Jack Weatherford Q&A:
Insights on Travel and the History of Mongolia
“Mongolia is the place where my mind is at peace, my heart is at home, my soul is at rest,” says Jack Weatherford, New York Times bestselling author of several books on Genghis Khan. Having released his latest—Genghis Khan and the Quest for God—he recently offered great answers to questions about his passion for writing about Mongolia and his fondest memories of the Three Camel Lodge.
Nomadic Expeditions: What drew you to the subject of Genghis Khan initially?
Weatherford: When I was twelve years old I read Harold Lamb’s Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men and became fascinated with Mongolian history. Then soon thereafter I found five Mongolian stamps showing nothing more than the five domesticated animals, but two of the stamps were triangular shaped and the camel had two humps. I just imagined riding the land of Genghis Khan across the Gobi on my two-humped camel going to the post office to mail a letter with a triangular stamp. Everything about Mongolia seemed different and fascinating.
In college I wrote to the National University of Mongolia twice seeking the possibility of studying there, but the United States did not recognize Mongolia at that time. Travel simply was not possible. I put aside my childish dreams, and went on in life. Then, in the 1990’s Mongolian opened and suddenly it all became possible. My wife and I went to Mongolia thinking it would be a simple visit. We were already over fifty and too old to learn a new language or start a new career. But Mongolia captured my soul, and I decided to do it all anyway. Mongolia has that effect on some people – even the impossible becomes possible.
Nomadic Expeditions: What keeps you coming back to the subject of Mongolia and Genghis Khan?
Weatherford: I wish I knew the answer. It is like thinking of how I fell in love with my wife – was it her smile, sense of humor, the way her hair moved in the wind, her zest for life, or love of music? I never knew. Maybe some of all that, and yet none of it answers the question.
I feel the same about Mongolia. I can name many things – the steppe, the food, the music, the Mongolian sense of humor, the mountains or Gobi. Yes, it is all that, but that does not answer the question. The magic of love cannot be captured by simple phrases or locked into words. It is just a feeling. We know when we find the right person in life, and we know when we find the right place. Mongolia is the place where my mind is at peace, my heart is at home, my soul is at rest.
Nomadic Expeditions: In your new book you focus on Genghis Khan’s contribution to religious freedom. Why did you choose that particular subject?
Weatherford: My wife, Walker Pearce, chose the topic for me. She felt that my earlier book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, stressed the material aspects of trade, war, spread of technology such as the compass, printing press, and gunpowder. That book did not convey the spiritual dynamic of Mongolian life and of Genghis Khan’s empire. His importance was not in just the material exchange but in the spiritual impact that he had, and no one seemed to recognize that gift to the world.
She wanted me to write this book, and she named it Genghis Khan and the Quest for God. I think that for her, for me, and for most of us, there is a strong quest in our life for some kind of spiritual understanding of how it all fits together and what is our place in it. We may never find the complete answer, but the quest is perhaps the most important thing that we do in life.
Nomadic Expeditions: Do you have anything else you’d like to explore about Genghis Khan in a new book?
Weatherford: I think that after two books about Genghis Khan and one about his daughters, I need to be silent and give someone else a voice. I would much rather that we hear from the new generation of young scholars from Mongolia. Some of them are now studying languages such as Persian, Armenian, and Georgian in order to translate works from those languages into Mongolia. I think that they will have more to teach us than I did. I want to learn from them. It is time for me to listen.
Nomadic Expeditions: What is the biggest misconception about him that you’d like to dispel?
Weatherford: I want to change the image of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire to show that although it was, like the empires of Alexander and Caesar, an empire based on conquest, it was also a brilliant and spectacular part of world history like a shooting star across the night sky on the steppe. Sometimes for Westerners it is hard to accept that Asia was such a shining light in the culture of humanity.
Thoughtful travel teachers us that we are all equally human. Our history, like ourselves, is a mixture of good and bad. We are sometimes quick to rationalize away the bad in our own history, but we overlook the good in the history of other nations and emphasize the bad. Yet, we most constantly strive to understand both that good and that bad in order to make a world where the good will outweigh the evil. In the modern world that goal seems to become more elusive with every passing year, and yet it becomes all the more important to strive for it.
Today we have technological contact with people and cultures around the world. We can learn a tremendous amount from the Internet or television, but, valuable and entertaining as they are, these are only artificial experiences that never replace human contact and personal experience. We learn as much through our feet and fingers as through our eyes and ears. Only travel and personal interaction can give us that full experience. It is from the sights, smells, tastes, and sensations of that contact that we begin to truly understand.
Nomadic Expeditions: If you were discussing Mongolia with a prospective traveler, what would you be sure to include?
Weatherford: Come as you were when you were a child, open to people and things so different from everything that you have known. See that the Mongols and Mongolia have more to teach us than we have to teach them. Mongolia has more to give us than the world has to give to them. Their culture is closer to the way the world should be than our life is. They live in harmony with themselves, their animals, and the spiritual world in a way that we lost centuries ago. Come as a student ready to breathe deeply in the clean air, see clearly the things that pass before our eyes, and to think openly about what we can learn from them to make our world better.
Nomadic Expeditions: What are your favorite recollections of time spent in Mongolia either on research trips or for pleasure?
Weatherford: Sitting on the steppe watching the animals.
Drinking hot milk tea in a ger on a cold day.
Drinking cool airag (fermented horse milk) in a nomad’s ger on a hot day.
Drinking fresh water from a spring on a dusty summer day.
Listening to a child sing.
Listening to the herders sing to the animals.
Listening to monks chat at Erdene Zuu Monastery.
Watching N. Jantsannorov play the piano at Tur Hurah.
Hearing G. Khongorzul sing a Long Song in a ger.
Attending D. Odsuren’s ballet Heaven’s Here at the Opera House.
Enjoying an Italian dinner at Three Camel Lodge, followed by a Mongolian concert.
Eating aaruul (dry curd) and wild strawberries beside a stream on Bogd Khan Mountain.
Watching a wolf skulk through the trees.
Seeing a flock of cranes land all around us on the Orkhon River in the spring.
Finding wild irises poking up purple and bright through a late snow.
Rolling ice chunks across the frozen Ugii Nuur to hear the magical music that they create.
Dinner with friends at the Georgetown Restaurant at Zaisan.
Walking through the blue light of an ice cave formed in Yolyn Am canyon.
Wading through ha flash flood in the saxsaul forest of the Gobi in the middle of the night.
Walking among the stars on a moonless night.
Nomadic Expeditions: You stayed at Three Camel Lodge. How would you describe your experience and did anything stand out to you as particularly enjoyable or memorable?
My wife and I stayed at the Three Camel Lodge many times with our children, grandchildren, and foreign and Mongolian friends. The best part for us was watching the younger generation learn to love the things that had meant so much to my wife and me – riding, exploring the Gobi, sharing the culture of the nomads, playing games with the children.
In the final years of my wife’s life when we could no longer do those things, we would spend our days sitting together in the warm sun in front of the ger, watching life and socializing with the staff as the other guests explored the area around us. The young people who worked at the Three Camel Lodge became like a family for us, as we talked about their homes, their past, and their dreams. They were always willing to lift my wife’s wheel chair and carry her up the stairs for a meal together, or take her out to watch the animals coming to the well to drink Invariable, late in the day, one would come with a horse-head fiddle to soothe away our problems, or another one would hold her hand and sing to her.
Just lazy, peaceful, moments in the evening sun of the Gobi at the sunset of life while new life swirled all around us.