Mongolia book reviews

There is a lack of quality English reading material on Mongolia. Even Genghis Khan, who ruled over the greatest empire the world has ever known, is very poorly represented. Happily, this is slowly changing as Mongolia continues to capture the imaginations of adventurers, historians, and armchair travelers. New titles on Mongolia are being released every year. Below I've reviewed some of my favourite books on Mongolia.

I've linked to the books on Book Depository because they have a wide range of more obscure titles, and provide free shipping worldwide.

Best book on Mongolia; Mongolia by Jasper Becker
Best book on Rural Mongolia; Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh
Best book on Genghis Khan; Genghis Khan by Jack Weatherford
Best Adventure Book; Lost in Mongolia by Colin Angus
Best Historical Book; The travels of Marco Polo
Best Film; Mongol by Sergei Bodrov

Best Book on Mongolia
Mongolia: Travels in the Untamed Land [Previously published as, 'The Lost Country'], by Jasper Becker; 1992.

If you read one book about Mongolia, this should be it. Jasper Becker covers a range of topics, many of them hitherto unreported in the Western world, to give the reader a fantastic understanding of the cultural and historical context behind Mongolia today. Equally a travelogue, a history, and a brilliant work of investigative journalism, I think Becker has created a very readable account of violent history that shaped modern Mongolia.

Becker gives a brief overview of Mongolia under Genghis Khan, which is enough to satisfy those unfamiliar with the country's medieval history, but where he truly shines is describing the horrid 50 years Mongolia endured under communist rule. This includes one of the first accounts of the Stalinist purges, conducted under Field Marshall Choibalsan, to be written after the fall of the iron curtain. After relating the terror of Choibalsan, he devotes a few chapters to the rule of later leaders, who were less murderous but presided over the complete erazure of Mongolian history and culture in their efforts to 'Russify' the country into a socialist paradise. Becker does well to convey the dull monotony of life under communism, which was lived amonst a background of fear, and punctuated by rare moments of violence and terror. I think it's very important that visitors read this book in order to appreciate what Mongolians have had to endure, and the great crimes the country is now recovering from.

Becker also devotes a chapter to the 'Mad Baron', perhaps one of the most brutul and murderous leaders of the 21st Century. He also writes extensively about Religion in Mongolia, including a search for Shamans and a description of the persecution suffered by Buddhist monks during the communist purges.

The last few chapters describe the enclaves of Tuva and Buryatia, which are now part of the Russian Federation. I found these chapters a little less engaging, but if anything they highlight how fortunate Mongolia is to have emerged from the communist years as an independent state, and it reinforces how truly horrible were the crimes of communism. All-in-all, this book is a great and informative read. I loaned it to my brother and all he wanted to do was head over the Mongolia to check it out!

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Best Book on life in Rural Mongolia
Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia. Louisa Waugh; 2003.

I've designated this my second-ranked book on Mongolia because it stands out from other travel books by Westerners. Most outsiders on Mongolia, like most travelers (myself included!), tend to saunter across Mongolia and its landscapes, and relate entertaining tales and encounters. Louisa Waugh instead makes the huge effort to immerse herself into Mongolia, by living in a remote village for the better part of a year. In doing so, she's written the only book I've read to truly give the reader an insight into the lives of rural Mongolians.

As a visitor to the odd yurt, I've often wondered what the people get up to day-to-day, and how they live their lives. Waugh describes the hardships of everyday life, the problems and heartaches, and how Mongolian's lives so closely follow the rhythms of the seasons around them (see my weather in Mongolia page; a lot of the info was gleaned from this book).

Waugh worked as a journalist at the UB Post for a couple of years before heading out to the Western village of Tsengel. She is a darn good writer, even quite poetic at times, and relates the hardships and rewards of living as an outsider in Mongolia with grace and honesty. She has a woman's empathy in identifying the forces and subtleties of village relationships and a journalist's eye in picking out those fascinating cultural curiosities which prove so entertaining to the reader.

If Jasper Becker's book gives the best understanding of the historical context of Mongolia, Louisa Waugh provides the greatest insight into the psyche and day-to-day lives of its rural people. A very interesting and enjoyable read!

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Best on Genghis Khan
Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. 2005.

Despite the fact Genghis Khan created the greatest empire the world has ever known, the Mongols didn't really build or record much, and the little evidence which survived his reign was destroyed by the Ming Dynasty and the Communists, who were bent on seeing him erased from history. Consequently, there is a remarkable lack of quality reading material about the man. Jack Weatherford's offering is an accessible history, and as good as any about the life and times of Genghis Khan.

