There are places in this world that are not necessarily of it; places that defy a visitor's perception of reality, where the merging of spiritual and material transport the pilgrim to another realm. One such place is in the Altai Mountains of western China where the boundaries of Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan collide on a map. It is a land before time.
There in the high valleys of Xianging Province, when a nimbus encircles the full moon, it will talk to the wind, and local people will tell you that is the spirit of Genghis Khan, watching over them.
The land is called Kanas, and while a part of China, it is overseen by llamas and shamans. Motoring into its gateway, the tiny village of Hemu, wary old men in the open-air coffee shop eye me warily as a rare western visitor. I know that means I will have a government shadow during my visit. The village shops are stocked with charms, amulets, potions, and sun-dried animal parts, all tools of the trade for the various mystical professions that reside in the highlands. Soothsayers and bone readers abound in Kanas.
Cabins of local llamas are festooned with white scarves, kata left behind by pilgrims seeking indulgences, much like Christian votive candles. Rock cairns adorned with wind-shredded prayer flags rise as so many personal altars. Camels and long-maned horses graze freely, the descendants of ancient herds of war animals. Reindeer are bred not for meat but for their antlers that are harvested annually and sent to China where they are ground into powdered "aphrodisiacs," Kanas is a land unto itself.
Every home hosts a portrait of the Great Khan, framed by a white silk kata. While he is not considered a deity, he is nevertheless venerated through the local archaic practice of Tiingrism, an animist form of ancestor worship indigenous to the Asian Steppes.
The pristine forests and lakes of Kanas are thick with myth and legend, where spirits wander freely and people hold conversations with long-departed ancestors. The land is spotted with felt yurts of nomadic herders, resembling giant mushrooms, and decaying log cabins left behind by Russian loggers of more than a century ago. Tuvan throat singers summon spirits by playing river reeds that simulate the call of wind deities. It is a society whose daily life revolves around ceremony and ritual, infused with animist superstition. There is no wasted motion here. Every act is symbolic, every movement a prayer; everyone connected to a world unimaginable to non-believers.
It is also in these high valleys that the last physical remains of an army that once conquered the known world continue to stand watch.
Genghis Khan, (1162-1227) whose given name was Borjigin Temujin, united dozens of warring tribal factions to form the finest cavalry army the world has even seen—an army that conquered most of the then-known world. The Khan was himself a sort of shaman, known not only for his tolerance of other beliefs, but an active pursuit in learning from them. He consulted Christian missionaries, Buddhist monks, Muslim merchants, and even sought out a Chinese Taoist monk named Qiu Chuji to pursue his teachings. While history has labeled him a blood-thirsty thug, he was known to assimilate conquered peoples into his army, giving them equal status and treatment.
Genghis Khan is also credited with creating the first long-distance mail service, instituting a written language based on Uyghur script that is still in use today, and for spreading religious tolerance among the various faiths of his followers. He popularized paper money and instituted diplomatic immunity for foreign ambassadors. On a lighter note, there is the advent of steak tartar, attributed to his men placing raw meat under their saddles to tenderize it while they rode. These are not the actions of a knuckle-dragging barbarian.
In such a culture, symbolism and ceremony were not only integral parts of a complex belief system, but necessary physical reminders to a vast unsophisticated army of what they were trying to accomplish. Armies throughout history have been motivated by symbolism and the Mongol army was mostly uneducated peasants and herders, bred to the saddle and war from birth, but ignorant of the loftier ideas of their day. For the average soldier, it was but a dangerous job, but those that saw glory shrouding the Khan became unwavering disciples. To give meaning to his goals, many believe that the Mongol army erected dozens of hand-cut monoliths, granite effigies whose true meaning is now lost in the fog of time but, that have left clues for those of us in the modern world to ponder and search for what took place in these remote mountains so long ago.
