Tuesday, July 23

Climbing Khongoryn Els

I sleep fitfully. The night is filled with howls from afar. They can't possibly be wolves (there are grey wolves in the hills, but any propensity to howl within earshot of a ger should have been eliminated from the gene-pool long ago), so I conclude they are dogs from nomads' camps. Later I learn they are baby-camels separated from their mothers by the herders, howling for milk.

The higher elevations of these deserts contain areas of steppe that reach 9000 ft - in these parts might reside the elusive snow leopard and the Gobi bear. Vast tracts of sand dunes stretch a hundred miles long and a dozen miles wide, reaching 800 ft or so at the highest, their shape and color shifting under wind and sun. The most famous of the sand formations is in front of us - the Khongoryn Els - also known as the Duut Mankhan, the Singing Sands. Legend says that the desert is magic for it speaks, singing of the bravery of the ancestors; when the wind is right the dunes thrum.

Behind the dunes is the last rocky tail of the Altai, purple or black in play of light. At the foot of the dunes runs the Khongor Gol, a 3-mile-long river that is fed by the mountains and that disappears into the desert - its short course an emerald ribbon where horses and camel herds congregate. The sulphurous waters are supposed to have all kinds of healing properties, a couple of Mongol families on 'water-cure' camping-trips have pitched tent in this oasis, and are collecting the water in giant milk-cans, one-dribbling-cupful at a time, from the deepest pools on the riverbed. Clouds swirl-in and speed-away; the sun rises, tilts and sets; the green, gold and purple change shades all day.

The Hiking Life has put together a list of 100 classic hikes; alongside the trek to Manas-sarovar and climbing the Inca Trail is 'wandering among the dunes at Khongoryn Els.' We rise early, and leave camp at 7, to start our climb up the dunes in the cooler part of the day.  Once on top of the first ridge, the vista stretches over the Western Beauty, the Tsogt Ovoo pass through it (whence we came), and, on the other side of the valley, the Altai with the short swift course of the Khongor. Stallions bite each other and roll around in the green grass far below, their snorts and neighs float up to us. The sand heats up.

(A plug for our base the Gobi Discovery 2 ger camp - location, location. Also, belying our expectation of ger-food, beetroot-with-feta-cheese and delicious salads, served up with smiles by an energetic teenage Mongolian staff, who all cluck after Mr. M and look crestfallen if he happens to miss a meal or a step.)

Monday, July 22

Ger Camp At Khongoryn Els

We sit out the sandstorm at our ger camp - partly in the SUV; partly, when the blistering gusts have waned a bit, in the eating-section of the main camp; and partly (once the staff darting back-and-forth in the lee of the yurts have set up our quarters) inside our ger itself. Bambe tells us to expect a yurt awash with sand; but in reality it is quite snug and sandfree inside, even though the chimney hole had open, all through the sandstorm, a little eye of an opening in the awning, recessed and cleverly facing away from the wind. Once inside, surrounded by the trellised layers of felt, you hardly feel the storm raging without; it takes 3-4 hours to blow itself out, and in its wake comes a brief rainshower of fat, cold, spattering drops. Then, a lingering cinder sunset.

At 3 a.m., I go outside to see the stars. My LED-torch lying on the sand creates a wide saucer of blue illumination as I try to set up a tripod, bathing in light a desert jerboa that jumps several feet clear of the ground and vanishes into the dark. Silent wings that had been ready to pounce glide by in a miss, the desert eagle screeches and soars back high into a sky that is now sandless and cloudless. I settle down to watch the Saptarshi -- close, like white peaches ready to pluck out of the Milky Way.

Sunday, July 21

Sandstorm In The Gobi

After a long day of driving over the desert, it is impossible not to wonder if our driver knows where he is going. (He has mentioned that he last drove out to Khongor two years ago.) Driving across the Gobi is not done by signs or even landmarks as far as I can tell, it is by intuition, memory and guesswork. Quite often, the faint tracks in the desert will split into two, and our driver will hesitate; he will take one track and start muttering, only to change his mind after ten minutes, abruptly veer off at ninety dregees, and find the other track we almost did not take. At other times we will leave an established-looking trail and trundle off-track over virgin scrub, and eventually another trail of some kind will appear. The mountains that march on to our left (as well as the phone GPS) give me some comfort.

