The most fearless travel writers expect suffering, and usually they get it: inedible food, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, lice, exhaustion, hostile weather, vicious winds, mutinous muscles, burning thirst and cultural collisions. Seemingly happy in adversity, this hardy breed recounts such ordeals with insouciance, if not humor. If the writers are of a poetic bent and cause us to care about the new terrain and its inhabitants, their books are often splendid. This is the case with Stanley Stewart's In the Empire of Genghis Khan. Stewart, who is Irish, departs London for Istanbul and from there journeys to the homelands of the Mongols, where he travels 1,000 miles. As someone who became infatuated with travel writers of the British Isles upon reading A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby 30 years ago, I found this book to be a huge treat.
The Mongols never struck me as more than a rapacious horde, but thanks to Stewart, my view has changed. He writes: "Genghis Khan...was...a nomad who viewed settled societies from a position of cultural and moral superiority, with suspicion, with horror, and ultimately with pity. To nomads, men and women who live in cities suffered a kind of debasement."
At the height of the Mongols' power, their territories embraced China, Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, parts of India and the Caucasus, until "all of Europe held its breath awaiting the Last Trumpet." Then, the Mongols turned around and headed home: a new leader was to be elected and the nomad-warriors did not want to miss out on that. As for present-day Mongolia, Stewart finds it a "vast medieval world of nomads...apparently undisturbed since 1200." On an arduous leg of the journey, an elderly Mongol rider accompanying Stewart unceremoniously delivers an assessment of the writer: "You have no home, no family, no commitments. You are the outsider. That's why you have come to Mongolia. To be an outsider in your own land is more difficult." Stewart has no quarrel with the appraisal: "Camped in this high valley of tents and horses, the old man could see that I was the only figure adrift."
The People's Republic of Mongolia, Stewart reports, emerged as the first and most slavish of the Soviet Union's client states; today, in the country's urban centers, the dead hand of 70 years of Communist rule lingers. But away from the wretched towns and cities, this highly observant writer has great fun. A description of a nomad wedding, in which the families and friends of the bride and groom, drunk and bellicose, assault one another, is hilarious. "The brawl came to an abrupt end with a strange good grace," Stewart writes. "No one seemed to consider a wedding punch-up odd....I was happy to fall in with this consensus and decided this mixture of camaraderie and violence...was a rather healthy business. It cleared the air nicely."
Gloria Emerson is a former New York Times correspondent based in New York City.
The author's engaging survey (which grew out of her 1997 article in Smithsonian) ranges across 1,000 years of the ultimate conflict resolver, tracing courtly combat from the relatively benign (in 1700s France, the philosopher Voltaire challenged a nobleman, who failed to show at the appointed hour—but did have the young intellectual thrown in jail) to the tragic. In 1804, the showdown between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton cost the first secretary of the treasury his life.