Friday, December 31, 2010

Mongolia | Second of the Nine Nines | Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö

Update: By 8:30 am the temperature has dropped to 36º below O F. This is a drop of 15 degrees since 5:30 am, which hardly seems possible, but I have rechecked the weather reports and this seems to be the case. 36 below 0 F. is certainly cold enough to freeze twice-distilled arkhi, so it seems we are indeed experiencing Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö.


I mentioned earlier that the First of the Nine-Nines—the Nine-Nines being nine periods of nine days each, each period characterized by a certain type of winter weather—started on the day of the Winter Solstice, which occurred here in Mongolia on December 22. The Second of the Nine Nines begins today, December 31. Known as Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö, this is the time when twice-distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. As you will recall, the first of the Nine-Nines was the time when regular, or once distilled, arkhi freezes. As this indicates, the second period should be colder than the first, since twice distilled arkhi obviously has a much higher alcohol content. This morning at 5:00 it was a relatively balmy Minus 21°F / –29°C, however, almost exactly the same temperature on the same day last year. The Third of the Nine Nines begins on January 8th. 


As some of you may know, today is also the last day of the year according to the admittedly outdated and outmoded Gregorian calendar which unfortunately seems to hold much of the world in its thrall. I have been boycotting the Gregorian calendar for several years now (I prefer the Lunar Calendar myself), so as usual I will not be celebrating anything tonight. Don’t expect to find me in any of Ulaan Baatar’s notoriously Louche Coffee Shops. I will spend the evening in my hovel, but since it is Friday Night I may treat myself to some twenty-year old Puerh Tea while perusing the latest addition to the Scriptorium, the biography of Lesley Blanch.
Lesley Blanch

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

USA | Manhattan | E. Gene Smith

E. Gene Smith, world-famous collector of Tibetan texts and founder of the Manhattan-based Tibetan Resource Center, has transmigrated. I had been in contact with Mr. Smith several times over the years, most recently in connection with an Unusual Kalachakra Tantra Text I had stumbled across. He came to Ulaan Baatar occasionally and I was a bit surprised when he said he wanted to meet me, since I am really not that involved with the world of Tibetan Buddhism. He had seen my book about Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, however, and he was keen to talk about Zanabazar. We finally met for lunch at the Delhi Darbar Restaurant in the Puma Imperial Hotel where he was staying. Although it was just he and I for lunch we ended up talking for four hours. Amazingly, he had actually met the Diluv Khutagt. It is not quite clear who, if anyone, will step into the seven-league boots of Mr. Smith. He might well have been sui generis in the field of Tibetan studies. 

E. Gene Smith (1936–2010)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan | Eclipse | Nine Nines—Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö

Wandered up to the summit of Zaisan Tolgoi (Noblemen’s Hill) to watch the Moon rise in eclipse on the evening of the 21st. It was minus 8º F when I reached the top. Not surprisingly I was the only person there. 
 The Summit of Zaisan Tolgoi
The War Memorial at the top of Zaisan Tolgoi
The total phase of the eclipse ended at 4:53 pm, just four minutes before the official moon rise time of 4:57. When the moon finally did clear the mountains to the east at about 5:15 it was of normal color and roughly 50% occluded; in other words it resembled a regular half-moon. By 6:05 the shadow on the moon had disappeared completely and it looked like a regular Full Moon.

As you know, each Full Moon has a name associated with it. See North American Names for the Full Moons. The last Full Moon before the Winter Solstice, is known as the Cold Moon, Frost Moon, or Long Nights Moon in English. This is the Full Moon that occurred yesterday. I don’t know if Mongolians have a name for this moon. Maybe Batbold Pandita can help us. 

