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Why I Love Mongolia: An Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Jack Weatherford

Jack Weatherford is a New York Times bestselling author of several acclaimed books on Genghis Khan and Mongolian history and culture, including Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, and his latest – Genghis Khan and the Quest for God.

Jack Weatherford’s latest book, pictured side-by-side with a stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan, visible from miles away near Ulaanbaatar. Photo credit: Alan Levin.
Jack Weatherford’s latest book, pictured side-by-side with a stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan, visible from miles away near Ulaanbaatar. Photo credit: Alan Levin

We caught up with Jack to ask him about his latest book and to discuss his fascination with the extraordinary land and people of Mongolia

What first drew you to Mongolia and to the study of Genghis Khan?

As a boy I read biographies of many great conquerors, but Genghis Khan was especially impressive. But, being a young kid, I was mostly interested in the war and adventure of his life; it took a long time to see him as anything more than just a conqueror.

Genghis Khan, ruler of Mongolia’s Golden Horde. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
Genghis Khan, ruler of Mongolia’s Golden Horde. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Later when Mongolia opened to the outside after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism, I had the opportunity to visit Mongolia and resurrect those childhood interests. It was like beginning a new, late-life career, but mixed with my childhood interests and fantasies.

Author Jack Weatherford with a Mongolian friend. Photo credit: Jack Weatherford
Author Jack Weatherford with a Mongolian friend. Photo credit: Jack Weatherford

What made you want to write this book?

Going to Mongolia in 1998 made me see how much I misunderstood this great figure in history, and it made me want to explore this other aspect of his life. I did not want to write a book so much as to read one that explained his life in a fuller way. Only gradually did I realize that to read that book, I first had to write it.

Ger life on the Mongolian steppe
Ger life on the Mongolian steppe

What challenges did you encounter while researching and writing your book?

The biggest challenge was deciding to write the first book on Mongolian history. I was already in my 50s. I did not speak a word of any Asian language and had never had a course in anything Asian. But when I explained my inadequacies to [American author and historian] David McCullough, he gave me great courage with one simple question: “Have any of the experts written this book?”

A Buddhist monk in Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
The wide open spaces of Mongolia's Flaming Cliffs are home to dinosaur bones and fossils. Photo credit: Andrew Barron
Sunset on high-altitude Lake Hovsgol in Mongolia. Photo credit: Ana Filonov
Off for a camel ride in the Mongolian desert. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Gers on the Mongolian steppe at sunset. Photo credit: Andrew Barron
  • A Buddhist monk in Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman A Buddhist monk in Mongolia. Peter Guttman
  • The wide open spaces of Mongolia's Flaming Cliffs are home to dinosaur bones and fossils. Photo credit: Andrew Barron The wide open spaces of Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are home to dinosaur bones and fossils. Andrew Barron
  • Sunset on high-altitude Lake Hovsgol in Mongolia. Photo credit: Ana Filonov Sunset on high-altitude Lake Hovsgol in Mongolia. Ana Filonov
  • Off for a camel ride in the Mongolian desert. Photo credit: Michel Behar Off for a camel ride in the Mongolian desert. Michel Behar
  • Gers on the Mongolian steppe at sunset. Photo credit: Andrew Barron Gers on the Mongolian steppe at sunset. Andrew Barron

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After that, I had the determination to push ahead and learn the language and do whatever I had to do to write the history as I saw it. If I am wrong, I hope that superior scholars and experts will do a better job in their own time, but for now I struggle to understand Mongolian history and to share my great love of this country with other people who may be interested.

What surprised you most in your research?

The greatest surprise was how, once I had decided to push ahead with my research and writing, the people and resources simply appeared. Of course no academic agency, granting organization, or publisher would give money to finance a project by a totally unqualified person like me.

Nomadic herders in the heart of Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
Nomadic herders in the heart of Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman

But the Mongolians came forward. Everywhere I went, people brought me food, built fires for me, fetched water, brought me horses, and shared whatever they had with me. They wanted to do everything possible to help me when they knew that I was studying their history.

