A Brief History of Mongolia

or: everything you ever wanted to know about Mongolia but was afraid to ask

The precise origins of the Mongol people are, as yet, still unclear. As early as 400 BC the Chinese were writing about nomad tribes who roamed their north-western border, raised cattle and lived in tents. Archaeological records show that this life style went back at least as far as 1000 BC.

Whatever their origins, two things have always dominated the life of the Mongol people: the climate and alcohol. These two things have shaped their history more than any other peoples on earth.

Situated in the ‘dead heart’ of Asia, away from the moderating effect of seas and oceans, Mongolia’s climate is both extreme and severe. In winter the temperatures fall to minus 35 degrees centigrade and remain below freezing point until March. In the lowlands – where cold air gets trapped – temperatures of minus 55 have been recorded. During the brief summer (the growing season only lasts for four months) it can be just as intimidating, with wild swings of the weather: in a 24 hour period it is not unusual to get gales, dust storms, rain, snow and lightening.

The Mongols ferocious reputation as drunkards, whether they were humble herdsmen or great Khans, has a long history. The tales range from sad descriptions of alcohol-sodden beggars crawling through the streets of 19th-century Urga (Ulaanbaatar’s pre-revolutionary name), to the last Khan, Jebtsundamba, who used to stay drunk for a week at a time. Another Khan, Ogodei, became so addicted to alcohol that his brother took the unprecedented step of warning him to cut down on his daily intake or else he would kill himself. The warning went unheeded and Ogodei died of alcoholism, as did his successor, Guyuk.

This penchant for alcohol, which goes right back through the Mongols history, can be easily explained by the fact that they have a readily available and cheap supply of it in the form of ‘ayrag’, or mares milk (horse milk) . The ayrag is not drunk fresh but half fermented so it turns slightly sour. In the process it also turns mildly alcoholic. Whilst ayrag is not a strong drink, the Mongols consume vast quantities of the stuff – it is not unusual for a horseman to drink twenty pints a day – and the abundance of livestock in Mongolia means that there is never a shortage of milk (ayrag can also be made from goats, cows, camels and even yaks milk). The Mongolians also distil their milk to make a stronger drink called ‘shimiin arkhi’. For country Mongols this drink is cheap, enticing and available in virtually unlimited quantities. Drunkeness is an everyday part of life for the Mongolians and it’s looked upon as being quite normal.

So, for centuries the Mongolians were a little known people, living a nomadic existance in a harsh climate whilst being almost permanently intoxicated. It is therefore not surprising that Western scholars constantly wonder how the Mongols could go on to carve out a great empire for themselves during the 13th century. The character, toughness and horsemanship of the Mongols are not enough to explain the phenomenon of their empire. It seems to be down to just one man, Genghis Khan (who was also an alcoholic, prone to fits).

Genghis Khan (1162-1227) was one of those incredible people that history throws up only very rarely. He brought together all the disparate parts of the Mongol people under his leadership and then went on to forge a great empire that coverd most of China and central Asia, stretching as far as Europe. Since this is a brief history of Mongolia, I won’t go into detail about his campaigns, which military historians still admire today, nor indeed the savagery which accompanied them. If interested, the reader is directed to other sources regarding this period of Mongolian history – of which there are many (this article draws heavily on Tim Severin’s excellent book, In Search of Genghis Khan).

After Genghis Khan’ s death in 1227 (and surprisingly he died from natural causes) his descendants continued to rule the Mongol empire. Needless to say, they were all, without exception, ruling through an alcoholic haze and the stories of their drinking are well documented. Despite this, though, the Mongol empire continued to grow until it reached its height under Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. The Mongols rule now stretched from the shores of the Pacific to eastern Europe. In 1275 Marco Polo visited the court of Kublai Khan in what is now Beijing (Peking) and was astounded by its magnificence – this was the period that the Chinese call the Yuan dynasty.

Following Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 (he did die through alcoholism) the Mongol empire began to fall apart and after 300 years of chaos the Chinese Manchurian empire rose to take its place. In 1638 the Chinese expelled the Mongol dynasty – the Yaun – and made it a policy that never again would Mongolia be able to threaten them. As a result of this Mongolia was turned into a vassal state, a vassal state that was purposely neglected by China.

The Mongols had always practised Shamanism (the worship of spirits) and during this period the Chinese introduced Tibetan lamaism, some say in an attempt to sap the fighting spirit of the Mongols. The Mongolians took to lamaism, it suited their earlier notions of the spirit world, and the first Grand Lama was treated like a witch doctor or Shaman. He was followed by six other Grand Lama’s throughout the preceeding centuries and with each the power and wealth of the Church grew. Unfortunately, so did corruption and debauchery.

By the early 20th century, Mongolia had become one of the strangest societies on earth, a grotesque church-state on a path of terminal decay. The king of this bizaare state was also its high priest, the eighth Grand Lama, Khutukhtu. That this priest-king suffered from syphilis and was a sexual deviant was of no particular consequence; he was revered as the spiritual leader of the country. This, despite the fact that he enjoyed exchanging clothes and playing role-reversal games with one of his male servants, was paralytically drunk for weeks at a time, and had as his consort, or ‘the holy goddess’, the former wife of a wrestler, who was notorious for her sexual capers with other Lamas, including her hairdresser.

The Russian Civil War changed the fate of Mongolia: out of the turmoil of revolutionary politics came the ‘Mad Baron’. Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, a renegade Officer in the White Army, crossed into Mongolia in October 1920 and seized power with the help of an irregular force of drunken Mongolian desparados, which he called the Mongolian Cavalry Division. 40 years old and with a pyschotic stare, the Mad Baron was a convert to Buddhism and fervent believer in the hollow earth theory; he was also convinced that he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and followed many of Khan’s barbarous practices. The Mad Baron’s reign was both brief and bloody until he was captured by Red Soldiers in August 1921, to be taken away to Novosibirsk where he was shot. So ended one of the more bizaare periods in Mongolia’s history.

Between 1923 and 1924 the Mongolian Peoples Republic was set up (making it the second oldest communist state in the world). In 1924 the then newly formed Soviet Union declared Mongolia as part of China. In return, China agreed to Mongolia’s self-government.

In 1945, after some clever manoeuvring by Stalin, the Allies persuaded China to give independance to Mongolia. Following this, Mongolia acted as little more than a Soviet garrison, a bulwark between the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain.

History is now turning over another page and it is too early yet to comment on recent developments in Mongolia. Suffice to say, that the Mongolians, as ever, continue to drink too much.

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