Horse races, open spaces and the fate of Genghis Khan's balls

In his first dispatch from an epic Beijing-St. Petersburg train trip, our correspondent explores the mysteries of Mongolia.

By Rolf Potts

Published November 9, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The horse, which had collapsed 300 meters short of the finish line, was in its final spasms of death when a khaki-vested American stumbled up and started snapping pictures. Bearded and rotund, with gray-flecked hair and a bulky rack of photographic equipment, he struck a vivid contrast to the Mongolians crowded in around him.

Once he'd fired through an entire roll of film, the man looked back at me sheepishly. "Sorry to be so vulgar," he said, slurring his words a bit. "This just looks like something that needs to be photographed."

"It's your world," I told him.

Ten meters beyond the restraining cord, a white-frocked pair of Mongolian veterinarians jogged up to assess the scene. The horse's rider, an exhausted-looking 10-year-old with lather-slicked legs, stood by tearfully.

Beyond the dying horse, the broad, grassy plain hummed with other child riders spurring their horses toward the finish line. Thousands of Naadam Festival spectators crowded the final stretch for half a mile in both directions. Purple thunderheads rumbled above -- lending a grand, vaguely sinister air to the scene. I watched as one of the veterinarians plunged a syringe into the horse's throat.

"It's my world," the American went on, "but normally I wouldn't do this. It's all that Iraq in me that's taking the photos."


"Aaaaiiiiiraaak," he said, drunkenly drawing out his vowels. "Arak. It's the Mongolian national drink. Complete strangers have been coming up all day and pouring it down my throat. It's like Mexicans with tequila, only arak is made from fermented mare's milk, so it's like getting drunk on yogurt."

"Can't say that sounds too appealing."

"Well, Genghis Khan drank it every day, and he conquered the world."

"Right. Kind of like Michael Jordan and Gatorade."

The American smirked. "Sure," he said. "But don't say that too loud. People take Genghis Khan really seriously around here. They see him as kind of a combination between Jesus and Napoleon and Tarzan. He's father of their country."

"Sure," I said. "The Mongolian George Washington."

"Yeah, but Genghis Khan pretty much makes George Washington look like a wig-wearing sissy, doesn't he?" The bearded American paused and leaned in confidentially. "But then, George Washington isn't the one who got his balls cut off."

For a moment, I forgot about the dying horse. "What do you mean Genghis Khan had his balls cut off?"

"I mean Genghis Khan had his balls cut right off. Common knowledge."

"I've never heard that in my life. Who cut his balls off?"

"I think one of his concubines did it. Kind of a Lorena Bobbit thing. I don't know the details; I just know that it's a fact. If you don't believe me, ask around. Someone here is bound to know the whole story."

On the hoof-trampled plain in front of us, the horse had stopped its spasms. The veterinarians waved in a front-end loader, which rumbled up and unceremoniously plunked the dead horse into a big Russian garbage truck. Unable to resist, the bearded photographer loaded another roll of film and jogged off to capture the best angle.

After watching the garbage truck drive off with the stiffening horse in the back, it was several hours before I could shake the macabre image from my mind.

The mysterious question of Genghis Khan's missing testicles, on the other hand, nagged me for weeks.

Though it makes for a wonderfully novel experience, traveling to Ulan Bator during the annual Naadam Festival is probably not the best way to experience Mongolia's capital. Granted, the grand ceremonies, day-long wrestling matches and spectacular horse races are awe-inspiring sights, but -- as with New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls -- Naadam turns Ulan Bator into a cramped cosmopolis of careening tour buses and drunken amateur photographers. And, given the unfettered excitement Naddam inspires in Mongolians, interaction with locals is as futile as trying to engage an American on Super Bowl Sunday.

That I happened to be in Mongolia during Naadam is purely a coincidence. From the outset of my plans, Ulan Bator had simply been the first of a number of stops that my cousin Dan and I had planned to take along a classic 5,280-mile rail trip from Beijing to St. Petersburg. Dan had come all the way to China from Kansas (where both of us grew up) to join me for a journey we'd been planning for over a year.