The Winter Solstice occurred today at 7:38 a.m. (Ulaan Baatar Time), marking the beginning of Winter. In Mongolia the Winter Solstice also marked the beginning of the so-called Nine-Nines: nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather. The first of the nine nine-Day periods is Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö, the time when normally distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. It was minus 27º F. at 7:38 a.m., cold enough, I think, to freeze Mongolian moonshine, which is not as strong as the store-bought vodka. The next Nine-Day Period starts on December 31. Stayed tuned for updates.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice occurs here in Ulaan Baatar at 7:38 AM on the morning of December 22 (also see the 2009 Winter Solstice and 2008 Winter Solstice)December 22 will of course be the shortest day of the year: here in Ulaan Baatar the sun will rise at 8:39 am and set at 5:02 pm for a day of 8 hours, 22 minutes, and 53 seconds. That’s two seconds less the day before and four seconds less than the day after, December 23. The Winter Solstice occurs 6:38 PM on the evening of December 21 in the Eastern United States, on the same day as the Total Lunar Eclipse, which is extremely unusual:
This eclipse is notable because it takes place just hours before the December solstice, which marks the beginning of northern winter and southern summer. The last Dec. 21 total lunar eclipse occurred in the year 1638. (Number-crunchers quibbled for a while over whether that one counted as a solstice eclipse, due to shifts between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, but the current consensus is that It Does Indeed Count. The next winter solstice eclipse is due in 2094.
I am not quite sure where I will go for the Solstice. I may retire to the summit of Öndör Gegeenii Uul, right in front of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, for appropriate ceremonies. Feel free to join me. As usual, I am imploring people not to celebrate the Solstice by engaging in any animal or Human Sacrifices
Summit (left) of Öndör Gegeenii Uul

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan | Full Moon | Lunar Eclipse

Unless you have spent the last couple of months indulging in some totally heedless Bacchanalia in a basement bar in Greenwich Village you no doubt know that there is a Total Lunar Eclipse scheduled for December 21, 2010. In the Western Hemisphere the eclipse will fall on the same day as the Winter Solstice; here in Mongolia it will occur the day before. 
Phases of the Eclipse, with Total in the Middle. For a more detailed view see Lunar Eclipse Phases
Some of the best views of the Lunar Eclipse will be from the east coast of the United States. In Mongolia the situation is complicated to say the least. Here is the schedule (all local Ulaanbaatar times): 

Penumbral begins:  1:29 pm
Partial eclipse begins:  2:33 pm
Total eclipse begins:  3:41 pm
Full Moon at 4:13
Greatest eclipse:  4:17 pm
Total Eclipse ends: 4:53 pm

Moon Rises at 4:57
Sun Sets at 5:01

Partial eclipse ends: 6:01 pm
Penumbral ends: 7:05  pm

As can be seen from this the eclipse begins and the period of total eclipse ends before the moon rises and the sun sets. Thus it will rise during the partial eclipse phase when the sun is still up.  Exactly how the moon will appear when it first rises and then after the sun sets, when it is still in the partial eclipse phase, is unclear. I will be at the summit of Zaisan Tolgoi from 4:00 pm onward on the 21st to find out, however. 

Now there is an additional complication: the forecast for the 21st is snow, with a high temperature of 3º F and a low of minus 27º F. If the skies are clouded over it might not be possible to see the moon at all, regardless of the eclipse phase. 

Eclipses, both solar and lunar, are big events in Mongolia. See the Solar Eclipse of 1997.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Camel Trip | Edrin Gov to Tsenkher Gov

