The Next Great Travel Writer: Genghis Khan at the Disco

Earlier this month, Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows and Suzanne Roberts, winner of the Next Great Travel Writer contest, traveled through Mongolia together and sent us dispatches from their trip. Over the next few days we’ll be publishing the last few recollections from their journey. Today Suzanne describes a night out at the Mongolian disco.

Photo: Mongolian Disco

One evening during our trip, we are asked to attend a special dinner to celebrate the beginning of Naadam, the national festival celebrated annually in Ulaanbaatar. The event featured the centuries-old tradition of Mongolian throat singing, dancing, and an amazing little girl who ties her body in knots. Girls in Mongolia start training for contortion at the age of five and are ready to compete in international competitions by the age of 12. This little girl could not have been more than about eight or nine years old, and she did things with her body that I would not have thought possible, including supporting herself on a skinny pole by her teeth.

After dinner, I recruit a fellow traveler, Rucker, a wide-eyed 24-year-old aspiring photographer, to check out a disco in Ulaanbaatar. Although Mongolia was Rucker’s first trip outside of the United States, he is game for anything and happy to be dragged off to a disco. But first we have a beer at an Irish pub, a smoky venue full of locals, expats, and foreigners. A Mongolian singer with a sequined top hat sings “Killing Me Softly” in perfect English. The pub closes early for Naadam, so we head off to Metropolis, a super chic discotheque near the Chinggis Khaan Hotel.

This swanky disco is known for attracting the “children of diplomats.” A round bar occupies the center of the first room. Past the bar, a larger space with leather couches, a glowing neon bar, a dance floor, and a “VIP only” upstairs balcony full of scantily-clad women in stilettos glitters with strobe lights and vibrates with the beat of “trance” music. The space-aged theme reminds me of the queue area of Disneyland’s Space Mountain roller coaster. After being told to move from a couch that was reserved for “one man,” we find another couch, and strike up a conversation with a Mongolian man called Ivan.

“Do you come to this club often?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. Big grin.

“What are some of the other clubs you like to go to?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he says again.

“Where is Chinggis Khaan’s grave?”

“Yes.” He smile and nods.

I take a photograph with him, and although Ivan is cute as can be, I move on to find someone whose English-language vocabulary is a little larger than Ivan’s.

I meet Yaruunaa, a 23-year old woman who ends up taking quite a liking to Rucker. I ask her about the country’s reverence of Chinggis Khaan (known to us Westerners as Genghis Khan). Chinggis Khaan is on the money, postage stamps, the beer, and the vodka. His face looms over the city of UB, laid out in white stones against the green grass of a nearby hillside. Hotels, restaurants, ger camps, and the international airport are named for him, and at the moment, they are at work erecting a gigantic (I have heard 40 meters) statue of him. According to our guide Oyunna, Chinggis Khaan was not celebrated until the fall of socialism in the 1990s. She says, “They never even mentioned him in school.” Since then, he has been resurrected as the ubiquitous hero of Mongolia, the great leader who consolidated the tribes of Mongolia, created a system of trade, and pushed Mongolia’s borders out to include more than 30 countries on the modern map. According to Jack Weatherford in his book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, “In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years.”

I want to know what the younger generation of Mongolians thinks about their national hero. I ask Yaruunaa, and she says, “Omigod. That was like so long ago. Hello? I mean, it is embarrassing.” But when I ask her about the possibility of their finding his grave, she says, “Oh no. I mean, I am a little superstitious. Maybe we shouldn’t find it.” Many of the Mongolians I spoke with are not in favor of finding the grave of Chinggis Khaan because it would be against the wishes of the great leader and therefore considered very bad luck. They do, however, hope that if the burial site is found, it will be in Mongolia. Chinggis Khaan died in present-day China, and citizens of both countries claim him as their national hero; both hope he is buried in their soil.

Then Yarunnaa adds, “We share his name and eat it for 100 years,” and she skips off to the dance floor with Rucker. I follow them, knowing I will regret dancing until dawn tomorrow sitting under the hot sun at the Naadam festival.

Photos: Suzanne Roberts