The ranges close in on us after five hours. How much farther? "Fifty kilometers. Maybe."

We drive on for another hour. Higher up in the hills, he gets a bearing on the pass, on the other side of which lie the Khongor sands. How much farther? "Seventy kilometers. Maybe."

Past Tsogt Ovoo, we realize the clouds over the far dunes are not made of water, but billowing sand. By now, the Gobi Discovery ger camp is visible in the desert far below, the specks of its tents white against the yellow backdrop of the Khongoryn dunes. The wall of sand swirls towards us even as we pull out all stops and hurtle downhill to the safety of the gers. All at once the sandstorm is upon us.


Saturday, July 20

Gurvan Saikhan

We are a day's hard driving WNW from Dalanzadgad, having covered 200-odd kms over dirt track or, at times, of driving straight over steppe. A grey cloud hangs over the Gurvan Saikhan:  the neighboring desert has been found to hold some of the largest deposits of coal that are yet to be developed in the world. With their immediate proximity to China’s ravenous energy markets, the first small mines have already been opened around Dalanzadgad.  Truck traffic to these sites is kicking up dust clouds that can reach far into the park. As coal mining expands, there are concerns about what will happen to the scarce water, which is likely to end up contaminated by the mines. Our driver talks about how the desert tracks are getting chewed up by mining-traffic. "Every random person in Dalanzadgad borrowed money, bought a truck, and rented it out to a mine," he says. "Thankfully the price of coal has retreated, otherwise this place would be one giant pothole by now."

This area was first partially protected in 1965, preserving the Yolyn-Am region, a valley often covered in ice, deep in the East Saikhan Mountains. In 1993 the new Mongolian Parliament resolved to expand its area to include the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, as well as precious paleontological sites around Nemegt, Khermen Tsav, and those along the Zulganai River.  Overall, the Gurvan Saikhan park is about twice the size of Yellowstone. The sand dunes we are driving to are amongst the longest in Asia, continuing over a span of 100 miles. Despite the forbidding climate, the Gurvan Saikhan is still rich in flora and fauna. There are myriad bird species, as well as famous animals like the snow leopards, wild camels, argali, lynx, pygmy jerboa, and gazelles. The park also has maybe 600 or more types of plants, many of which only bloom after (very infrequent) rain.

The park is also home to about a thousand nomadic herding households, each possessing a few hundred head of livestock. Since the transition to a post-Soviet economic regime (c. 1993), when most livestock negdels (collectives) were disbanded and livestock were privatized, due to the incentives of private ownership livestock numbers have increased dramatically. Livestock numbers for the Omnogovi aimag and soums (an administrative unit similar to a county) located in the park reveal an ever-increasing trend. For the aimag and the park soums there have been ~13% increases annually in total livestock and sheep units since 1992 - compounded, this is an 1150% increase from then to now. Since 1992 the number of herders in those soums located partially in the park have also increased by 25%. Livestock grazing can have positive as well as negative influences on plant species, but overgrazing will no doubt result in a loss of habitat for wild ungulates, and any large declines in their population will, equally likely, cause the predator populations to collapse.  A number of rare plant species - Amygdalus mongolica a desert relative of the almond, the endangered white-flowered srrub of the arid desert Potaninia mongolica whose foliage is palatable to wild camels, the blue spired  Caryopteris mongolica that can carpet the desert with violet - are all utilized extensively by livestock and by herders for fuel, construction wood, or both. As we drive through the lower reaches of the park, there is very little flora-management in evidence: grazing herds of horse, sheep and goats are everywhere.

The sweet smell of saxaul (haloxylon ammodendron) - reminiscent of chewed cloves - permeates the air, like sage after rain. And the wind, everywhere.

Friday, July 19

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine

Chingis Khan's grandsons invaded Europe in 1241 with three armies. One army smashed an alliance of Poland and of various Christian military orders, led by Henry II the Pious of Silesia, in the battle of Legnica. A second army crossed the Carpathian mountains and a third followed the Danube. The armies swept up everything in their paths, and then converged to crush Hungary in 1241, routing the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohi whose aftermath killed half of Hungary's then-population. The armies then rampaged across Hungary and, by 1242, had extended their control into Austria, Czech Moravia and Southern Rus. After sacking Kiev, Batu Khan sent a smaller group of troops to Poland, destroying Lublin and defeating an inferior Polish army. The Mongols then reached Polaniec on the Czarna Hańcza, where the local Voivode warlords attacked them with Cracovian knights; the Mongols broke through the Polish ranks and defeated them. The opertions' tactician was Subotai, and the overall  commanders were Batu Khan and Kaadan.