The Gobi is the fifth-largest desert in the world, covering roughly 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 square kilometers). While most of the world might think of the Gobi Desert as a single entity, people within Mongolia recognize thirty-three different gobis, or gov, as they are called in Mongolian. These gov are relatively flat areas, covered with sand or gravel of varying sizes, most trending east-west, and separated from each other by ridges of shale, granite, basalt, and other up-thrusting rocks.
On our trip south from Bayan Tooroi we will pass through four govs. Zakhyn Us, where we started, is in the Zakhui Zartyn Gov, a flat area between the main crest of the Gov-Altai Mountains and the Edrin Mountains to the south. Crossing the Edrin Mountains we passed into the Edrin Gov. Much of this is classic zag desert—gravel flats covering with miniature forests of zag (saxaul bushes = Haloxylon ammodendron)
The barren gravel flats of the northern edge of the Edrin Gov with Eej Khaikhan still visible in the distance. 
 Classic Zag Desert in the middle of the Edrin Gov
Ulaan Budargana—Another common plant in the Edrin Gov
Around two in the afternoon we stopped for a tea break. Among my tea supplies I had two disks of Puerh Tea, one of the so-called Ripe or Cooked Puerh and the other Raw or Green Puerh. I am partial to the smoother Ripe Puerh, but on my Last Horse Trip I discovered that the astringently bitter Green Puerh, with the addition of sugar to take away some of the edge, was by no means unwelcome while lounging on our carpets during an afternoon tea break. And thus it proved to be on this camel trip.  I also brought along four ounces of Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea for the more delicate palates of the ladies. Indeed, I like it too, but I knew from past experience that the camel guys preferred the more robust Puerh. They had also brought some Mongolian brick tea which we would drink for a change of pace, salted as usual. 
Solongo brewing up a pot of ever-welcome Green Puerh tea
After tea we continued on, the camels resuming their usual  slow, stately pace. It is of course possible to trot camels, and fast racing camels can attain prodigious speeds, but camels laden with heavy loads like ours, including 100 liters of water (220 pounds worth) plus food and cooking and sleeping gear, can be trotted only for very short distances if at all. For the long haul they must be walked. In walking mode camels have two speeds: slow, and slower. I have measured their walking speed for hours on end with a GPS and have determined that their slow, or regular, walking mode, when they are relatively well rested, is 4.9 kilometer (3 miles) an hour. People are quick to point out that they can walk faster than that, which is perfectly true.  Humans can easily outpace even a well-rested camel. After four or five eight-to-ten hour days camels tend to tire, and eventually they slip down into a lower gear, covering 4.3 kilometer (2.67 miles) per hour. Now they are practically moving in slow motion, slowly lifting a leg, moving it forward as if through molasses, and then putting the foot down again with great deliberateness. The liberal use of a taishir, the short cane which the camel men use to prod their camels, will speed them back up to their regular pace for short distances, but until they are rested at least overnight they will always will slip back into lower gear if left to their own devices.  
By late afternoon we had reached the gravel flats at the southern edge of the Edrin Gov
A low range of hills separates the Edrin Gov from the Tsenkher Gov
We camped for the night in amidst the sparse zag bushes between the Edrin Gov and the Tsenkher Gov, having covered 34.5 kilometers for the day. The camel men set up one tent for themselves and another for Sister Dulya and Solongo, but as usual in the desert I opted to sleep out under the stars, or as they say in Siberia, “in the Big Tent.” Usually I would throw out my carpets and sleep a hundred feet or so away from the campfire and the tents so that I could fully enjoy the solitude of the desert. Tonight, however, both Sukhee and Brother Duit insisted that I sleep right beside the two tents, since we were still in the area where rabid wolves had been reported. Presumably a rabid wolf would be more inclined to pick off what appeared to be a straggler from the group. I had my doubts that a rabid wolf would be making any such distinctions but did not want to argue with the camel guys.They assured me that tomorrow night we would be out of the danger zone and I could resume what they considered my misanthropic ways.
Between the Edrin Gov and the Tsenkher Gov
One of the great pleasures of traveling in the Gobi is gazing at the night skies. Few places in the world offer a better view of the stars than the Gobi Desert. On most nights there is very little if any any cloud cover, leaving a perfect view of the Heavens from horizon to horizon. There is absolutely no light pollution from towns or cities and the nearest source of any kind of industrial pollution is many hundred of miles away if not more. Also the almost complete absence of humidity in the air means that star light is not refracted by moisture. In today’s world most people have probably never even had a real unimpeded view of the night skies. In many cities no stars at all are visible. Before I left I emailed someone in the United States about this trip and mentioned how clear the skies were in the Gobi. This person asked in reply whether it would be possible to see the Milky Way in the Gobi, implying that the Milky Way was now thought to be some kind of rare phenomenon which most people never saw anymore. In the Gobi the Milky Way (which has the same name in Mongolian [Suun Zam = Milky Road]) is a near solid belt of light arcing across the sky almost horizon to horizon. 

On this trip we would also be treated to a New Moon in three days, which would of course  maximize the star-viewing potential, but even tonight there was quite a show. First out was not a star at all, but the planet Jupiter on the southeast horizon. It would remain for most of the night as the brightest object in the skies. Indeed, much of this month it is the biggest it will appear at any time between 1963 and 2022.  The first star out was twinkling Capella in the northeast, only forty-one light years away, which makes it virtually our neighbor. Actually Capella is two stars revolving so closely around each other that they appear as one. The light we now see from this binary star left it when I was twenty years old, certainly a sobering thought.  One by one the full panoply of constellations popped into view: Big Dipper,  Draco, LIttle Dipper, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Pegasus, and Cynus being the most prominent up until midnight, after which Orion dominated the Heavens. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Camel Trip | Bayan Tooroi to Edrin Gov

