The Mongols of Kanas, China

By Dorsey, James Michael | The World and I, March 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Mongols of Kanas, China

Dorsey, James Michael, The World and I

In the far northwestern corner of China, a tiny cultural minority almost unknown to the outer world, lies in a valley where time has stopped. The Tuvan Mongol village of Hemu is a throwback to another era, when mankind lived in close harmony with the earth. It is brightly decorated log cabins, and ancient looking felt gers, nestled between towering mountains and the emerald waters of Lake Kanas, all part of the largest nature preserve in China, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is also one of three small villages outside of Mongolia whose inhabitants claim direct descent from Genghis Khan.

Hemu lies on a point of land directly east of Kazakhstan, south of Russia, and West of Mongolia, where its people cling to the old ways of their ancestors who once conquered most of the known world. Their hereditary homeland of Tuva is an area in southern Mongolia where the people speak a Turkic language mixed with Mongolian. There are currently about 200,000 Tuvans still in Mongolia, with another 35,000 scatted throughout surrounding countries, besides the local population of Kanas. They call themselves, Uryankhai, (oo-rin-high) which translates into "Distant Forest People." They were and are, some of the finest horse people ever to stride a beast.

From 1921 till 1944, Tuva was an independent country. During the Second World War it was annexed by the Soviet Union as an autonomous republic and a buffer against China. Today it has autonomy within the sovereign borders of Mongolia.

The main religion is primarily a form of Tantric Buddhism mixed with ancient animism, and lamas are the local religious leaders. One can see numerous shrines of stacked stones throughout Kanas with offerings of white silk scarves. It is a land straight out of a Hollywood movie. The Tuvans, perhaps because of their deep religious connection to nature, are soft spoken, friendly, and carry themselves with a natural dignity. They are quick to laugh and curious about strangers who venture into their land. Their features are Asiatic, but not Chinese.

While the Tuvans are Chinese citizens, they owe that country no allegiance, because as traditional nomads, they have wandered these mountains since before the time of the great Khan, and the borders of today's maps have wandered just as often. It is commonly accepted that they are the oldest known group of nomads in China and they themselves will tell you they are descended from Khans soldiers, and they have clung so tenaciously to their culture, that they now have autonomous status within the Chinese state of Xinxiang.

In a valley to the south of Kanas there are dozens of stone monoliths; granite behemoths in the shape of men, all standing watch for the past 4000 years, left behind as totemic entreaties for a successful campaign by the khan's hordes as they swept out of the Asian steppes to conquer eastern Europe.

In every Tuvan home, a stylized portrait of Genghis holds a central position, hung with white silk scarves, as both shrine and remembrance of a time when the world trembled at the word Mongol.

The population here is equally divided between traditional nomads who still dwell in felt gers and tend their flocks of goats and sheep, while the rest live in rustic log cabins of Russian design. Since Kanas became a national park, private cars have been banned, but as indigenous residents, many of the Tuvans keep dilapidated trucks on which they load their gers for transport to a new homesite. Nomads do not move for the sake of movement, but rather to keep their animals from overgrazing one spot of land. Tuvan management of their natural resources is a prime reason for the pristine condition of these mountains.

For those who have chosen a more settled lifestyle, things are quite different.

Recently street lights have been introduced in Hemu, and water lines are going in. There are more than a few satellite dishes outside the cabins and solar panels sit on top of sod roofs.

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