Friendly smiles at the Naadam Festival. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
Two generations at a country Naadam festival. Photo credit: Andrew Barron
Dressed in traditional finery at the Erdene Zhu Monastery at Kara Korum, Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
Visit with nomadic herders in the heart of Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
Horsemanship is a Mongolian tradition and skill handed down from generation to generation. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
  • Friendly smiles at the Naadam Festival. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen Friendly smiles at the Naadam Festival. Helge Pedersen
  • Two generations at a country Naadam festival. Photo credit: Andrew Barron Two generations at a country Naadam festival. Andrew Barron
  • Dressed in traditional finery at the Erdene Zhu Monastery at Kara Korum, Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman Dressed in traditional finery at the Erdene Zhu Monastery at Kara Korum, Mongolia. Peter Guttman
  • Visit with nomadic herders in the heart of Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman Visit with nomadic herders in the heart of Mongolia. Peter Guttman
  • Horsemanship is a Mongolian tradition and skill handed down from generation to generation. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen Horsemanship is a Mongolian tradition and skill handed down from generation to generation. Helge Pedersen

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In this way, I saw that the Mongolian people made this project possible, not through grants or money, but through their own work and assistance. The experience was truly remarkable and humbling for me. More than once, they explained it to me very simply: “You speak English, you can speak to the world and tell them who we are.”

How has the legacy of Genghis Khan shaped Mongolia into the country it is today? Do you think he will continue to remain a relevant figure for future generations?

Genghis Khan created this nation from his own mind and imagination. He gave them a written language, made an army, created the law, gave the country a name. Without Genghis Khan, there is no Mongolia. As a person who writes history, I am always looking backward, but Genghis Khan was always looking forward toward the future of his nation and the world. The great empire that he created disappeared 150 years after his death; yet in some ways, I think that his greatest influence is yet to come.

Monastery rooftops in the Erdene Zuu complex in Kara Korum, Mongolia. Photo credit: Charity Richardson
Monastery rooftops in the Erdene Zuu complex in Kara Korum, Mongolia. Photo credit: Charity Richardson

He was a man ahead of his time in both the strategies by which he fought and the laws by which he organized society. He created diplomatic immunity, granted religious freedom to all people, freed all religions from taxes, outlawed the kidnapping or sale of women, and passed laws protecting land and water that are far stricter than any we have today. To label him an environmentalist, feminist, liberal, or democrat would be silly and anachronistic. He was a conqueror, but he was also more a man of the future than the past because we still have not been able to fulfill his vision of a just world.

A statue of a Mongol warrior stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar. Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin
A statue of a Mongol warrior stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar. Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

How did travel figure into your research for this book?

Travel was the basis of my research. Other biographies written by excellent scholars were very helpful, but none of them had been to Mongolia and traveled the routes of Genghis Khan. In school we learn through our eyes and ears, but in life we learn through our feet and hands. By standing in the place where he stood, tasting the water, hearing the birds, smelling the horse sweat, and breathing the air, I began to understand the experiences recorded in the ancient chronicles.

The ruins of Kara Korum, Genghis Khan’s fabled capital city, were used in the construction of Mongolia’s Erdene Zhu Monastery, located nearby. Photo Credit: Douglas Grimes
The ruins of Kara Korum, Genghis Khan’s fabled capital city, were used in the construction of Mongolia’s Erdene Zhu Monastery, located nearby. Photo Credit: Douglas Grimes

Travel changes history from a document into an experience and from an experience into a story. My books on Mongolian history are not travel books, but every sentence is based upon travel, upon being there to experience that place being described.  

You’ve known Annie and Doug at MIR Corporation for many years. How has MIR Corporation made an impact on your research and travels to Mongolia and other destinations?