Historians regard the Mongol raids and invasions - of Europe as well of Transoxiana and Baghdad - as some of the deadliest conflicts in human history. It has been said that the Mongols brought terror on a scale not seen again until the world wars and wars of imperialism of the 20th century. It has also been said that the Mongol invasions induced population displacement on a scale never seen before. While Europe was being invaded, however, the Great Chingis Khan had died in December 1241, and upon hearing the news in 1242, all princes of the blood rushed back to Mongolia to elect a new Khan; so there was a lull in the sack of Europe.

During this lull, fear and trepidation were the main currency among the courts of Eastern Europe.  In 1245, Pope Innocent IV dispatched two Franciscans, Lawrence of Portugal and John of Plano Carpini, to travel to the Mongol, or 'Tartar' as the Christians called them, kingdom.  This journey is recounted by Friar John in his work, History of the Mongols, and also reported by later travelers.  John had travelled widely through Mongol lands a decade before Marco Polo was even born.

Friar John, or Giovanni da Pian del Carpine as his name is written in Italian, was an old man - around 65 at the time. As a papal legate, he bore a letter from the Pope to the Great Khan. Behind his mission there may also have been the stirrings of a new policy - converting these wolf-worshipping Mongols to Christianity, followed by harnessing their military prowess to create a joint front against Islam.

Starting from Lyon (where the Pope was then resident) on Easter day of 1245, John was joined at Wrocław by Benedykt Polak, another friar, appointed to act as interpreter. Their route passed by Kiev, entered the 'Tatar' posts at Kaniv, and then ran across the Nepere to the Don and Volga - John is the first European to give us the modern names for these rivers. On the Volga stood the Ordu, or camp, of Batu, the notorious destroyer of Eastern Europe and supreme Mongol commander on the western frontiers of the empire.  Here the envoys had to pass between two fires to remove possible injurious thoughts and poisons, before being presented to Batu Khan at the beginning of April 1246.

For a monk, John turned out to be a quite astute student of war; he describes the ways the Mongols conduct war, as well as giving advice on how they could be successfully fought when they resumed their invasion of Europe.

These men, that is to say the Tartars, are more obedient to their masters than any other men in the world, be they religious or seculars; they show great respect to them nor do they lightly lie to them. They rarely or never contend with each other in word, and in action never. Fights, brawls, wounding, murder are never met with among them. Nor are robbers and thieves who steal on a large scale found there; consequently their dwellings and the carts in which they keep their valuables are not secured by bolts and bars. If any animals are lost, whoever comes across them either leaves them alone or takes them to men appointed for this purpose; the owners of the animals apply for them to these men and they get them back without any difficulty. They show considerable respect to each other and are very friendly together, and they willingly share their food with each other, although there is little enough of it. They are also long-suffering. When they are without food, eating nothing at all for one or two days, they do not easily show impatience, but they sing and make merry as if they had eaten well. On horseback they endure great cold and they also put up with excessive heat. Nor are they men fond of luxury; they are not envious of each other; there is practically no litigation among them. No one scorns another but helps him and promotes his good as far as circumstances permit.

They are quickly roused to anger with other people and are of an impatient nature; they also tell lies to others and practically no truth is to be found in them. At first indeed they are smooth-tongued, but in the end they sting like a scorpion. They are full of slyness and deceit, and if they can, they get round everyone by their cunning. They are men who are dirty in the way they take food and drink and do other things. Any evil they intend to do others they conceal in a wonderful way so that the latter can take no precautions nor devise anything to offset their cunning. Drunkenness is considered an honorable thing by them and when anyone drinks too much, he is sick there and then, nor does this prevent him from drinking again. They are exceedingly grasping and avaricious; they are extremely exacting in their demands most tenacious in holding on to what they have and most niggardly in giving. They consider the slaughter of other people as nothing. In short, it is impossible to put down in writing all their evil characteristics on account of the very great number of them.

