“According to Mongolian shamanism, which governs all of this, he must be buried promptly, because when a person dies his spirit goes into his spirit banner, but his bones are invaded by evil forces. You can’t even touch a corpse without dangerous consequences to yourself: physical, mental and emotional.”
While on the road, I receive an email from Hong Kong-based Swiss adventurer and Mongolia expert Marc Progin, who read my first article, announcing the expedition. Questioning Nichols’ motives, Progin urges him to respect the wishes of the Mongolians and call off the search.
“I’d say to those who don’t want him to be found, ‘He’s going to be found,’” says Nichols, when I mention the message. “He’s the most famous warrior in the history of the world. “We now have satellite imagery, drones, ground-penetrating radar. We have all sorts of things, both from military and from mineral research. They’re going to find it, and they’re going to find it soon. And if it’s not found by someone who wants to take it to the next step – which is to find the right institutions and way to protect those remains – it’ll be another Disneyland.”
What if someone else finds the tomb?
Is it the glory he’s after? After all, what explorer wouldn’t want to be remembered as the man who solved one of history’s greatest mysteries?
Nichols says it’s neither the glory nor the gold he’s seeking.
“Education in Europe and the US is appallingly poor as to Genghis Khan,” he says, citing freedom of religion and diplomacy as just some of the ideas the famous conqueror introduced. “I mean, we talk about Caesar, Alexander ... they’re nothing compared with Chinggis Qa’an in what they accomplished. So I think that the idea of preserving this memory and this knowledge is important.”
The entrance to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Ordos, Inner Mongolia.
We spend the first few days driving along backroads, studying terrain, looking for places that would be impassable for a horse- or oxen-drawn cart carrying a corpse.
Over the week, Nichols narrows down his hypothetical route by a process of elimination. We follow a railway line that heads north to Zhongwei.
“Railways have to be basically flat,” says Nichols. “Of course, there were no railroads in 1227, but that’s a huge hint. This railroad gives us the track from the Liupan Mountains: flat and straight through this valley to the Yellow River.”
On day four, we pull up in a jeep at the surreal Shapotou Tourist Zone, with its enormous castle entrance, coloured flags flapping in the wind, pop music blaring from loudspeakers and golf carts taking tourists out to embark on overpriced camel tours. Nichols explains to the perplexed cameleers that we aren’t interested in taking the tourist route and want to ride their beasts north instead. He wants to test how far a camel can travel across desert sands in a day.
“I can’t talk about how long it takes a camel to go up this desert to Mongolia unless I’ve done it myself,” he says. “I’ve always found that it’s vitally important to be hands-on.”
Says Lauterbach, “Alan does his exploring in a shoe-leather fashion, where you go out and really beat the pavement to find the information. And he’s doing it in the classic old-fashioned way. It’s fascinating to watch him work.”
We become hypnotised by the alien landscape of the Tengger Desert and the lurching movements of the camels. Our ride resembles little what a Mongol army’s would have been like, but gives an idea of how time-consuming it is to cross such challenging terrain. The dunes are steep and the sand gives way under the camels’ feet, causing them to slide and stumble; the fact that they’re tied together on a short rope doesn’t help.
“I can’t talk about how long it takes a camel to go up this desert to Mongolia unless I’ve done it myself. I’ve always found that it’s vitally important to be hands-on.”
We set up camp just before nightfall and, watching him walk up the dunes, his feet sinking into the sand, for the first time I worry that Nichols looks tired. It’s easy to forget his age because we spend most of the time struggling to keep up with him.
“He’s driven,” observes Griffith. “And he pushes himself – physically, spiritually and intellectually.”
“Alan really is formidable,” says Hao, who is also a chef and hotelier. “The way he climbs mountains and things – you wouldn’t see Chinese men of his age doing this.”
Nichols joins a tai chi session in Liupanshan town.
For his part, Nichols, whose motto is that anything can be done at any age (it just takes a little longer), says he feels exhilarated.