Doug and Annie have been with me on the entire process of research and writing. They organized my first travels into Inner Asia so that I could go into places where it was hard to get visas and permission, or find the support I needed. In Mongolia, I knew plenty of drivers, herders, scholars, and officials, but I was lost in TurkmenistanUzbekistanKyrgyzstanKazakhstan, and Western China. They facilitated my travel always with an eye for what I wanted and needed. They did not try to give me an experience; they made it possible for me to have my own experience.­­­­­­­­

Locals pause for a photo op at Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
Locals pause for a photo op at Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman

During our two decades of friendship, I have grown as a writer, but I have seen Doug, Annie, and MIR also grow in a very important way. Just as I wanted to open Mongolian history to people through my writing, they helped to open Mongolia to the outside world, and they have helped to create a unique type of tourism. By partnering with only the highest quality people and organizations, MIR has helped to create a form of sustainable, just, and ethical tourism for a small number of people who share those goals.

Enjoying a concert at Three Camels Lodge in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Alan Levin
Enjoying a concert at Three Camels Lodge in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Alan Levin

As much as I want the whole world to recognize the importance of Mongolia in history, I do not want to see this country that I love so much overtaken by mass tours or people who tromp the steppe and trash the already fragile city. Tourism is very important to the economy and also to helping support cultural institutions in Mongolia, and in this way Doug and Annie have made a valuable contribution to Mongolia through developing the right kind or tourism for the right people.

A grazing herd of wild takhi, or Przewalski's horse, the last remaining breed of wild horse in the world. Photo credit: Ana Filonov
A grazing herd of wild takhi, or Przewalski’s horse, the last remaining breed of wild horse in the world. Photo credit: Ana Filonov

I write books across time; Annie and Doug connect people across cultures. But we are both working for the same goal of crossing artificial social barriers and striving for a better world through mir, through peace.

How has Mongolia changed since your first visit to the country, and what do you predict will happen in the region in the coming decades?

Ulaanbaatar has changed greatly and some parts of the countryside where there is now mining has changed, but I prefer to see the continuity. Aside from those areas and a few paved roads now, Mongolia has probably changed less in the last 800 years than any other country. If Genghis Khan returned to today he would be lost in Ulaanbaatar, but only a short distance from the city he would be totally at home in the ger, speaking the language, eating the same food.

Old and new in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Old and new in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

You’ve visited Mongolia many times and have lived there for several years. How difficult was it for you to get an understanding of Mongolian language and culture? What advice can you offer first-time travelers who want to connect with the local people?

The Mongolian language is quite difficult for Westerners. It took me years to have basic conversations. But the Mongols have dealt with foreigners for centuries. They know how to communicate beyond language. While reserved, they are not timid. They are eager to interact, and today English is more widely spoken and much better spoken than in most Asian countries.

Chatting with Mongolian kids in the Gobi. Photo credit: Lori Linthicum
A MIR client poses with a Mongolian rider. Photo credit: Michele Rice
Joanna Millick, MIR's Director of Sales, with Naadam Festival competitors in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Joanna Millick
A MIR traveler chats with a newfound friend at Mongolia's Naadam festival. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen and Karen Ofsthus
Mongolia's reindeer herders, the Tsataan people, have lived in the Lake Hovsgol region for thousands of years. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
  • Chatting with Mongolian kids in the Gobi. Photo credit: Lori Linthicum Chatting with Mongolian kids in the Gobi. Lori Linthicum
  • A MIR client poses with a Mongolian rider. Photo credit: Michele Rice A MIR client poses with a Mongolian rider. Michele Rice
  • Joanna Millick, MIR's Director of Sales, with Naadam Festival competitors in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo credit: Joanna Millick Joanna Millick, MIR’s Director of Sales, with Naadam Festival competitors in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Joanna Millick
  • A MIR traveler chats with a newfound friend at Mongolia's Naadam festival. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen and Karen Ofsthus A MIR traveler chats with a newfound friend at Mongolia’s Naadam festival. Helge Pedersen and Karen Ofsthus
  • Mongolia's reindeer herders, the Tsataan people, have lived in the Lake Hovsgol region for thousands of years. Photo credit: Peter Guttman Mongolia’s reindeer herders, the Tsataan people, have lived in the Lake Hovsgol region for thousands of years. Peter Guttman

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The advice I try to give myself is to put aside my expectations. If everything is exactly the way the guidebook says it should be, if everything looks just like the programs on the travel channel, if everything on the to-see list pops up on schedule, then the trip is a waste. I saw and learned nothing. I simply replicated someone else’s experience. If I am not taken out of my comfort zone, I am not traveling.