Their food consists of everything that can be eaten, for they eat dogs, wolves, foxes and horses and, when driven by necessity they feed on human flesh. For instance, when they were fighting against a city of the Khitayans, where the Emperor was residing, they besieged it for so long that they themselves completely ran out of supplies and, since they had nothing at all to eat, they thereupon took one out of every ten men for food. They eat the filth which comes away from mares when they bring forth foals. Nay, I have even seen them eating lice. They would say, "Why should I not eat them since they eat the flesh of my son and drink his blood?" I have also seen them eat mice.

Chingis Khan divided his Tartars by captains of ten, captains of a hundred, and captains of a thousand, and over ten millenaries, or captains of a thousand, he placed one colonel, and over one whole army he authorized two or three chiefs, but so that all should be under one of the said chiefs. When they join battle against any other nation, unless they do all consent to retreat, every man who deserts is put to death. And if one or two, or more, of ten proceed manfully to the battle, but the residue of those ten draw back and follow not the company, they are in like manner slain. Also, if one among ten or more be taken, their fellows, if they fail to rescue them, are punished with death.

Moreover they are required to have these weapons: two long bows or one good one at least, three quivers full of arrows, and one axe, and ropes to draw engines of war. But the richer have single-edged swords, with sharp points, and somewhat crooked. They have also armed horses, with their shoulders and breasts protected; they have helmets and coats of mail. Some of them have jackets for their horses, made of leather artificially doubled or trebled, shaped upon their bodies. The upper part of their helmet is of iron or steel, but that part which circles about the neck and the throat is of leather. Some of them have all their armor of iron made in the following manner: They beat out many thin plates a finger broad, and a hand long, and making in every one of them eight little holes, they lace through three strong and straight leather thongs. So they join the plates one to another, as it were, ascending by degrees. Then they tie the plates to the thongs, with other small and slender thongs, drawn through the holes, and in the upper part, on each side, they fasten one small doubled thong, that the plates may firmly be knit together. These they make, as well for their horses as for the armor of their men; and they scour them so bright that a man may hold his face in them. Some of them upon the neck of their lance have a hook, with which they attempt to pull men out of their saddles. The heads of their arrows are exceedingly sharp, cutting both ways like a two-edged sword, and they always carry a file in their quivers to sharpen their arrowheads.

No one kingdom or province is able to resist the Tartars; because they use soldiers out of every country of their dominions. If the neighboring province to that which they invade will not aid them, they waste it, and with the inhabitants, whom they take with them, they proceed to fight against the other province. They place their captives in the front of the battle, and if they fight not courageously they put them to the sword. Therefore, if Christians would resist them, it is expedient that the provinces and governors of countries should all agree, and so by a united force should meet their encounter.

Soldiers also must be furnished with strong hand-bows and cross-bows, which they greatly dread, with sufficient arrows, with maces also of strong iron, or an axe with a long handle. When they make their arrowheads, they must, according to the Tartars' custom, dip them red-hot into salt water, that they may be strong enough to pierce the enemies' armor. They that will may have swords also and lances with hooks at the ends, to pull them from their saddles, out of which they are easily removed. They must have helmets and other armor to defend themselves and their horses from the Tartars' weapons and arrows, and they that are unarmed, must, according to the Tartars' custom, march behind their fellows, and discharge at the enemy with long–bows and cross-bows. And, as it has already been said of the Tartars, they must dispose their bands and troops in an orderly manner, and ordain laws for their soldiers. Who–soever runs to the prey or spoil, before the victory is achieved, must undergo a most severe punishment. For such a fellow is put to death among the Tartars without pity or mercy.

The place of battle must be chosen, if it is possible, in a plain field, where they may see round about; neither must all troops be in one company, but in many, not very far distant one from another. They which give the first encounter must send one band before, and must have another in readiness to relieve and support the former in time. They must have spies, also, on every side, to give them notice when the rest of the enemy's bands approach. They ought always to send forth band against band and troop against troop, because the Tartar always attempts to get his enemy in the midst and so to surround him. Let our bands take this advice also; if the enemy retreats, not to make any long pursuit after him, lest according to his custom he might draw them into some secret ambush. For the Tartar fights more by cunning than by main force. And again, a long pursuit would tire our horses, for we are not so well supplied with horses as they. Those horses which the Tartars use one day, they do not ride upon for three or four days after. Moreover, if the Tartars draw homeward, our men must not therefore depart and break up their bands, or separate themselves; because they do this also upon policy, namely, to have our army divided, that they may more securely invade and waste the country. Indeed, our captains ought both day and night keep their army in readiness; and not to put off their armor, but at all time to be prepared for battle. The Tartars, like devils, are always watching and devising how to practice mischief. Furthermore, if in battle any of the Tartars be cast off their horses, they must be captured, for being on foot they shoot strongly, wounding and killing both horses and men.