We arrived at the oasis of Bayan Tooroi at five in the afternoon and promptly checked into a ger at the headquarters of the Gobi A Protected Area Administration, which manages a huge chunk of the central Gobi, including the part we were heading into. Mishigdorj, the head of the Protected Area, issued us permits and informed us that Sukhee, the preserve ranger who had accompanied me on my last trip, was available and could also go on this trip. Apparently now you are not allowed to take extended trips into the Protected Area unless you are accompanied by a ranger. This was fine with me. I knew Sukhee was a knowledgeable and experienced camel guy. He also told us that at least one of our camel men would have to carry a gun, since there were reports of rabid wolves in the area we will be traveling through. Five people had just recently been attacked by rabid wolves, including two children playing in front of their gers in broad daylight. 
Tooroi trees (Populus euphratica) which give Bayan Tooroi its name

From the Park Administration Headquarters we headed out to Tsogoo’s ger about sixteen kilmeters west of Bayan Tooroi, near the famous Eej Khairkhan Mountain. Meeting Tsogoo, we were now informed that he would be unable to go on the trip because of work he had to do connected with the Wild Camel Breeding Program ran by the Preserve Administration but that his older brother Duit would be able to go. He assured us that Brother Duit was an even more experienced camel man than himself. He also confirmed the story about the rabid wolves and added that just the night before a pack of apparently healthy wolves had killed a horse not far from his ger. Local herdsmen were planning to ambush the wolves if they came back again tonight. 

Some of our camels with the twin peaks of Eej Khairkhan (Mother Dearest) Mountain in the back. The mountain gets its name for its two mammary-like peaks. 
Camels. You can’t help but love them. 
Another view of Eej Khairkhan from near Tsogoo’s ger
Tsogoo also introduced us to his twenty-two daughter Solongo, who agreed to go along on the trip as cook and assistant camel wrangler. She had never cooked on an extended trip like this but her camel-handling skills were unquestioned.
The formidable Solongo brooked no nonsense from obstreperous camels

For our larder I bought a fat sheep and a equally fat goat from Tsogoo. The sheep would be made into shuuz, meat cut up into small pieces which was then semi-cooked and salted to preserve it.  This we would eat on the last seven days of the trip. On the first seven days we would eat the fresh goat meat, which spoils less easily than fresh sheep meat. 
Sister Dulya and Solongo preparing shuuz
After a couple of day of preparation we drove by jeep out Wild Camel Breeding Station about twenty kilometers southwest of Bayan Tooroi where we would actually begin our camel trip. Tsogoo and Brother Duit would bring the camels from their ger and met up with us here. There was a spring nearby known as Zakhyn Us and here we would also get water for the trip. The next place with water on our route was our destination, 178 kilometers to the south, so we would have to take along about 100 liters of water for the five or six days we needed to get there.  
Zakhyn Us, one of the few watering holes in this part of the Gobi

Our group ready to leave Zakhyn Us
Sister Dulya ready to ride (click on photo for enlargement)
Proceeding through the Edrin Mountains
Looking south from the southern edge of the Edrin Mountains
Starting across the Edrin Gov, south of the Edrin Mountains

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Camel Trip | UB to Bayan Tooroi

Around the end of September I was surprised by a call from my old friend Mojik, who I thought was in Switzerland. It turned out that she had returned to Ulaan Baatar two days before, and by coincident she had just gotten a call from a camel herder by the name of Tsogoo with whom she and I had done a Camel Trip Back in 2007. Tsogoo was in town and wanted to meet. A real Gobi Desert Camel Guy who seldom comes to the big city of Ulaan Baatar, he seemed like a fish out water (if that metaphor is appropriate for a Gobi Guy) when we finally met up at the open air Uzbek beer garden on the west side of the State Department Store. 
 Tsogoo
After some reminiscing about the 2007 camel ride, which featured a monumental Camel Stampede and a Bizarre Encounter with a Rare Gobi Bear (there are only about thirty-five of them in the world), Tsogoo asked if I was ever going to do another camel trip in the Gobi. Indeed, there was one Gobi trip I still wanted to do. On the 2007 trip I had retraced a section an old camel caravan route from Tsogt, in Gov-Altai Aimag, to Bayan Tooroi and Shar Khuls Oasis. This route continues on to the Fortress of the  Notorious Bandit and Warlord Dambijantsan in Gansu Province, China, and from there to Tibet. Various informants, including an old lama named Shukhee In The Town of Shinejinst in Bayankhongor Aimag, had told me of another route from Tsogt to Dambijantsan’s fortress which ran through the Atas Mountains west of the Shar Khuls Oasis. 
Shukhee
I asked Tsogoo if it was possible to follow this track south to at least the Atas Mountains. Tsogoo said he did not know why not. From Bayan Tooroi to the Atas Mountains and back would take about fourteen days by camel, he opined. So we made plans to met up in Bayan Tooroi on the edge of the Gobi Desert on or about October 1.

