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Searching for the spirit of Genghis Khan

By Stan Grant, CNN
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The spirit of Genghis Khan
  • Genghis Khan remains revered in Mongolia
  • Mentton of Genghis Khan was banned until after the demise of the USSR
  • Khan seen as inspirational figure, but many still live in poverty

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (CNN) -- In the vast open steppe outside Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar, the great emperor Genghis Khan is very much alive.

His giant statue hovers for as far as the eye can see. But this is more than a monument: This is the very embodiment of the spirit of a man whose life and legacy are both a link to a glorious past and an inspiration for the spiritual and economic renewal of this country.

People flock here in their thousands each day to feel the emperor's presence and revere his memory.

"I come here every few months to pay respect to our great emperor," one man told me. "He conquered the world. I don't say my son should grow up to be as powerful as Genghis Khan but he must have his spirit as a descendant of Genghis."

Genghis inspires devotion in some, worship in others.

We respect and worship him in the home but I cannot see any evidence of him
--Baigalmaa, resident of Ulaanbaatar
  • Genghis Khan
  • Mongolia
  • Asia

Davaanyam and his small group of followers believe they can channel his spirit and even make his image appear.

Four of them surround me and using only two fingers each effortlessly lift me over their heads. They say the power of Genghis has entered me, allowing me to levitate. If that sounds a little fantastic, Davaanyam's other claim may not: he says he is a direct descendant of Genghis.

Geneticists say almost one in ten men in Asia carry the DNA of Genghis Khan.

Not surprising, considering Genghis Khan and his descendants conquered much of China, Russia, central Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It is still the greatest land empire the world has known. In 25 years, the Mongols captured more land than the Romans managed in 200 years.

But in recent centuries, Mongolia itself has been ruled by China and the former Soviet Union, when mention of Genghis himself was banned.

Not any more, and his name now is now synonymous with the economic rise of a new Mongolia. But in the rush for riches there are those left behind who struggle to lift themselves above the poverty line. To them Genghis is more myth than reality.

Tens of thousands of Mongolians have migrated to the outskirts of the capital Ulaanbaatar looking for a share of the economic boom.

"It is so difficult to be optimistic," says Baigalmaa. "It's already over for me. I am thinking about my children and grandchildren. It is difficult and I think it will get worse in the future."

Baigalmaa is 54 years old and has lived in Ulaanbaatar for decades after leaving her traditional home in the countryside when her husband was in the army. Now she has grandchildren to care for, one son with a heart condition who can barely get out of bed and another just married and erecting a "ger," or tent, to live in.

There are 12 people in all living in a small, two-room shack. They survive on Baigalmaa's husband's pension of about $80 a month and a small government handout of less than $20.

Baigalmaa tells me she hears a lot of talk about the so-called mining boom. Mining companies are lining up to tap into Mongolia's vast reserves of copper, gold and coal.

But Baigalmaa doubts she or her family will ever see any of the promised riches.

"Mostly foreigners take away all the benefits," she says. "I don't know if people like us will get anything or not ... I won't know if I'll get it or not until I am actually holding it in my hands."

Like any other Mongolian she's been raised on the stories of her country's glorious past, but where she sits now the spirit of Genghis Khan is hard to find.

"It is all just talk. Of course we respect and worship him in the home but I cannot see any evidence of him," she says.

With that, she saunters off with her dirty-faced grandchildren, clad in tattered clothes.

Many people like to talk of the "wolf economy," the animal spirit of Genghis Khan himself. Baigalmaa and the other poor fringe dwellers of Ulaanbaatar can only hope the blessings of Genghis fall to them.