As the thirteenth century drew to a close, Europe was at its lowest ebb of geographical and scientific knowledge. Maps were filled with warnings of dragons and centaurs while the insular powers of the West concentrated on cleansing their souls through papal indulgences. With a shocking suddenness, fierce bands of warriors on horseback arrived from the East to conquer Russia, Turkey and Hungary in a matter of months. They razed cities to the ground, leaving only mounds of skulls to mark where they stood. They encroached on Austria and scouting parties were seen in Italy. The priests explained it as the wrathful armies of the biblical demons, Gog and Magog. On the verge of destruction Europe held its breath. The enemy was ready to sweep further West when, as suddenly as they arrived, they abandoned their expansion and the nations we are familiar with today were saved from destruction by the Mongol Empire.
Stanley Stewart, an experienced travel writer, read about these times. In particular, he read the account of one Friar William of Rubruck, a Christian missionary sent to try and convert the Mongols to his faith. Friar William, Stewart suggests, would have been as famous as Marco Polo if he had a better publisher. As it is, Friar William has been all but forgotten despite his vast voyage into the unknown reaches of the East. Stewart was inspired by William's journey and determined to begin one of his own. He bought himself a saddle and headed for Istanbul. His aim? To cross all 1800 miles of Mongolia on horseback.
Stewart, seasoned from accounts of journeys around the world including 'Old Serpent Nile' and 'Frontiers of Heaven', is a lively, dry witted writer whose eye of experience alternates between jaded traveller and fresh explorer. His observations of people and places draw the reader into a world filled with endless grassy plains and hardy nomadic folk.
Stewart's odyssey takes him over vertiginous mountains and inside claustrophobic tents. On his travels he meets characters who seem to have sprung to life from the works of Chekov, Dostoyevesky and Shakespeare. He shares mutton dishes and fermented mares milk with families whose lives are spent migrating from one seasonal pasture to another. He discovers how a people living after the ruins of communism have abandoned their subsidised towns in favour of family traditions of sheep herding and constant travel.
Stewart is frank about his love for the isolated Mongolia, lending a friendly angle to what otherwise might appear to be an uninviting land. An engrossing and stimulating read, 'In the Empire of Genghis Khan' is an insightful look into a world most of us will never see.