Batu ordered John of Piano Carpini to proceed to the court of the Great Khan in Mongolia. The party was so ill, writes John, that the travelers could scarcely sit on a horse; and throughout all that Lent their food had been millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink. On Easter day once more in 1246, they started on the most formidable part of their journey across Central Asia. Their bodies were tightly bandaged so they could endure the excessive fatigue of this enormous ride, which took them across the Jaec or Ural River, and north of the Caspian Sea and past the Aral to the Jaxartes or Syr Darya (quidam fluvius magnus cujus nomen ignoramus, writes John, "a big river whose name we do not know"), and the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand that stood on its banks. Then they went along the shores of the Dzungarian lakes until, on the feast of St Mary Magdalene (22 July), they reached the imperial camp called Sira Orda (i.e., Yellow Pavilion), near Karakorum and the Orkhon River. The good Friar had ridden three thousand miles in a hundred days.

While John had been in transit, Ögedei Khan had also died, and the imperial authority was in interregnum; Güyük, Ögedei's eldest son, being designated to the throne. His formal election in a great Kurultai, or diet of the tribes, took place while the friars were at Sira Orda, along with 3000 to 4000 envoys and deputies from all parts of Asia and eastern Europe, bearing homage, tribute and presents. On the 24th of August, John's party witnessed the formal enthronement of Guyuk at another camp in the vicinity called the Golden Ordu, after which they were presented to the emperor.

The Great Khan Güyük, as we have seen, was not amused by the invitation to become Christian, and demanded, instead, that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him to swear allegiance. The Khan did not dismiss the Friar's expedition until November 1246. He gave them the letter to the Pope we have encountered earlier. John's party began a long winter journey home. They had to sleep on snow most of the crossing of Central Asia, and reached Kiev in June 1247, where they were greeted as if risen from the dead. Crossing the Rhine at Cologne, they found the Pope still at Lyon, and delivered their report as well as Güyük Khan's letter.

Below, we cross parts of the high Altaic steppe, similar in parts to what John travelled through on horseback circa 1246.

Thursday, July 18


The Mongolian Altai range tails out into the Gobi Altai, and then into the Gurvan Saikhan range.  The Gurvan Saikhan or Gurvan Sayhan (Mongolian: Гурван Сайхан, literally 'the Three Beauties'), is named for three subranges: the Baruun Saikhany Nuruu (the Western Beauty), the Dund Saikhany Nuruu (the Middle Beauty) and the Zuun Saikhany Nuruu (the Eastern Beauty). The highest peak is found in Dund Saikhany Nuruu, and it is 9,268 feet (2,825 meters) above sea level. A notable gorge, Yolyn Am - Vulture Canyon -  is found in Zuun Saikhany Nuruu. Though the range is surrounded by the Gobi desert, Yolyn Am contains a semi-permanent ice-field. The mountains cause passing clouds to precipitate rain and snow, which makes a sparse human habitation possible on its slopes, as well as in the oases that short mountain rivers race to before disappearing into the desert sand.

Dalanzadgad is the only 'town' the area, and when we alight at the Gurvan Saikhan airport (DLZ) we see a frontier settlement, half gers and half cinder-block buildings, spread haphazardly around us. About a dozen SUVs have congregated to pick up the passengers from our Air Mongolia Fokker-50 flight, comprising half of Gobi trekkers and half of mining industry professionals.