At first sight, the stones are majestic, standing upright as though at attention like members of the army that created them. They are black and grey, weathered and chipped, roughened by the passing centuries. They are widely dispersed across a high, alpine valley strewn with rugged boulders. When the wind howls like a banshee, the monoliths have been said to dance. To take in dozens at once is like confronting a vanguard, an advanced patrol before the arrival of the massive army that is following.
The stones vary in size and shape, the smallest are no larger than a big dog, while others rise as high as eight feet and have remains of facial features, or vestigial hands. Though most of the detail has been lost to the ravages of nature they bear no stylistic resemblance to any known form. Any carved text that would reveal information has long been weathered away, leaving an interpretation of their meaning as varied as the nomads who consider these monoliths to be sacred sites.
The very fact that they are made of stone and not wood suggests that the Khan, or whomever might be the perpetrator, sought a permanent monument or record of his or her passing, besides the immediate religious implications of such carvings.
Carving stone takes time and to do so with the finesse shown in these monoliths implies not just skilled craftsmen, but artisans of a high order, all the more fascinating since they were cut by a transient army of fast-moving cavalry. Or were they? There is almost assuredly religious significance invested in the monoliths, and that implies priests of some order or at least shamans who held high rank within the army, not to mention the Khan himself.
This immense natural amphitheater would serve as a perfect site for a benign dictator, claiming shamanic powers and gifted with oratory to rally his army to conquer Eastern Europe. So, a few monoliths couldn't hurt. Think of them as 12Th century P.R.
As the first rays of a full moon crest the rocky peaks above me I enter the valley. A blueish white corona rises over me like a saintly halo as filter soft moonlight illuminates the great stones, stretching long shadows like a low spotlight on a giant chessboard. Walking among them I listen for the voices of those who came here before me. Since speech is the vibration of atoms, it never truly dissipates. This traveler chooses to believe that those with open hearts and souls can hear long-dormant sounds if they are sincere. I listen for the neighs of a thousand horses and the lusty voices raised in song by an army in encampment. I imagine hundreds of campfires and soldiers walking about with torches. Under the paint-spattered Milky Way, I feel I am in a vast cathedral, and just like Christian statues in a church, these stones have born witness to centuries of history while acting as conduits to a higher plane.
The muted dirge of a shepherd's flute comes to me on the wind. It is ethereal and mournful and I wonder if it is a lament or a summons, or perhaps it is a spirit communing with me. Since first arriving, I have carried a keen sense that I had been here before, and that is a feeling I have had many times before.
Traveling now within my own mind, I lay hands on each stone as I walk, willing them to talk to me, pleading with them to release their secrets. I talk to them as fellow travelers with stories to tell, but on this night, the stones are silent. For me, it has been enough to have been connected to the ancient world through their presence.
While the stones have been dated to the era of the Khan, the world will never truly know if it was his army that left them behind. Perhaps they were raised before their arrival by an even earlier culture. While the people of Kanas have no doubts as to their origin, the fact remains that no one alive today was there when it happened, and that reduces all theories to conjecture.
But does it really matter who carved and mounted the stones? It should be enough that they exist as a pathway to the past, a monument to humanity, and at once, cultural artistic works of the highest order.
Mother Earth loves to keep secrets from us, her children, and the longer she holds them the less likely we are to ever know the truth. Perhaps some truths are never meant to be known. The stones of Genghis Khan are a tantalizing example.
Kanas is one of China's newest national parks, easily accessible from nearby major cities, and any number of tour companies will now take you there. Once in Kanas, you still have to travel high up into the Altai and ask nomads where the stones are, at least that is how it was when I did it. It takes a special person to go there on one's own, and for those who do, I hope the stones speak to them.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
Breaking Bread in Kanas - James Michael Dorsey
Crossing the Creases of Wild Kyrgyzstan - Tim Leffel
Seeking Enlightenment at the Golden Rock - James Michael Dorsey
Cutting the Cheese Mongolian Style - Marco Ferrarese
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