I soon signed up a woman named Dulya as camp boss and translator and on September 30 we winged west 520 miles to Altai, the capital of Gov-Altai Aimag and at 7096 feet the highest aimag capital in Mongolia.  Snow flurries were flying as we drove to town from the airport. We spent most of the afternoon shopping for supplies for the 14 day camel trip:

Potatoes: 15 Kilos
Onions: 3 Kilos
Carrots: 5 Kilos
Cabbage: 4 heads
Turnips: 2 Kilos
Sugar: 3 Kilos
Noodles: 5 Kilos
Rice: 5 Kilos
Flour: 14 Bags
Oil:  Five Liters
Salt:  Two Kilos
Catsup: One bottle
Jam and candies for Dulya

Meat, in the form of one sheep and one goat, I would buy on the hoof from Tsogoo in Bayan Tooroi. We then retired to the Tulga Altai Hotel, billed as the city’s finest. Unfortunately the hotel had no heat (and needless to say no hot water) so I spend the night in my sleeping bag with my winter deel thrown over it for good measure. The next morning at nine we started the long eight-hour drive south through the Biger Depression and on to Bayan Tooroi.
View from the Biger Depression

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Xi Xia | Tanguts

With the Uighurs Securely in His Corner Chingis was ready to launch a full-scale invasion of Xi Xia. The people of Xi Xia, known as Tanguts, founded the Xi Xia Dynasty, or “Great State of White and High,” in 1038. The Tanguts were a people of Tibeto-Burman extraction who had developed a prosperous agrarian and livestock breeding culture and occupied well-fortified towns and cities. They aspired to some level of culture and soon developed their own Writing System, based on Chinese ideograms, which they used to translate both Tibetan Buddhist texts and the Chinese Classics. While espousing Chinese culture they also practiced Tibetan-style Vajrayana Buddhism. They also maintained a large army and at their height were one of the strongest military powers in Inner Asia. Like the Uighurs they sat astride the Silk Road, controlling the vital Gansu Corridor, a narrow strip of land between the rugged mountains to the south and the inhospitable deserts to the north through which Silk Road caravans had to pass.
A document in Xi Xia writing system, based in Chinese ideograms
Xi Xia Tantric Deity 
Xi Xia Buddha
Xi Xia Monk
Another Xi Xia Monk
Xi Xia Deity
Stele Base, without the stele, depicting a Xi Xia woman; let’s hope they all did not look like this.
The West Pagoda in Yinchuan, built in 1050, near the start of the Xi Xia Dynasty
The North Pagoda in Yinchuan; 1500 years old, it pre-dates the Xi Xia Dynasty.
Another view of the North Pagoda
Another view of the North Pagoda
Tomb of one of the Xi Xia emperors, located on the outskirts of Yinchuan
Two of the nine tombs of Xi Xia emperors on the outskirts of Yinchuan

The intertribal warfare in Mongolia itself at the beginning of the 13th century had decimated the livestock herds of the nomads, and the early Mongol raids into Xi Xia,  in 1205 and 1207, were mainly attempts to capture large amounts of livestock which were then driven back to Mongolia. These raids, however, were enough to alert the Tanguts to the danger of the nomads to the north, who like wolves swooped down on their herds, and the failure of the Xi Xia ruler at the time, Li Chunyu, to protect his domains may have led to the palace revolt which deposed him in late 1207. The new ruler Li Anguan, perhaps hoping to placate the Mongols and buy time, give Chingis one of his daughters as a bride. At the same time he strengthened the country’s defenses in anticipation of another Mongol attack. He didn’t have long to wait. Having subdued the Uighurs to the west without a battle, Chingis was now ready for a full-scale onslaught on the territory coterminous with north China plain controlled by the Jin Dynasty, his ultimate target. 

