Magazine article History Today

Centaur of Attention: John Man, Author of Biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila, Traces the Journey That Took Him to Mongolia and Hungary, with a Detour to the Gobi, and Reveals the Secrets of Mounted Archery

Magazine article History Today

Centaur of Attention: John Man, Author of Biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila, Traces the Journey That Took Him to Mongolia and Hungary, with a Detour to the Gobi, and Reveals the Secrets of Mounted Archery

Article excerpt

IT STARTED IN VIENNA, while I was away from university for a year as an exchange teacher. This was the 1960s. The edge of the Soviet empire was an hour's drive away. One summer afternoon, I stared at the wire and the watchtowers on the Czech border and dreamed of exploring the immense and closed-off universe beyond, of finding somewhere remote, exotic and very hard to get to.

Back in Oxford the next autumn, a notice named the very place. It was a request for applications to join an expedition to Mongolia. Perfect. The back of beyond, locked away between the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Cold War, hardly visited by Westerners in forty years, a mystery inside an enigma. But the expedition was to be a scientific one, to collect blood-samples, and I had absolutely nothing to offer. On impulse, I asked if I could join if I spoke the language. Yes, that would do nicely. So, as a post-graduate, I enrolled with Charles Bawden, the eminent Reader in Mongol Studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. I was his only student. I went for lessons at his home in Iver, Bucks, and never discovered the glories of the SOAS library until much later.

Plans matured, sort of. We--half-a-dozen eager and ignorant students--were going to drive all the way across Eurasia, towing a trailer-load of fuel, and return with some blood for the World Health Organisation. Despite the scheme's battiness, connections were made with those few who knew anything of Mongolia. Our prize was Owen Lattimore, the greatest of Mongolists, who had been hounded out of the United States by Joe McCarthy for 'losing China' and had started up Chinese and Mongol Studies in Leeds. He came to talk to us, a small, intense and utterly awe-inspiring figure. We bought dinner for Ivor Montagu, film historian and briefly famous for making links with China by exchanging table-tennis teams, so-called 'ping-pong diplomacy'. We befriended Serge Wolff, an expatriate German who had looked after fifty Mongolian children in Berlin when Mongolia first looked outwards in the 1920s. By the time we got to know Serge, his charges were running the country and he was a revered celebrity. We became founder members of the Anglo-Mongolian Society (still going strong today).

Then came the crunch. Mongolia didn't want us. As a buffer state in the Soviet confrontation with China, they were well looked after by their Soviet masters, and were perfectly capable of collecting their own blood without being patronised by a bunch of callow students.

That left me with an interest, some rapidly fading linguistic knowledge, an ambition, and no way to realise it. Time passed. I turned journalist, then editor, then writer, and eventually signed a contract to do a book on the Mongol Empire. One thing I knew for sure--I was totally unqualified to tackle this immense subject. I had to experience more about Mongols, about Central Asia, about pastoral nomadism, about mounted archery. In the end, embarrassed by my ignorance, I chose an easier entree, and spent a summer in the Gobi. The result, Gobi: Tracking the Desert, sketched a wilderness, but skimped on history (not quite true, actually. It showed me how easy it was for Mongols to cross this 'inland sea' and enter China.)

It was in Mongolia, in 1996, that I first saw Mongolian bows, and shot one myself. I'd had a bow as a teenager, and had high expectations. I was disappointed. Mongolian mounted archers had been the tops, the greatest exponents of a way of life that had set the agenda in Inner Asia for 2,000 years. Then, after the empire collapsed, the tables were reversed. China ruled the Mongols for three centuries, and knocked the stuffing out of them. Mounted archery was no more, of course, because gunpowder put paid to it shortly after Genghis built his empire. Something happened to Mongolian bows as well. Archery is one of the Mongols' three 'manly sports', with riding and wrestling, but today their bows are hardly more than toys which shoot padded arrows at rows of little baskets. …

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