadic steppe people. This at a time, the 13th century, when in Western Europe kings ruled by divine right, no rules need apply.

-Given that within his empire, virtually every religion, including Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, was represented, Chinggis Khan decreed total religious freedom for everyone, though he himself worshiped the traditional Mongol spirits and always had a shaman in attendance in his camps.

-The Mongols had no written language. Once they found themselves administering an empire that was almost 6000 miles from east to west, that had to change. Since the Uighers are closely related to the Mongols (Xinjiang in China in their homeland) and already had a perfectly serviceable writing system, Chinggis Khan simply adopted it. That, plus the addition of professional administrators from China and other countries like Persia, and bureaucratic paperwork, Mongol-style, was born.

-Most Americans have heard of the fabled Pony Express, which operated for a short time in the 19th century American West. The Mongols had the “arrow messengers”, a system of fast riders. The stations were about twenty miles apart and staffed by about twenty-five families. The system survived from the 13th to 18th centuries, when it had sixty-four stations. Chinggis Khan knew that efficient, reliable communication was essential for administering the empire.

-Under Khubilai Khan in China (the empire had split into four parts by that time), the Mongols: “guaranteed landowners their property rights, reduced taxes and improved roads and communication”. They reduced by almost half the number of capital offenses that had existed under their predecessors, substituted fines for physical punishment and moved to limit the use of torture (evidence had to be gathered first; physical compulsion was a last resort) at the same time European authorities, both church and state, were expanding it through, among other things, the creation of institutions like the Inquisition, no evidence sought or used.

-Khubilai Khan greatly expanded the use of paper money, which Marco Polo remarked on, creating opportunities for both credit and bankruptcy. No one could declare bankruptcy to avoid debts more than twice. A third time could lead to execution. The money was made from mulberry bark, cut into various sized rectangles, marked and stamped.

-Unlike the Romans and their enthusiasm for blood sports, the Mongols had a cultural abhorrence, mentioned earlier, of bloodshed. They had no interest in pitting animals against each other for entertainment. Execution of criminals was not a public spectacle as was so prevalent in Europe.

-What made Chinggis Khan’s, and his descendant’s, empire tick was trade, on a massive scale. Under the Pax Mongolica, the Silk Road flourished like never before or since. The quantity and quality of goods that flowed between east and west was incredible. A partial list of what the author mentions includes: silk (of course, and in massive amounts), bronze knives, wooden puppets, iron kettles, board games, perfume and makeup, musk, indigo, jewelry, wine, honey, cinnabar and sandalwood. It was the closest thing to a global economy until relatively recently.

The author, Jack Weatherford, has produced a compelling, compulsively readable account of how one man, starting from nothing, even being kept a slave for some period of time, rose to become the ruler of the world’s largest empire and, in doing so, laid much of the groundwork for the world we know today.

And…. he has a new book coming out on Feb. 16, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued his Empire.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004

Mongolia Monday

Particularly since Mongolia made one of its rare appearances in international news last week, I thought I would start to post a photo or two of my travels there on Monday mornings, along with new paintings and drawings with Mongolian subjects. My husband and I and another artist are currently set to go back ( my third trip, his first) on August 24. My hope is to blog while on the trip when I can.

In the meantime, I know that Mongolia is still a mysterious, exotic place to most Americans who only know the country from stories about Chinggis Khan (the more correct spelling of Genghis Khan). I think the riot caught everyone off-guard and, I would venture to guess, that most Mongolians did not approve of, and are quite possibly embarrassed by, what happened.

Alcohol abuse (coupled with poverty and hardship) has been a problem in the country for a long time, partly due to the introduction of vodka by the Russians many years ago when Mongolia was tied very closely to the Soviet Union. I have read that the younger generation is moving away from hard liquor and choosing beer instead, but, in any case, booze appears to be a factor in what happened, as at least one news report I read stated that 600 mostly young men had been taken away to the Mongolian equivalent of a “drunk tank”.

Mongolia is sitting on huge deposits of valuable mineral resources like copper and uranium. How the income is handled from the mining, which involves foreign companies, appears to be a point of serious internal political disagreement. This is a young democracy, less than twenty years old, but the citizens have expressed their views forcefully and in public many times before now. This time, for whatever reason, it got completely out of hand.

So, here are some photos of Ulaanbaatar that are typical of the city and the people, who go about their business day to day just like the rest of us. They catch the bus, talk on cell phones, go grocery shopping and vacation in the countryside. They can eat out in restaurants serving a variety of cuisines, including American, Korean, German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese and, of course, Mongolian (I adore buuz, the steamed meat turnovers), although many can’t afford that yet. And an increasing number speak at least a little English. I did love the fact that one often sees people dressed in “del”, the national garment.

(There are lots more photos from both my trips on my website)

Street Scene on Peace Avenue

The famous State Department Store, which has an entire floor dedicated to Mongolian crafts, music, art, books, etc. A must-go if you’re in Ulaanbaatar for the first time

Sukhbaatar Square, with the Palace of Culture on the left, one of my all-time favorite buildings

Gandan Monastery in the background with the Shaman Center and a small ger “district” in the foreground

Couple at Gandan Monastery taking a break

Another family at Gandan Monastery