In early 1209 Chingis himself led an army 650 miles south to the domains of Xi Xia, and soon captured the border town of Wulahai. The Xi Xia armies rallied, however, and a stalemate ensued until the end of summer, when reinforcements arrived from Mongolia. The Tanguts were soon driven back to their fortified cites, including their capital of Ningxia, current-day Yincheng, on the Yellow River. A weakness of the Mongols was soon revealed. Although masters of horseback warfare on the open steppe they had very little if any experience in besieging fortified cities. Having surrounded the Xi Xia capital, Chingis attempted various stratagems to capture the city, including diverting the waters of the Yellow River in an attempt to flood the city, but by the end of 1209 none of them had succeeded. In the meantime, the Xi Xia ruler had sent messengers to the Jin ruler in Zhondu (near current-day Beijing), asking for assistance against the Mongols. His advisors recommended sending an army to relieve the besieged city, arguing that if Xi Xia fell the Jin themselves would be Chingis’s next target. The emperor responded, “It is an advantage to my state if its enemies attack each other. What grounds do we have for concern?” No relief army was sent, and the Xi Xia were left the to their own devices. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation on the part of the Jin emperor. 

In January of 1210 the Mongols themselves suffered a setback when the waters of the Yellow River, perhaps diverted by the Tanguts themselves, flooded their own camp. Faced with a stalemate, negotiations began between the Chingis and the Xi Xia ruler. Control of the countryside by the Mongols was a fait accompli, but Chingis offered to let the Tanguts keep control of their cities as long as they provided auxiliary troops for the Mongol army. The Xi Xia ruler declined, pointing out that “We are a nation of town-dwellers. We would not be in a state to fight as auxiliaries in the event of a long march followed by a heated battle.”  He did offer to provide the Mongols with herds of camels and other livestock, trained falcons, wool garments, silk cloth, and as a final sweetener another one of his delectable daughters as a bride for Chingis himself. Although the Tanguts were allowed to remain as figureheads in their own country, most of their territories were now effectively controlled by the Mongols. For the moment Chingis was satisfied with the outcome, but he would never forgive the Tanguts for refusing to provide him with troops. Before he died he would return to Xi Xia and exact a terrible revenge. 

The defeat of the Xi Xia served a number of purposes; the campaign had been good training for the upcoming war with the much for stronger Jin Dynasty, Chingis’s ultimate target, and it had revealed weaknesses in the Mongol army, namely their ignorance of siege techniques, which would have to be corrected before any further campaigns against fortified cities. A springboard for the invasion of the Jin Dynasty  domains from the west had been secured, and the Mongols now controlled the Gansu Corridor, the bottleneck through which most of the caravan routes which originated in Xian and other Silk Road terminuses had to pass. The Mongols now sat astride the Silk Road from the boundaries of the Jin Dynasty domains in the east to the western edge of Uighuristan in the Tarim Basin. The road has been cleared for Chingis’s attack on the Jin Dynasty, the current rulers of northern China, still considered the richest source of plunder and the ultimate prize by the nomads from the Mongolian Plateau to the north. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mongolia | China | Xinjiang | Chingis Rides West | Uighurs

By the close of the year 1215 Temüjin, the Mongolian chieftain known to the world as Chingis Khan, was sitting pretty. Nine years earlier, in 1206, he had succeeded in defeating and bringing under his rule most if not all of the nomadic peoples of the Mongolian Plateau, and in a Great Assembly of the tribes on the Onon River he had been confirmed as Chingis Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongols. He then cast his gaze to the south, to the great sedentary civilizations of China which for over a thousand years had been the plundering grounds of the nomads to the north. As early as 1205 his forces had raided the borderlands of the kingdom of Xi Xia, centered around the modern-day Ningxia and Gansu provinces of China, and returned with huge hauls of camels and other livestock. In the autumn of 1207 an more ambitious raid raked in more plunder and even managed to capture the town of  of Wolohai, near current-day Tingyuan, in the Alashan region. Still not ready for a full-scale assault on Xi Xia, the raiders returned to their Mongolian homeland in the spring of 1208. 

