My husband and I visited this landlocked democracy between Russia and China as its 3 million citizens celebrated their country’s independence last July.
Some Mongolians fired their barbecues. Others flew flags from their cars. Still others donned period costumes in Ulaanbaatar’s main square, which bears the name of the man they consider to be their nation’s founding father.
That man is Genghis Khan.
Reviled as an imperialist when Mongolia was a Russian satellite state, Genghis is remembered elsewhere in the world as a 13th-century warlord whose Mongol horsemen rampaged across Asia and into Europe.
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You could compare him to George Washington, I suppose, if George had chopped down a cherry tree, and then hacked off the heads of anyone who failed to pledge allegiance.
Genghis Khan unified warring clans during a particularly brutal era. Then Genghis’ acknowledged progeny warred among themselves and, because of it, lost control of the biggest land empire in history.
His unacknowledged progeny – and there were many – put a different twist on the term “founding father,” even in Europe.
According to a museum exhibit in Ulaanbaatar, one of his many grandsons and his horsemen invaded what now is Slovakia en route to Krakow, Poland.
My mother’s parents were Slovak. They looked Asian to me, and I have thought Mongol genes would explain why.
And so I found myself in Mongolia snapping photos of strangers.
Modern Mongolians aren’t the Mongols. They’re building a democracy, not invading their neighbors. My husband and I had spent a week exploring the steppes, where it’s the nomads’ tradition to invite travelers to stay in the portable round tents they call home.
“What’s the point of traveling,” my father told me years ago. “People are the same everywhere.”
If he were still alive, here’s what I’d say to him: You’re right, people are people. Traveling teaches us the range of behavior, the bad and the good, and that helps define what it is to be human.
Thanks to Genghis Khan, the strangers in this photo could be my relatives. Even if they’re not, they’re family. And though it pains me to say it, given the bad and the good, so is Genghis and every one of his horsemen.
Micaela Massimino was an assistant editor at The Sacramento Bee’s state Capitol bureau before moving to Beijing with her husband, former Bee editorial page editor Stuart Leavenworth. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @mmassimino.