A few years ago, the Oyu Tolgoi site created much news as the world's largest undeveloped gold and copper mine, with reserves of 1.3 million kgs of gold and 40 million kgs of copper. At one stroke, the economy of the South Gobi (and Mongolia) may have been transformed. The "OT" mine is swinging into production, and there has been news that the first shipments are beginning to flow even as we fly to Dalanzadgad from Ulaanbaatar.  Byambe, our Girl Saturday, has just quit the mining sector, where she was a supply officer, to accompany us in the Gobi and translate. She talks of 3-weeks-on-2-weeks-off shifts in a 90 sq-km mining outpost in sand-whipped wasteland - the OT mine is 240 kms out in the desert from DLZ. Given the water demands of a heavy-metals mine, as well as the toxic cyanide produced by the extraction process, can environmental disaster be far behind in this fragile area?

A real-estate company following the expat-spend skyrocketing in the Omnogovi (South Gobi) area has put together this brief on Dalanzadgad. It makes for interesting reading. We wait for the lone supermarket to open so that we can stock up with water for our trek across the desert to the famous singing dunes of Khongoryn Els; it is the time of the annual Naadam festival, much vodka was drunk last night, no one is up-and-about yet.

Sunday, July 14

From the Great Khan Guyug to Pope Innocent IV

By the power of the Eternal Sky, We the Dalai (Oceanic) Khan of all the whole great people Command:

This is an Order, sent to the great Pope that he may know and pay heed. 

We have written it in the language of the lands of the Kiril (Latin, the letter is in fact written in Mongol, Persian as well as Latin.)

After holding counsel with the monarchs under your suzerainty, you have sent us an offer of subordination which we have accepted from the hands of your envoy.

If you should act up to your word, then you, the great Pope, should come in person with all the monarchs, to pay us homage and we should thereupon cause you to hear every command there is of the Yasak (Mongol Law.)

Again, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to Us in person about this matter, and have addressed to Us a request. This petition of thine We have not understood.

Furthermore, you have written:  "You have attacked all the territories of the Majars (i.e Magyars) and other Christians, at which I am astonished. Tell me, what was their crime?" These, your words, We likewise have not understood. 

Chinggis Khan and Ogodei Khaqan revealed the commands of Heaven. But those whom you name would not trust the commands of Heaven. Just like thy words they too have been reckless; they have acted with arrogance; and they killed Our envoys. The people of those countries, it was the Ancient God who slew and annihilated them.  If not by the command of God, how can anyone slay, or conquer out of his own strength?

And when you say:  "I am a Christian. I pray to God. I arraign and despise others," how do you know whom God forgives, and whom He shows mercy?  How can you know it, that you speak such words?

Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven?  Now your own sincere heart must tell you:  "We will become subject to you, and will place our strength at your disposal." You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender Us service and pay us homage;  only then will We recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and act contrary to Our orders, We shall know that you are our foe.

Thus We inform you. If you fail to act in accordance therewith, what do We know what will happen to you? It is God Who knows.

In the last days of Jumada II of the year 644  (November 1246.)

The Great Khan Guyug's seal on the letter to the Pope; literally: "Eternal Heaven's Power-under, Great Mongol Nation's Oceanic Khan's Decree, Subject Belligerent People-unto reach-if, Revere-may Fear-may".

(As for Innocent IV, his contribution to posterity is the issuance of a papal bull which authorized the use of torture - short of killing or permanently maiming - for eliciting confessions by the Inquisition from heretics.)

Guyug Khan's untimely death may have changed the course of world history, for his desire for pushing at the boundaries of Europe for more conquests was abandoned, and Mongol family politics caused their  attention to shift south, towards China, which was conquered in the time of Kubilai Khan. We shift our attention to the south of Mongolia, too, heading from Ulaanbaatar to Omnogovi (South Gobi.)

Saturday, July 13


How young Temujin met Borte, from Yuan Ch’ao Pi Shih, the Secret History Of The Mongols (Paul Kahn's translation, found here):