Meanwhile, the people known as Uighurs, who occupied many of the oasis cities to the north and south of the Tian Shan Mountains in modern-day Xinjiang Province, China, were alerted to the rise of the Mongols and decided to make a strategic alliance with them. The Uighurs, who had originated in Mongolia (the Extensive Ruins of Their Old Capital of Ordu Baliq (“Royal Camp Town”‚ also known as Kharabalgasun), can still be seen near the town of Kharkhorin in Övörkhangai Aimag) had since the 1130s been under the thumb of the Kara-Khitai, the remnants of the old Liao Dynasty (907-1125) in China who had migrated westward and set up a powerful confedaration centered around current-day Uzbekistan and the western Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China. The Uighur ruler Barchuk, who held the the title of Idikut  (“Sacred Majesty”) may have sensed that the Mongols were the ascendent power in Inner Asia. If Chingis succeeded in defeating Xi Xia, immediately to the east of the Barchuk’s domains, he would no doubt soon turn his armies on the Uighurs themselves. By aligning himself with the Chingis early Barchuk may have thought could free himself from the Kara-Khitai  and at the same time avoid a devastating attack by the Mongols. He was of course gambling that the suzerainty of the Mongols would be less onerous than Khara-Khitai domination.

In the spring of 1209 Barchuk dispatched an embassy to the court Chingis with an offer to accept the suzerainty of the Mongols. “If you, Genghis Khan, show me favour, I will be your fifth son and will place all of my strength at your disposal.” Chingis agreed and even offered up one of his daughters, Altun, as a bride for the Idikut. Chingis stipulated, however, that Barchuk must come to the camp of the Mongols and make obeisance to him personally, adding that the Idikut should bring with him gifts of “gold and silver, small and large pearls, brocade, damask, and silks.” (Here, incidentally, was an early indication of the Mongol fascination with fine fabrics—brocade, damask, and, silks—which later motivated Chingis to turn his attention westward, to the Islamic realms of Transoxiania, one of the main sources of these rich materials.) Barchuk agreed to accept Mongol suzerainty in 1209, making the Uighurs the first sedentary people south of the Mongolian Plateau to come under Mongol rule, but just to be on the safe side he bided his time until 1211, awaiting the final outcome of the Mongol war against the Xi Xia, before finally appearing in person at the court of the Mongols on the Kherlen River in central Mongolia.

In any case, Chingis had by 1209 gained a valuable ally in Barchuk and the Uighurs. He could now invade Xi Xia without fear of an attack from his western flank and he could utilize the administrative and intellectual abilities of the much more cultured Uighurs. Plundering a sedentary culture was one thing, ruling it and successfully collecting taxes was another.  The Uighurs would provide much of the expertise needed to govern the lands which Chingis would conquer, and they would provide the hitherto illiterate Mongols with a writing system adapted from their own Uighur vertical script. This Uighuro-Mongol vertical script would remain in use in Mongolia until the adaption of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 20th century, and since the early 1990s it has enjoyed a modest resurgence. 

Just as important as the Uighur’s intellectual acumen was the location of the land they occupied. With their summer capital of Qocho (also known as Gaochang, Qarakhoja, Houzhou, etc.) near current day Turpan, on the south side of the Tian Shan Mountains, and their winter capital of Beshbaliq, near current-day Jimsar, on the north, and controlling a host of other oasis cities strung out like beads on a necklace from Hami in the east to Kucha in the west,  the Uighurs sat directly astride the main trunks of the Silk Road between China and the great Islamic civilizations of Central Asia and the Mideast. 
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Buddhist Temple at Beshbaliq
The glacier-capped Tian Shan, one of the world’s most majestic mountain ranges, separating the Zungerian Basin in the north from the Tarim Basin in the south
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Uighuristan at this time was still largely Buddhist but Islam was inexorably advancing eastward, led not only by conquest but by ostensibly peaceful Muslim traders on the Silk Road. By adding Uighuristan to his domains without a battle Chingis gained an invaluable window to the West through which he may have gotten a first tantalizing glimpse of the fabulously rich and cultured Islamic civilizations shimmering like mirages on the western horizon, a world totally unlike anything the rude nomads from the steppes of Mongolia had hitherto imagined possible. For more see Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion of Bukhara, Samarkand, and other Great Cities of the Silk Road, 1215-1221.