Our initial 30-hour ride to Ulan Bator from Beijing featured endless glimpses of the exotic -- from fog-shrouded vistas of the Great Wall, to camels a-trot in the Gobi, to a set of huge hydraulic cranes at the China-Mongolia border that lifted each train-car off the ground as the wheels were changed to fit the new track-gauge. None of this, however, prepared us for the eccentricities we found on the windy, Soviet-styled streets of Ulan Bator.

There, on the drab urban avenues of Mongolia's capital, locals armed with Sony camcorders galloped on horseback through the festival crowds. Three dozen Scottish boy scouts, in town for a service project, posed in their kilts near the Mongolian Hunting Trophy Museum (which, according to a report in the tourist newspaper, features "amazing unbelievable big and nice trophies of ibex, elk and rose deer"). In the center of town, a half-dozen different documentary crews prowled Sukhbaatar Square, looking for something that looked Mongolian enough to put on film. Sneaker-shod locals rubbed shoulders with tourists bedecked in full Mongolian costumes.

Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's 100-person entourage (there as part of a state visit) crept from event to event in a heavily guarded motorcade, looking impressive and ridiculous at the same time. English-language newspapers advertised gay and lesbian peer education workshops, the eight-lane Mon-Kor bowling alley had just opened for business and -- for the first time in festival history -- the Naadam wrestlers were being tested for performance-enhancing drugs.

Aside from our tour guide and bus driver, the first true Mongolian I met in Ulan Bator was a man called Mr. Blue. Though I chatted with Mr. Blue on a couple of different occasions, the only vivid thing I remember from our conversations is his story about why camels' penises point backward.

Middle-aged and dressed in J. Crew-style casuals, Mr. Blue originally approached Dan and me at Suhkbaatar Square, offering his services as a tour guide. Since we already had a guide, we declined. When I saw him the following day, we exchanged pleasantries -- and this led to a conversation that rapidly moved to the topic of camel penises, a well-rehearsed shtick that is no doubt part of Mr. Blue's daily routine.

Apparently, not long after the world was created, God (or, at least, the Mongolian equivalent deity) realized that it was too troublesome to rebuild animals every time they died. Seizing on a brainstorm, God decided to redesign animals so that they could reproduce themselves. In a moment of inspiration, God manufactured a number of sexual organs, and called the animals in to be fitted. One by one, the animals came to claim their new appendages, until every animal had a penis except the arrogant, dilly-dallying camel. When God called the camel in to claim the final penis, the camel decided he didn't like the looks of it, and trotted off before God could attach it. Angered by the camel's insolence, God threw the penis at the camel and it attached backward, as it remains to this day.

In retrospect, it's a shame we never hired Mr. Blue as our guide the day of the horse races. After all, he -- as an apparent expert on genital-related Mongolian mythology -- might have elaborated a bit on Genghis Khan's fate.

My time in Ulan Bator was not entirely dominated by phallocentric yarn-spinning. In fact, much of my time in Mongolia was spent in the countryside, where -- because accommodations in the city had been long since booked for the festival -- Dan and I stayed in a ger (a traditional Mongolian felt tent) campground with other members of our tour group.

Many travelers don't care much for tour groups, because organized tours tend to "denarrate" one's travel experience. "Denarration" (to borrow a word coined by Douglas Coupland) is when one's experience ceases to contain elements of chance or drama or unexpected discovery. Thus, the problem some travelers have with tours is not that they aren't interesting or educational or enjoyable -- but that organized tours don't leave one with much of a story to tell. Somehow, lighting your long-stem Mongolian tobacco pipe with a glowing brick of cow dung loses its verve when you arrived at the nomad's tent in a Korean-made mini-bus.