Weatherford is very much a revisionist historian, keen to counter eight hundred years of Genghis Khan's popular depiction as a brutal barbarian. As well as writing a detailed account of the life of Genghis Khan, he goes on to argue why the Mongols advanced humanity from the middle ages to the Renaissance. [It should be noted that Weatherford devotes as much of his book to the rule of Kublai Khan (Genghis' grandson), as he does to Genghis Khan]. The central tenet of Weatherford's argument -written somewhat repeatedly- is that at a time when East Asian and Middle Eastern civilisations were more advanced than those in Europe, the Mongol empire created a globalization of goods, cultures and ideas to the betterment of mankind.

The many kingdoms under Mongol rule had little in common other than paying tribute to their Mongol masters, and allowing the free flow of people, wealth, and innovation (plus the odd disease) throughout the empire. Weatherford argues quite convincingly that this free trade was prelude to world globalization and advanced humanity out of the middle ages. This advancement particularly applied to Western Europe, which gained hugely from technological advances brought by the Mongols from Asia, but did not suffer devastating Mongol conquests (compared against China and the middle East, the Mongols didn't think Europe was worth conquering!).

In writing these strong and informative arguments about the world's largest ever free trade zone, Weatherford does have an alarming tendency to gloss over Mongol atrocities. To paraphrase: well, yes, Genghis Khan and his Mongols did murder tens of millions of people, eradicating Chinese and Middle Eastern civilisations and precipitating their general decline which lasted the next 700 years, but you know, they were actually a pretty friendly bunch of lads, and they did introduce silk, rice, and the abacus to the survivors -which must have pleased them no end. He also goes into the somewhat distasteful business of disputing death counts, arguing the Mongols didn't kill 30 million people as is commonly figured, but more like a negligable 10 million. It's all somewhat akin to thanking Hitler for introducing BMWs and Bosch ovens to the world.

Somewhat incredibly, the book also argues that Genghis conquered the largest empire the world has ever known because he was provoked into doing so; to Weatherford, Genghis was a pacifist who would have been content to stay in his tent and tend his sheep if it weren't for those pesky foreign sovereigns constantly provoking him. How he repeatedly makes such a self-assured relation of Genghis Khan's mind-set over 600 years later is a bit of a mystery to me.

Either way, Weatherford's account makes for an interesting argument. I was asked to provide some thoughts on whether Genghis Khan was a murderer or a moderniser, and I gathered most of the information from Weatherford's informative book. See the paper here.

In Weatherford's view, the atrocities of the Mongols have been given far too much weight in the popular imagination, and he makes no apologies for emphasising the positives brought about by Mongol rule. Despite its biases, it's an interesting and engaging read. Most travel books on Mongolia write an obligatory five or ten pages on Genghis Khan, and then move on to other topics. For those seeking a more in-depth account of the life and times of one of the world's most amazing leaders, you will find this book quite worthwhile.

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Best Adventure book
Lost in Mongolia: Rafting the World's Last Unchallenged River. Colin Angus, 2001.

In 2001, Canadian adventurer Colin Angus got a small, shoe-string crew together and made a first-descent of the entire length of the Ider-Selenge-Angara-Yenisey river system (the world's 5th-longest river, see my rivers in Mongolia page for more information). His book relates this marvellous adventure in raw detail. Angus' writing style won't go winning him any literature prizes, it's more like a travel journal than anything, but the raw adventure he relates neeeds no embellishment.

It truly is an amazing and entertaining story, as Angus and his mates frequently skirt between intrepedness, recklessness, and downright stupidity. These guys really did just hope for the best at times; there are numerous lines like, 'nobody had been down or mapped this whitewater before, we heard a distant roar of water down around the corner of the gorge and decided we'd float down and find out what it was'. Whether it was striking out overnight in freezing temperatures with nothing but their underwear, or rowing down a busy shipping lane in the dark, there are numerous times when they truly put their own lives at risk. I say this with an equal measure of admonishment and admiration, because in spite of the risks they took and lack of preparation, they somehow managed to accomplish their mission and had such an amazing experience doing so.

They survived floods, storms and capsized boats, and braved encounters with with the Mongolian Army, Russian Mafia, Siberian hunters. This book will not teach you a lot about Mongolia (half of it transpires in Russia) but those heading to the region with adventure at heart will find it a rollicking good read.

