Jason Shannon

Why Mongolia? Of all the countries and/or cultures out there, why go with this one?


I was first introduced to the story of the Mongols through Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series. My interest was piqued, and I consumed a few documentaries easily Googled, a graphic novel by Sean O’Reilly, and the award-winning film by Sergei Bodrov (among others). I have not been to Mongolia, though I am hoping to pay the country a visit in the next few years; climb the giant statue of Genghis outside Ulaanbaatar, drink some Chinggis Khan Vodka, travel out to Kharkhorin to see the remains of Erdene Zuu, perhaps see some Przewalski’s horses in the wild. But none of that answers the question – why Mongolia?

I suppose the best answer takes the form of “The List”. In 2011, self-described ‘atrocitologist’ Matthew White published The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, a historical ranking of the 100 worst atrocities in human history, including the obvious hallmarks (The Holocaust, Stalin, Pol Pot...), as well as older, pre-Twentieth Century massacres like Alexander the Great, Qin Shi Huang Di, the seventh-century war between Sui China and Korea, Aztec human sacrifices and more. In the book, he presents his definitive list of the top one hundred worst things. Here's a sampling:


  1. World War II (66 million)

  2. Mao Zedong (40 million)

      Genghis Khan (40 million)

   4. Famines in British India (27 million)

   5. Fall of the Ming Dynasty (25 million)

   6. Taiping Rebellion (20 million)

      Joseph Stalin (20 million)

   8. Mideast Slave Trade (18.5 million)

   9. Timur/Tamerlane (17 million)

   10. Atlantic Slave Trade (16 million)

Yes, Genghis Khan, founder of the modern Mongol state, the man with his portrait on every note of the country’s currency, with several statues bearing his likeness throughout the country, with everything from airports to cigarettes to chocolate named for him – this guy is tied for #2, his conquests the second worst thing to have ever happened in human history. Four slots above Stalin. (If you want to get really technical and point out the divide between Nazi Germany and Japan, you’ll wind up dividing the war in two, resulting in about 34 million dead in Europe, North Africa and the Atlantic, and 32 million for the Pacific War, putting GK even above Hitler.) And, another Mongol (technically a semi-sedentary Turco-Mongol), Tamerlane, is #9? Worse than the Atlantic Slave Trade? Furthermore, scrolling down to #19, you get the Fall of the Western Roman Empire (7 million), which, granted, was the result of many factors – but if you had to put a single name to it, it would probably be Attila. And there’s a good chance he was Mongol – or, rather, Mongolian (i.e., Xiongnu, predating the actual tribal identity of the Mongols, though still living a very similar lifestyle).


Somewhere in all this was a novel. And so it was that I set out to read an actual biography of the Great Khan, Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, by John Man, in 2013. I had just begun on a new construction site (my day job), and had published my first novel not long before. I was looking for a new idea, and there one was. Somewhere along the way as I went through Man’s book, the idea struck me: another Mongol conqueror, in modern times.


The blanket statement is: I have an interest in Eastern history, philosophy, culture and language. If I were to break that down, it would go something like this: Currently, my interests are as follows – 40% Mongolia, 30% China, 20% Korea, 7% Japan, 3% other. I’ve been to China (Hong Kong, Macao and Beijing, you can check out my travelogues here), where I was given pamphlets on forced organ harvesting, won HKD$1800 on a single bet and was approached by vulturine scam artists. My future trip to Mongolia includes a 5-day layover in Seoul, where I plan to see various Joseon Dynasty sites like Gyeongbokgung Palace and Namhansanseong Fortress, as well as tour the spot President Bill Clinton called “the scariest place on Earth” (the DMZ, or North Korean border). I’ve read extensively on the curiosity/monstrosity that is North Korea. I would like to one day see Tokyo, to see the vending machines full of used panties, tour Zen temples and determine once and for all whether Japanese women actually have genitals, or if it’s just a blur of pixellation as I’ve been led to believe. That trip is not currently on the books.

I learned a handful of Mandarin prior to my trip to China. I’m nowhere near fluent, and can’t read a single character, but was able to communicate a basic things with the locals. Currently, I’m attempting to do the same thing with Korean, in preparation for that trip. I once watched a copy of Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai with no subtitles. Given that the only three words of Japanese I know are konichiwa, seppuku and harakiri, I really couldn’t follow it (is it sad that 66% of the Japanese I speak refers to ritual suicide by disembowelment?). I do not speak Mongolian, though I do know the words pizda, yankhan and meem. Also, I know how to say sain bainuu.