The Spirit of Genghis Khan
Stone Monoliths of Kanas, China
Article and photos by James
|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
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.
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 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.
|The author with
a hunting eagle perched on his arm.
Genghis Khan: The Man and the Legend
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
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
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.
|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
|Stone monolith with
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.