This in mind, my most vivid memory of the tourist camp comes not from the horse rides or the lamb stews, but from the time Dan and I skipped out on the planned activities and hiked off into the smooth curves of the Mongolian landscape. Since there were no trees or fences or roads to guide (or impede) our way, we walked in a straight line toward the horizon for nearly two hours. Keeping a steady pace, we stopped only to examine the occasional dried cow skull or the odd piles of half-melted glass left behind by the nomads. Marmots peered out at us from the edge of their holes, wallowing in cuteness, as if impassively waiting for someone to saunter up and nominate them as Olympic mascots. We eventually halted our hike at the crest of a rounded ridge and took a seat to stare out at the sloping sea of grass.

Although most visitors to Mongolia rave about the humbling emptiness of the steppe, perhaps Kansans such as Dan and myself are best equipped to appreciate its beauty. As home to the largest contiguous stretch of virgin tall grass prairie left in North America, the aesthetic appeal of Kansas is like a simple folk tune that one learns to appreciate over the course of many seasons. Mongolia, on the other hand, has enough virgin grassland to swallow up the entire landmass of Kansas five times over. Taking in the Mongolian steppe is like looking at Kansas on steroids -- a joyous Wagnerian symphony of blue sky, open spaces and grassy curves stretching out to everywhere.

Too often, as citizens of the 20th century, we draw our conclusions about the world by tracking the urban quirks and innovations that bring change to improbable places such as Mongolia. Visitors to central Asia early this century spoke of such change when the head monk of the Mongolian lamasery was said to have developed a taste for pornography, sunbathing and firing his American-made shotgun. Historians later trumpeted change in the 1920s, when the Communist Party seized control of a country that (as a subsistence-based nomad culture) had no workers to unite. The notion of change was reiterated by optimistic journalists in the 1950s, when Chinese-made textile mills and Russian-sponsored chemical factories gave Ulan Bator a sense of urban bustle. These days, urban crime, Internet cafes and sports utility vehicles on the streets of Ulan Bator tempt me to recast Mongolia as a California-in-the-making.

But one afternoon in the enormity of the Mongolian steppe tempered my urge to generalize. The grassy expanse beyond the urban limits of Ulan Bator hinted that -- in the open spaces of the world -- pre-history itself still holds a quiet upper hand on our noisy little parades of change.

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While in Mongolia, I never did find out what happened to Genghis Khan's balls.

To be honest, I really didn't ask around much, since I feared broaching this topic with Mongolians might seem as crude and irrelevant as asking Christians how divinity affected the odor of Christ's bowel movements.

Ultimately, my curiosity was sated in a distinctly denarrated manner -- not by a wizened Mongolian hermit claiming to be descended from the Khan himself, or an Indiana Jones-style archaeologist leading an Ark of the Covenant-style quest for the dismembered gonads -- but in a library, miles away from the Great Khan's domain.

According to this legend, Genghis Khan was hunting one winter's day when he killed a rabbit in the snow. Noticing the striking contrast of the rabbit's blood on the snow's surface, he decided that he wanted a woman so perfect and beautiful that her skin was as white as snow, and her cheeks as red as fresh blood. The kingdom was searched, and such a woman was found -- the new bride of the prince of Ulankhota.

On threat of death, the prince handed his wife over to Mongolia's great warrior, but she -- still faithful to her true love -- entered the Khan's chambers with a knife hidden in the folds of her garment. When Genghis came to her that night, she responded to his advances by cutting off his genitals, then jumped to her death in a river. The Great Khan, it is said, fell unconscious from the shock, and never awakened.

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Dan and I left Ulan Bator one day after the Naadam closing ceremonies. As our train pulled out of the city, Mongolia's capital had already shifted down to a quiet, sleepy pace that -- in comparison to the kinetic colors of Naadam -- almost made it seem abandoned.

Within 12 hours of our departure from Ulan Bator, my cousin was still safely cruising into the heart of Siberia. I on the other hand -- in a bizarre collusion of circumstances involving a Russian tank commander and two particularly unpleasant train provodnitsas -- somehow managed to strand myself and two of my cabin-mates 250 miles from Ulan Bator at an obscure Russian border town called Naushki.

Such was the luck that greeted the next leg of my trans-Siberian odyssey.

Tomorrow: Stranded in the land of Gog and Magog

Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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