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- Next Trip Coming Up Soon!

I’m now one month from departure for my next trip to Mongolia. I don’t have a specific itinerary yet, and probably won’t until I arrive, but here’s some of the things I hope to do and see this time around:

A nice little serving of buuz

-I’m one of the administrators for a Facebook fan page called “Buuz”, which are dearly beloved steamed meat dumplings. Mongols make and eat zillions of them for Tsagaan Sar, the Mongol New Year. When you ask a Mongol living in another country what they miss most, “buuz” is often the answer. We have over 700 fans now! And it turns out that the person who started the page, an Italian guy who is married to a Mongol woman, is going to be in Mongolia the same time as me. So we’ve announced a get-together for “Buuz People” in Ulaanbaatar on July 13 at the (no fooling) Grand Khan Irish Pub. Who knows who will show up, but it should be fun.

Yaks, Gun-Galuut July 2009

-It appears that the first weekend of August that there will be a Yak Festival somewhere in the Khangai Mountains west of Ulaanbaatar. Now, how could I miss that?

Horse race finish, National Naadam July 2009

-I would like to get to a number of Naadam horse races, both the national one and at least one or two local ones to get more painting reference. I also want to get a lot more photos of the herders and their horses.

Closeup of Chinngis Khan statue east of Ulaanbaatar July 2009

-There’s not much left of the ancient Mongol capital of Kharkhorin. It was sacked by a Ming Dynasty army and then most of the remaining stone was used to construct Erdene Zuu Monastery. I would like to visit both.

Tahki mare with two foals, Hustai National Park Sept. 2008

-For wildlife watching this trip, I want to go back to Hustai National Park and see the takhi in the summertime. I didn’t have time to go there last year. And I plan to return to Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve for argali, ibex and whatever else comes within camera range.

I’m tweaking my equipment for this trip and will cover that in future posts. At the moment, I’ve gotten a new wind and moisture proof fleece jacket from REI that I really like so far and a new Kata daypack for carrying my camera equipment in the field. More on both next week.

The 9th AFC Flag Expedition Begins!

I departed on the 9th Flag Expedition at about 10:15am, July 5, from my home near McKinleyville, California. We live less than ten minutes from the airport, which is handy.

Flew to San Francisco, got checked in to the next flight, which was to Korea. My flight schedule required at overnight stay, so I’m writing this at the Hyatt Regency Incheon, which is about four minutes from the airport. It’s now 7:30pm, the evening of July 6.

The flight went fine. Read and listened to music.

The food service was close to UA Business Class quality. Two real meals. I had, are you sitting down, beefsteak, potatoes, broccoli¬† and carrots, with two salads. a lettuce one with feta cheese and a pasta one with shrimp and about a 1×2″ slice of smoked salmon. Chocolate mousse for dessert. Not big portions, but nicely presented and Free. They even brought wine around once. Real wine in the bottle. The second, smaller meal was a choice between fish and Korean rice. I went for the latter. It wasn’t quite to my taste but the Koreans around me seemed to like it just fine. The flight attendants were constantly coming through with water and juice.

The only downside was that they had everyone pull the shades down for almost all of the flight, so no real light for around eight hours.

When I came out of the plane there was a row of tables with people wearing surgical masks standing behind them. We had been given a “health certificate” to fill out on the plane. So we all had to walk up to the table, hand them the piece of paper and stand while they held a thermometer up to our necks, which only took a moment. I was amused to notice that the guy who did me didn’t even look at it. Such is travel.

I go back to the airport tomorrow morning for my flight to Ulaanbaatar. I like the hotel I’ll be staying in, but the internet connection was difficult when we were there last year. If it’s a problem, my fallback will be to post from one of the cafes that have wireless internet.

Final notes for now:

I use an “anti-jet lag” program from a book I found many years ago called “Overcoming Jet Lag”. The idea is to use a combination of things to push the body clock to the new time zone. It works pretty well as far as minimizing the effects of, in this case, a nine time zone shift. I’m very (very) tired, but more or less functional. Typing is being a bit of a challenge, but it’s helping me stay, sort of,¬† awake so that I can get on the new schedule.

Equipment reports:

Timbuk2 Messenger Bag- Epic Win. Laptop comes out and goes back quickly when going through security. Very stable when slipped over the handle of my roll-on. Easy to get to stuff. Definitely reduces airport transit wear and tear over carrying a day pack.

First Class Sleeper- Epic Win. I didn’t get a change to mention this product before, but it’s essentially an air mattress for back support when flying in cattle car economy class. Google the name and take a look. All I can say is, it works. And it was all of $29.95. Almost 11 hours from San Francisco to Seoul, Korea and I don’t feel like a candidate for traction. Definitely a happy back compared to what it could have been with no lumbar support.


Hurry Up and Wait- Departure Day, August 24

Sitting in the waiting area at the Eureka-Arcata Airport, which is less than ten minutes from our house. The ceiling, due to our “summer air conditioning” aka ground fog, is well under the minimum of 500′ for planes to land. Our plane is en route from San Francisco, which is good news. Our flight on it was scheduled to leave at 8:46am. Current estimate is around 10am. San Francisco to Seoul leaves around 1pm, so we should be ok.

Neighbors and friends who know about the trip have asked the last few days or so if we’re “excited”. Well, sort of. David and I have done a fair amount of international travel. We’ve both had to be focused the last week or so on trip prep. I came down with a minor cold last Monday afternoon and had to perform triage on what I could get done before departure. He had to get his business work in order to be able to leave things in decent shape. And then, especially these days, one doesn’t really know how “challenging” the “travel experience” is going to be. So here we are, starting our grand trip to Mongolia with an hour + delay. It reminds me of the scenes in Star Wars where Luke, Leia and Han anxiously anticipate the Millenium Falcon’s jump to light speed and…….nothing happens.

I’ll get excited when we’ve settled into our (thanks to frequent flier upgrades) Business Class seats and are rolling down the runway in San Francisco.

However, with free wi-fi at the local airport, life goes on. Off to get a cup of coffee.