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The Spirit of Genghis Khan

The Stone Monoliths of Kanas, China

Article and photos by James Michael Dorsey
4/16/2015

Tuvan nomad yurts in China
The yurts in which the Tuvan nomads dwell in Northwestern China.

The high country of Northwestern China is tucked against a shark-fin line on a map that separates it from Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia. Explorers and resolute travelers will discover a land soaked in myth, legend, and mystery.

Xinxiang province, also known as the Uyghur Autonomous Region, is more eastern European in flavor than Chinese. At the northern tip, in the Altai Mountains, Kanas is a Mongol enclave still under the spell of legendary Genghis Khan.

Tantric Buddhism merged with animism provides the unique background for daily life under the benign watch of a high llama. The people are mostly Tuvans, of throat singing fame. Tuvans are direct descendants of the Mongol cavalry that swept southwest out of these mountains a millennium and a half ago to conquer Eastern Europe. They call themselves Uryankhai, (oo-rin-high), which roughly translates into “Distant forest people,” and speak a Turkic dialect mixed with Mongol.

A throat-singer
A throat-singer.

The Village of Hemu

The main village of Hemu is a collection of log cabins with sod roofs left behind by Russian loggers who annexed the land during the Second World War. Lizards, frogs, and snakes hang, drying in the sun, from porch eaves, to be used at the appropriate time in shamanic rituals. Reindeer are kept corralled, not for meat or transport, but for their antlers. The antlers renew each season, and the local people believe they contain aphrodisiacal qualities.

Every cabin has animal bone talismans by the door to ward off evil spirits. Soothsayers abound, ready to roll bones and stones to read your future. The centerpiece of every home is a portrait of the great Khan framed by a prayer scarf. All paintings are artists' interpretations, as no known image of Genghis Khan exists.

Portrait of Genghis Khan
Portrait of Genghis Khan framed by a prayer scarf.

People ride camels in the region as much as they do horses. Cars are a little known form of transportation. A common encounter in the village involves meeting a local walking around with a large hunting eagle perched with its claws atop an outstretched arm.

Hunting eagle perched on arm
The author with a hunting eagle perched on his arm.

Genghis Khan: The Man and the Legend

Genghis Khan was born Borjigin Temujin. Military prowess aside, he was primarily a shaman steeped in Tengriism, an indigenous, animist form of ancestor worship involving totems. Today, the stone totems of Kanas are the last physical remains and verification of Temujin’s mystical powers.

In his day, he was known for religious tolerance, consulting Christian missionaries, Buddhist monks, Muslim merchants, and even seeking out a Chinese Taoist monk named Qiu Chuji to interpret his teachings—all of which must have greatly influenced his thinking.

Local people will tell you that Genghis Khan's main camp was in the high valleys of Kanas, where he assembled his cavalry, inspiring them to battle through pomp and ceremony. Like all oral histories, these oral tales are often flavored by each storyteller and filtered through eons of history. Today, hand carved stone monoliths, the remnants of those ceremonies, stand watch over the high country.

A Land of Stone Monoliths

Leaving Hemu behind, a drive into the highlands reveals boulder-filled valleys with felt yurts of the nomads sprouting all about like mushrooms after a rainstorm, each possessing hobbled camels grazing nearby, and still the main form of local transport. The cabin of a local llama is easily identified by countless prayer scarves tied to the fence. A walk up most any nearby trail reveals cairns of stone, stupa-like, some with raised prayer flags, continually sending their entreaties skyward on the wind.

Prayer flags tied to a fence
Prayer flags tied to a fence.

Stone shamanic shrine
Stone cairns, the equivalent of a shaman's shrine (altar).

At night, in this magical and mysterious land, stars alone illuminate the rock faces and give form to the high clouds that can fill the valleys like cotton candy. The silence can be deafening except when a throat singer begins to chant, while each yurt in turn adds its tonal vibrations until the mountain resonates with prayer. This is when the spirits of the monoliths roam.

From a distance, they appear in a single file, widely spaced, like wandering mendicants. Some are simple, free standing stone, while others bear human resemblance, some have hands folded on their chest, and some have the remains of a human-like face; all are carved from local rock, most likely granite. They range in size from about three to eight feet tall. Tuvan herdsmen will tell you they speak in moans while they contract in the cold night air and expand in the morning sun. 

The monoliths are rough to the touch, but that is in the very nature of the stone from which they are carved. The finished surface is remarkably smooth due to having been carved with rudimentary tools in the high mountains. However, they give no sense of being art. They are totemic, having a practical purpose rather than a decorative one. The monoliths give off an unmistakable aura of power.

Stone monolith with a face
Stone monolith with a face.

But What Do the Monoliths Mean?

As with many clues left to us from the ancient past, speculation is the primary available option when we seek some form of understanding. An army the size of Temujin’s would have had no lack of skilled artisans and laborers. Stonemasons, capable of such carvings, are certainly credible in producing such a juggernaut, just as they would have been invaluable artisans when besieging fortifications. A Shaman held great traditional powers. For Temujin aka Genghis Khan to have held shamanic powers while being a sovereign military ruler, he would have held almost deity-like status. 

Ceremony has long been an effective means of whipping an army into frenzy for battle. One can imagine the high valleys of Kanas filled with bonfires as the mighty Khan orated and cast spells. The monoliths might represent ancestors, or spiritual beings. Perhaps they pay homage to warriors of particular prowess. Alternatively, maybe they are in some way like Christian statues, designed to focus the pilgrim on their spiritual quests and requests. The possible meanings are endless in a ritualized culture centered around symbolism, and there are as many local interpretations as there are storytellers. For now, the mysterious stones maintain their silence.

Kanas is just starting to receive the first infusion of outside trekkers. Soon the attention will bring with it anthropologists, archeologists, and scientists of all fields to tackle the mystery of the monoliths. Currently there remains little available information about the mysterious monoliths available on the web, only general references from comparative religion and mythology scholars.

Like all ancient wonders left to us from past lives, symbolic works of art abounding with various meanings, we may never know their true purposes—but that is ultimately not really of primary importance.

The monoliths are a physical link between a momentous time in world history and the current era in which we live. They have watched over the valley for fifteen hundred years. The mysterious stones perhaps hold stories and secrets that are only accessible to those who enter the spirit world.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, award winning author, photographer, and lecturer. He has traveled extensively in 45 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His main pursuit is visiting remote tribal cultures in Asia and Africa. See his bio for more about James and his articles for Transitions Abroad. Visit James Dorsey's website at www.jamesdorsey.com.

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Adventure Travel
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