What have been some of your most enjoyable memories of your travels to Mongolia?

My love of Mongolia is rooted in two things: the landscape and the people. The landscape is spectacular in ways that cannot be put into words or photographs. The scale of Mongolia is overwhelming to the senses. It is not the view of a landscape; it is the experience of the landscape. No matter how well-organized a trip may be, the experience is unique. Some people feel overwhelmed by it, and others embrace it totally.

Gers dot the hillside in Mongolia, Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
Gers dot the hillside in Mongolia. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

I am now a legal resident of Mongolia and have spent much of my life there over the past two decades, but every year I try to spend two months or so just traveling around the country. I revisit old places, find new ones. I keep thinking that soon I will have seen the whole country, and yet every year my desire to visit more places or my wish to return to an old place in a different season grows. I can never quite get enough of Mongolia, and I always think that my best experience is yet to come.

What sites would you say are not to be missed for a first-time traveler to Mongolia?

Visiting Mongolia is not like visiting France or China where there is a list of places, museums, monuments, and sites. Almost everything in Mongolia is different. As soon as I left the city [Ulaanbaatar], I was transported into another world, a world that took my breath away.

Gorgeous greenery in Mongolia's remote Zavkhan Province. Photo credit: Edward Buxton
Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert. Photo credit: Andrew Barron
Mongolia's centuries-old desert mode of transportation. Photo credit: Andrew Barron
A statue of a Mongol warrior stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar. Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin
A young Golden Eagle hunter in Terelj, Mongolia. Photo credit: Joanna Millick
  • Gorgeous greenery in Mongolia's remote Zavkhan Province. Photo credit: Edward Buxton Gorgeous greenery in Mongolia’s remote Zavkhan Province. Edward Buxton
  • Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert. Photo credit: Andrew Barron Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert. Andrew Barron
  • Mongolia's centuries-old desert mode of transportation. Photo credit: Andrew Barron Mongolia’s centuries-old desert mode of transportation. Andrew Barron
  • A statue of a Mongol warrior stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar. Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin A statue of a Mongol warrior stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar. Vladimir Kvashnin
  • A young Golden Eagle hunter in Terelj, Mongolia. Photo credit: Joanna Millick A young Golden Eagle hunter in Terelj, Mongolia Photo credit: Joanna Millick Joanna Millick

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Just come, breathe the air, let yourself go, and you will find something that you have never found before, and it will be different from anything that I or any other person has found.

What’s next for you? Any places you would most like to travel to that you haven’t had a chance to visit?

I have talked with Annie about GeorgiaArmenia, and Azerbaijan. I hope that they will come in their own time. 

My wife traveled with me throughout our marriage, and although she endured the challenges of multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years, she said that she was not going to sit home and wait to die. Death would have to work a little to find her. She did everything I did, but she did it in a wheelchair. I want to follow her example, and always be looking to the next trip, the next meal, the next friend, the next experience, the next idea. I write about the past, but I want to live in the present and look toward the future.

Author Jack Weatherford, pictured with his late wife, enjoy a Mongolian sunset. Photo credit: Susan Murphy
Author Jack Weatherford, pictured with his late wife, enjoy a Mongolian sunset. Photo credit: Susan Murphy

Travel to Mongolia with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of experience handcrafting tours to Mongolia. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

You can view many of Mongolia’s majestic sites on MIR’s small group tours and rail journeys by private train:

You can also opt to travel privately on your dates on our Essential Mongolia program, or on a customized private journey to Mongolia.

Original publish date: March 7, 2017

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