Can Genghis Khan reconquer Mongolia?

800th anniversary projects are way behind schedule, and many doubt if the warrior is a fit hero for the 21st century
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The Independent Online

They were supposed to be the celebrations that would attract 400,000 visitors and put independent Mongolia on the world map, but instead a public relations disaster is in the offing.

Plans to commemorate Mongolia's greatest hero, Genghis Khan, are running into major delays and political rows. This summer marks the 800th anniversary of the warlord's unification of the marauding Mongol tribes, at whose head he swept across Asia and created the world's largest land empire, but nearly every construction project in his name is way behind schedule.

Even round-the-clock shift work is unlikely to see a new national museum in Ulaanbaatar's main square finished in time for the all-important Naadam festival in July. Nor will a gigantic £300,000 statue of Khan be ready for the grand unveiling, which the Duke of York is scheduled to attend on behalf of Britain.

Critics say the Mongolian government should have stumped up the money for a new film about its 13th-century warrior. Instead the project has gone to the Japanese, although the local actors have demanded an extra £550 because, they argue, the foreign film-makers are exploiting a Mongolian legend for their own ends.

In addition, the capital's authorities are being accused of failing to prepare the city for the hoped-for tourist invasion.

Visitors face an almost complete lack of public toilets, potholed roads and cracked pavements, and will be confronted by rubbish everywhere.

And the younger generation is not even sure that Genghis Khan is the sort of hero they want to celebrate anyway. "He means little to my friends," said Otgoo, a 23-year-old English teacher. "He was dreadful to women, too. Mongolia should be addressing the issue of corruption, not having a big celebration for a cruel man who should not be concerning us any more."

One of the few events going to plan is a much-trumpeted cavalry display by 500 members of Mongolia's armed forces. Dressed as 13th-century warrior-horsemen, they will re-enact the exploits of the merciless hordes who smashed their way to world domination from Beijing to Hungary.

And Naadam will, as usual, host the finals of the "three manly sports" - wrestling, archery and horsemanship - and come up with the necessary national heroes. A relay of hardy Mongolian horses will spend three days conveying soil and water from Genghis Khan's birthplace in Dadal, in the north-east of the country, to Kharkhorin, the capital he created.

Older Mongolians hold the "Scourge of God" in particularly high esteem. For these people, who saw their traditional culture stamped out and virtually every Buddhist temple destroyed by the Communist purge of 1937-38, the anniversary has special significance. The romance of Khan's achievements indirectly inspired the freedom movements of the late 1980s. There are even calls to move the capital back to Kharkhorin.

With Mongolia's move to free-market economics, however, has come a steep rise in the level of corruption. Daily demonstrations outside Parliament House call for an end to undue foreign influence, particularly in gold and copper mining. The divide between rich and poor is widening. The same is true of men and women: many male manual workers are now out of a job while women are benefiting from the growing service sector and are securing most university places.

The facts: 10 things you never knew about Mongolia

1 In one Ulaanbaatar nightclub you can dance with Stalin - at least with his statue. A 12ft-high monument of the Soviet dictator disappeared from the national library, only to appear on the dance floor four years later.

2 Mongolia, which is the size of Britain, Germany, Italy and France put together, has the lowest population density of any country in the world.

3 Foreign diplomats are banned from taking domestic flights with MIAT, the national carrier, because its planes are considered too dangerous.

4 Before taking the first sip from your glass of vodka, it is polite to dip the knuckle of your ring finger into the drink.

5 Passengers find the step up on to the public buses donated by the Japanese too high. The joke is that the donors were confused by a mistranslated document that said Mongolians had high steppes.

6 Throat singing, in which the performer is able to activate two parts of the voice box simultaneously, is popular.

7 Yak polo is becoming one of the nation's favourite sports.

8 Everyone has heard of the Gobi Desert. But "gobi" just means "desert", and Mongolians say the country has 33 kinds of gobi.

9 Roy Chapman Andrews, a maverick archaeologist who found fossilised dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert in 1933, is the model for Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

10 Mongolia is the only place where true wild horses still live.