That year, when Temujin was nine,
Yesugei decided to take him to visit his mother’s tribe, saying:
“I’ll ask for a girl from his mother’s tribe to marry him.”
On their way to the Olkhunugud tribe they met an Ungirad man, Dei the Wise,
camped between Mount Chegcher and Mount Chikhurkhu.
Dei the Wise addressed Yesugei as if they were related by marriage:
“My friend Yesugei, travelling so far,
who are you going to see?”
“I’m on my way to the Olkhunugud,
the tribe of this son of mine’s mother,
to find a girl for him there,” he replied.
Dei the Wise said to him:
“I look at your son and I see
his eyes contain fire,
his face fills with light.
My friend Yesugei, I had a dream last night.
A white falcon holding the Sun and the Moon in its claws
flew down from the sky and lit on my hand.
I told my family this, saying:
‘Whenever I saw the Sun or the Moon in my dreams before
it was always from a distance.
Now this falcon, taking them in his claws,
has brought them both into my hand.
The bird was all white and it brought them to me.
What does this good omen mean?’ I asked.
My friend Yesugei,
I had this dream the very moment you were leading your son to our camp.
What could it mean?
Obviously it was a sign that a nobleman like yourself would come to our camp.
Since the days of old we Ungirad have been protected by the beauty of our daughters,
by the loveliness of our granddaughters,
and so we’ve stayed out of battles and wars.
When you elect a new khan,
we take our loveliest daughters and place them on carts.
Harnessing a black camel to the cart,
we have him trot off to the khan’s tent.
We offer our daughters to sit there beside him and be his khatun.
We don’t challenge empires;
we don’t go to war with our neighbors.
We just bring up our daughters and place them in the front of the carts.
Harnessing a black camel to the cart,
we lead them off to the khan’s tent.
We offer our daughters to sit by the khan,
and he places them up on the throne.
Since the days of old the Ungirad have had khatun as their shields.
We’ve survived by the loveliness of our granddaughters,
by the beauty of our daughters.
When one of our boys wants to marry
you can judge the wealth of our camp to decide if you want him.
But as for our girls you only have to look at their beauty.
My friend Yesugei, let’s go to my tent.
I’ve got a young daughter there.
My friend should meet her.”
Dei the Wise led Yesugei’s horse to his tent and helped him dismount.
When Yesugei saw Dei’s daughter he was impressed.
She was a girl whose face filled with light,
whose eyes filled with fire,
and he began to consider her father’s proposal.
She was ten years old, a year older than Temujin,
and her name was Borte.
After spending the night in the tent,
the next morning Yesugei asked Dei for his daughter.
“I could let you have her after awhile,
waiting for you to ask me again and again,
but who’d praise me for stalling?
I could let you have her right away,
just waiting for you to ask me twice,
and who’d curse me for replying too quick?
No, this girl’s fate is not to grow old by the door of the tent she was born in.
I’ll be happy to give you my daughter.
But now you should go,
and leave your son with me for awhile,
so we can get to know our new son-in-law.”
Both men gave their pledge to the other
and Yesugei added:
“I’ll leave you my son for awhile.
You should know that he’s frightened by dogs.
Don’t let the dogs frighten him, my friend.”

Then Yesugei offered his lead horse as a gift,
and leaving Temujin in Dei’s tent, he rode back to his people.
As he rode back Yesugei came on a camp of the Tatar,
who were feasting below Mount Chegcher on the Yellow Steppe.
Tired and thirsty, he dismounted to join in the feasting.
But the Tatar recognized who he was, and said to themselves:
“Yesugei of the Kiyan clan is among us here.”
They remembered the times he’d defeated them in battle.
Secretly they decided to kill him,
mixing poisons into the drinks he was offered.
On his way back he felt something was wrong
and after riding three days to get back to his tent
he knew he was dying.
Yesugei the Brave spoke from his bed, saying:
“I feel that I’m dying.
Who’s here beside me?”
Someone answered him:
“Munglig, the son of Old Man Charakha is here.”
Yesugei called the boy over to him and said:
“Munglig, my child, my sons are still very young.
As I rode back from leaving Temujin with his wife’s family
I was secretly poisoned by the Tatar.
I can feel that I’m dying now.
Take care of my sons like they were your own little brothers.
Take care of my wife like she was your own elder sister.
Go quickly now, Munglig, my child, and bring Temujin back.”
Then Yesugei passed away.
Following Yesugei’s last words Munglig went to Dei the Wise and said:
“My Elder Brother Yesugei’s heart aches
and he is constantly thinking of his son.
I’ve come to take Temujin back to him.”
Dei the Wise answered him:
“If my friend thinks so much of his son, I’ll let him go.
When he’s seen his father again, have him quickly come back.”
So Father Munglig brought Temujin back to his family.

Below - Chingis Khan looks over Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, flanked by Ogodei and Kubilai Khan. No Borte.

Thursday, July 11


"Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to a visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time."    

- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Marco Polo in conversation with Kubilai Khan.