Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Khüchüleg and the Naiman

While Events Played Out In Otrār yet other drama were unfolding high up in the hidden recesses of the Pamir Mountains on the southern edge of Inner Asia. Situated at the convergence of five other great mountains ranges—the Tian Shan, Kun Lun, Himalaya, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram—the range is often referred to as the Pamir Knot, the nexus which ties all the other ranges together. 
The Pamir Knot from south of Kashgar. This is right where the Kun Lun and the Pamir ranges come together. 
Although much of the range consists high, grassy plateaus, it also lays claim to some of the world’s highest summits, including 24,590-foot Ismoili Somoni Peak, 23,310-foot Evgenia Korjenevskaya Peak, and 23,406-foot Peak Lenin. Some geographers also include 24,757-foot Muztagh-Ata in the Pamirs, although most consider it part of the Kun Luns. 
24,757-foot Muztagh-Ata 
Indeed, the exact boundaries of the range are unclear, but much of it would appear to be in current-day Tajikistan, and smaller portions in China (Xinjiang Province), Afghanistan, and Pakistan. An ancient southern extension of the Silk Road ran from Kashgar, at the western end of the Tarim Basin, over the Pamirs to India (now Pakistan). The modern Karakoram Highway, one of the highest roads in the world, now follows much the same route. Here, on what Tajiks call Bom-i-Dunyo, the Roof of the World, a confrontation that began in far-off north-central Mongolia fourteen years earlier finally reached its denouement. The main players in this drama were Jebe, one of Chingis Khan’s most famous generals, and a Naiman chieftain by the name of Khüchüleg. 

The Naiman was one of the most powerful tribes in Mongolia in the latter half of the twelfth century when Chingis Khan and his own tribe were on the ascendency, and they would prove to be one of his most formidable opponents. Their territories extended from the valley of the Orkhon River in central Mongolia south and west to the Altais and included much of central and and western modern-day Mongolia. Their name naiman means “eight” in Mongolian, perhaps indicating the number of sub-tribes or clans which made up the tribe as a whole. Whether they were a Turkic or a Mongolic people is uncertain. Up until 1175 they were vassals of the Khara Khitai off to the west, but later recognized the suzerainty of the Jin Emperor, who awarded their leader with the title of Tayang (taiwang = Great King) Khan. They aspired to some level of cultural and no doubt considered themselves superior to the Mongols of Chingis Khan. In a famous passage in the Secret History, the Tayang Khan’s wife, Gürbesü, (she had started out as his stepmother but after the death of her husband married her stepson) spoke of the Mongols thus: 
They stink and their clothes are filthy. They live at a great distance from us. Let them stay where they are. But perhaps we can bring their neat daughters-in-law and girls here. We will make them wash their hands and feet. Then they can milk our cows and sheep.
These were words which she would live to regret. 

At least some among the Naiman practiced Nestorian Christianity. This branch of the Christian faith, deemed heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, gravitated eastward to escape persecution and eventually become known as the Church of the East. Although little remembered now, it was once widespread throughout Inner and East Asia and exerted considerable influence. Following the great trade routes east Nestorian Christianity reaching Xian, the main eastern terminus of Silk Road, no later than the 780s (see the Nestorian Stele in Xian). It eventually seeped northward across the Gobi Desert and onto the Mongolian Plateau, where it found adherents among the Keraits, whose leader Tooril was Chingis’s early patron, and their bitter enemies the Naiman. Khüchüleg, son the Tayang Khan, would himself profess to Christianity, although there was little if anything in his tumultuously violent life to indicate that he ever practiced any of its tenets. 

The events leading up to the showdown between the Naiman and Chingis Khan are beyond the scope of this narrative. Suffice it to say that by 1204 the long festering conflict had come to a head. Jamukha, the chieftain of the Jadirat and Chingis’s bosum buddy from his younger days (according to the Secret History they had “swore their brotherhood and love for one another” and at night “slept under the same quilt.”) and now his bitter enemy threw in his lot with the Naiman, as did Togtoga Beki of the Merkits. Chingis held a special animus for the Merkits, since they had once kidnapped his wife Börte, and when Chingis finally managed to retrieve her she was pregnant. It was widely rumored that Chingis’s oldest son Jochi had been actually been sired by a Merkit. Thus there was bad blood between Chingis and Merkits. 

The Mongols were highly outnumbered by the Naiman and their allies, but while camped on the Saar Steppe Chingis had each of his men build five campgrounds at some distance to each other. Naiman watchmen from the top of Azgart Khairkhan Mountain, overlooking the Saar Steppe, said to each other, “Did we say the Mongols are few? . . . Daily they appear to grew in numbers. There are now more fires than stars.” Hearing this, Tayang Khan concluded that he was facing an immense army. A weak and indecisive man totally in the sway of his domineering ex-stepmother-now-wife Gürbesü, Tayang Khan quickly lost all heart for confronting the Mongols directly. Instead he proposed a retreat south to the Altai Mountains where the Naiman army could then turn on the Mongols and engage them after they had exhausted themselves in the chase. He presented this as the tried and true tactic of the “feigned retreat”, but his own son Khüchüleg and other army commanders interpreted it as cowardice. Upon hearing of his father’s plans Khüchüleg exclaimed: 
Old Woman Tayang again! He must have lost his courage to utter such words . . . Tayang, who has never dared venture further afield that a pregnant woman would go to urinate, nor even a calf to graze.
A Naiman military commander chimed in: “Had we expected that you were such a coward, we would have done better to send for Mother Gürbesü and, although she is only a woman, given her command of the army . . . You are stupid, Tayang. It is all over, you have failed.” 
The Saar Steppe, with Azgart Khairkhan Mountain in the distance
The summit of Azgart Khairkhan Mountain
Overruled and held in contempt by his son and army commanders, Tayang Khan had no choice but to stand and confront the Mongols. “A dying life, a suffering body—they are common to all men. Given it is so, let us fight,” he fatalistically concluded. The ever-vacillating Jamukha, perhaps still in his heart enamored of Chingis, the companion of his youth, deserted the Tayang Khan at the last moment, compounding the Naiman ruler’s predicament. The by-then thoroughly demoralized Naiman sought the high ground of a mountain know as Tuleet Uul in current-day Arkhangai Aimag, where they were quickly surrounded by the Mongol army. They tried a nighttime breakout, but according to the Secret History:
They rolled down from the summit, piling on top of another. Their bones were smashed and fell to pieces, like rotten logs; thus they died. 
Tuleet Uul, where the Naiman rolled down like rotten logs

The Naiman were thoroughly routed. Tayang was caught and executed without further ado. His wife Gürbesü was taken prisoner and brought before Chingis. “Did you not say that we Mongols have a bad smell? So why have you come now?” he chided her. He then made her one of his wives. History is silent about what they said to each other on their wedding night. His son Khüchüleg and a band of his close followers did manage to break out of the Mongol cordon and escape. It would be another fourteen years before the Chingis’s general Jebi would finally track him down in the high Pamirs.