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In search of Genghis Khan's capital

9:05:29 AM CDT - Thursday, November 03, 2005

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

A year after a Japanese and Mongolian research team announced they had unearthed the site of Genghis Khan's palace, WSU historian Helen Hundley was bumping along dirt roads and torn-up highways, escorted by a local driver and Buddhist monk, to see the site for herself.

It was a matter of good timing that brought Hundley, who does research in Russian and Siberian history, to Mongolia so soon after the discovery. She had been planning to visit the country, sandwiched between Russia and China, for several years. Next year, it will have been 800 years since Genghis Khan formed his fabled Mongolian empire.

Hundley
Photo by David Dinell
Helen Hundley, who specializes in Siberian history, traveled to Mongolia, located south of Russia, to visit the site of Genghis Khan's palace and to learn more about the country, which has several connections to Russian and Siberian history and culture.
Besides seeing the ruins of Genghis' palace in the tiny village of Karakorum, Hundley visited nomadic herdsmen, Buddhist temples and a 350-year-old festival that featured the ancient sports of horse racing, wrestling and archery during her two-week trip a few months ago.

For Hundley, traveling to Mongolia and finding out more about its history and culture is a natural extension of her work in Siberian history. She's written a paper about Mongolia in the past, on the London Missionary Society's missions to the country.

Based on her most recent trip, Hundley plans to give a paper about Karakorum and its significance at the upcoming southeast conference of the American Association for Asian Studies, being held in January at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

"The more we know about these places, the more we see their connectedness," said Hundley.

Mongolia had gained its independence from China by 1924 with the aid of the Soviet Union. A few years later, the country established a Communist regime, with the help of the Soviet Union.

Hundley has focused much of her research on the area around Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake, located just north of the Mongolian-Russian border. In previous trips, she has met with Russian university colleagues at Ulan-Ude, a city north of Mongolia that is the home of Russian Buddhism. Buddhism made its way to Russia by way of Mongolia, according to Hundley.

Mongolia
Courtesy photo by Helen Hundley
Archers take part in the Festival of Zanabazar. Helen Hundley, associate professor of history, attended the 350-year-old sporting competition during her trip to Mongolia.
While the city that once was Genghis' home, where world travelers and dignitaries visited, is now only a village, there still is a large monastery of Buddhist monks. Parts of the monastery were built with Genghis' palace.

While on her way to visit Karakorum and Genghis' capital ruins, which were found on a grassy steppe 150 miles east of the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, Hundley and her two guides dropped in unannounced at the tents of some nomadic herdsmen.

It's a common custom among Mongolian travelers to make such stops as they travel along the countryside.

"In the country, anyone who shows up is company," Hundley explained, noting that few signs and few towns exist in the countryside.

Visitors are treated to food and the nomads' ubiquitous drink of warm fermented mare's milk, and are often invited to stay.

Hundley's icebreaker to conversing with the group was when she asked if any of them had seen the documentary "The Weeping Camel," which is about a family of herders in Mongolia's Gobi region. Interestingly enough, the older nomadic woman had, having watched it three times on her DVD player that was powered by a solar generator.

Besides visiting and photographing several Buddhist monasteries along the way, Hundley was excited to go to the 350-year-old festival in Karakorum, which is rarely attended by outsiders. A more popular festival for tourists had been held a few weeks earlier in the country.

Hundley also spent time in Ulan Bator, experiencing urban life in Mongolia. She even visited a sports bar, where the most popularly viewed sport is sumo wrestling.

Hundley plans to continue her travels to further her research. She's received a university grant to go next summer to the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom to study its Siberian collection.



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