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Best Historical Book
The Travels of Marco Polo

Marco Polo, the legendary Venetian merchant, travelled overland to modern-day Beijing in the year 1272. At the time, goods appeared down the silk road from the mystical lands to the East, but extremely rarely did anybody dare to actually travel its length. In Marco's time, China was ruled by Kubilai Khan (Genghis' grandson), who presided over the Mongol empire at its zenith. Marco was a guest of the royal court, he was much valued for his knowledge of the West and ingratiated himself into Kubilai's inner circle. From Beijing he spent many years traveling around the vast reaches of the empire, possibly as a government official.

After more than 20 years in Asia, Marco wished to go home but the Khan would not release him. He risked his life to escape on a perilous voyage from China to Italy, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Genoese, who were at the time warring with the Venetians. It was in jail that Marco dictated his story to a cellmate. That story was then recorded and transcribed, and then re-transcribed by others, and there is no authoritative version. It has taken on something of the nature of an oral history: that's a polite way of saying it's at times repetitive, exaggerated, and historically innaccurate. This has lead some to claim that it is complete fiction, but for most it rings true, and represents one of the greatest recorded adventures in human history.

You do need a fair bit of patience to read this book. The cities and kingdoms he writes of aren't immediately recognizable, so the reader has to rely on the accompanying tedious notes of academics who themselves often don't exactly know where he's talking about. Then it's sometimes difficult to know whether Marco is describing a place he's actually visited himself, or one which he's merely relating second-hand (where he gets a detail completely wrong, one can safely assume he's relating the story second hand). The book can be somewhat repetitive; endless pages move from one unknown city to the next, you will see a hundred chapters titled "Concerning the City of [insert unknown city]:", they then go on to say "The City of [insert city] lies on the river [insert unknown river]. It's people are traders and merchants, and worship the God Mohammed. The city is made of mud-brick houses. Now let us leave this city and go to the city of [insert other unknown city]". And so on.

However, for those willing to endure the dry parts, the book can be hugely rewarding. Paramount is the sheer adventure of it all! It's difficult for a modern reader to conceptualize how it must have been to live at a time when far away lands -their cities, animals, people, and customs- were completely unknown. No images, no television, no internet; one's conception of the outside world was all just based on hearsay, and only a handful of Westerners had ever traveled to the kingdoms of the East and ever returned. Marco describes giant snakes with razor sharp teeth which live in the water and can eat humans (i.e. crocodiles), an amazing black substance which people can simply dig out of the ground to burn long and cleanly (i.e. coal), and brown cannon balls hanging from island trees full of sweet water (i.e. coconuts), notes that are exchanged for goods and services in place of gold (i.e. paper money). Just to imagine having to describe these things which nobody you know can even conceive of! Marco took such a leap into the great unknown that it surely represents one of the greatest adventures of all time. It really does make a modern tourist's horseride across Mongolia seem like child's play in comparison. As in the book: there was never a man, be he Christian or Muslim or Mongol or Heathen, who ever traveled over so much of the world as did that noble and illustrious citizen of the City of Venice, Messer Marco Polo.

Plus, there are a number of intriguing and salacious details about the court of Kubilia Khan. See my selection of interesting excerpts from The travels of Marco Polo here. Even allowing for some healthy exaggeration in Marco's account, his first-hand descriptions of the workings of the greatest kingdom of all time are amazing to read.

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Best Movie
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. 2007.

A joint Russian-Mongolian production, this historical action film is intended to be the first installment of an epic trilogy following the rise of the young boy 'Temujin' as he grows to become the great Genghis Khan. It's a film that appeals to a wide audience: some would enjoy the action and battles , while others appreciate the historical qualities and the film's wonderful cinematography, which beautifully captures the harsh beauty of the Mongolian landscape [most of the filming took place in Chinese Inner Mongolia].

In many ways the joint Russian-German-Mongolian production can be seen as the East's answer to Braveheart and Gladiator. Blood oaths, undying love, great battles, violence, treachery and betrayal.. the film has all the necessary ingredients for a Hollywood action drama, but it's exotic nature, Mongolian dialogue and beautiful scenery make it particularly enjoyable.

The film did come under some criticism for its historical inaccuracies (such as a Japanese actor playing Genghis Khan) and was met with limited box office success in the West. Many have viewed the violence as excessive. But fans of big Hollywood action epics and keen readers of the Colin Iggulden's Wolf of the Plains fictional drama on the rise of Genghis will love it, and those prospective travelers wishing to know more about Mongolia will find it worth watching.

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