“I have given up my hypothesis of the cortege going north through here,” he says. “You’d never take a cart, even if it was pulled by camels, through this. This would be a really big job even for Chinggis Qa’an, with his unlimited camels, troops, resources.”
The procession would have travelled along the outskirts of the desert, he suggests. Most experts believe the funeral cart was drawn by oxen, but “I asked the cameleers here, what about oxen?” says Nichols. “The oxen are too low, they wouldn’t go through the sand. A camel can go a week without water or food.
“Ours were very slow-paced camels. But just camels like this – and he would have had warrior camels – can travel 60km to 80km a day. Add to that the fact that Mongol warriors would be moving day and night.”
The expedition team test how far a camel can travel across dunes in a day, followed by filmmakers Caleb Seppala and Jackson McCoy; cameleers make a bonfire at the camp by night.
That night we eat by a fire, Nichols serenading us with 1930s campfire songs while the cameleers teach the film crew raucous drinking games.
In the morning, the sand is smooth except for snake trails and the footprints left by lizards and small mammals. While we ride, a large grey fox sprints away from us across the dunes.
Leaving the desert the next day, we detour to the swampy banks of the Yellow River, in Yinchuan, before heading out on a long, dusty drive towards Ordos, in Inner Mongolia.
“We’re standing on a battlefield,” says Nichols, pacing the muddy ground. “We’re at a place that was critical to Chinggis Qa’an’s attack on the Tanguts,” he says, referring to the 1226 Battle of the Yellow River, part of Genghis’ campaign to conquer the Western Xia empire.
“The best defence from Mongol cavalry? Water. So the Tanguts built ditches, lakes ... but Chinggis waited till wintertime, when it froze.”
Mongol horses could swim but a funeral procession would have had to transport heavy carts across the river, he says. “And they did that, but they wouldn’t walk along the river like we are and get bogged down.”
As we drive out of Ningxia – home to Hui Muslims – to Ordos, the script on the road signs changes from the horizontal Arabic to the vertical Mongolian, even though Mongolians make up just 20 per cent of the population in Inner Mongolia.
We take six-lane highways past colossal skyscrapers, many of them ghostly empty shells, lit up at night only by the neon lights lining their exterior.
Rigorous research and a difficult drive through harsh terrain lead the explorer to a former battlefield by the banks of the Yellow River. The area was critical to Genghis Khan's attack on the Tanguts in 1226, a year before he died.
Our route changes as Nichols updates his hypothesis according to his findings. He scribbles in a small notebook he keeps in his pocket and quizzes locals – tour guides, drivers and professors – for information, all the time being careful not to reveal his mission.
Our final stop is the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, in Ordos, an area the warrior was believed to have admired in 1227. It holds artefacts, including his saddle and bow, and inside there are statues of Genghis, incense, signs urging visitors to make donations and souvenir shops selling trinkets featuring his face. Despite the name, few believe Genghis’ body is buried in this “mausoleum”, which was built in 1954 by a Chinese government keen to adopt the legendary warrior as a national hero.
Later when I tell Weatherford I’m struggling to find a Mongolian expert willing to share their point of view for this story, he explains that, language barriers aside, such issues are politically sensitive.
“Scholars in many countries have claimed that the site is in their country – Mongolia, China, Russia and Kazakhstan, in particular,” says the anthropologist. “The claim of finding a tomb in any one of these countries would be somewhat alarming to the others and might be interpreted as a claim that that country is heir to the world empire of Genghis Khan.”
Eventually, Naran Bilik, a distinguished Inner Mongolian professor specialising in anthropology and ethnicity at Fudan University, Shanghai, replies somewhat cryptically to my emails. He says efforts to discover Genghis’ body have to take into account at least three factors.
“First, the subjectivity of the locals is vital since Genghis Khan means a lot to them,” he says. “Second, even amongst the Mongols there are different sections and private individuals – who can represent the Mongols? Are Inner Mongolians part of those who have a voice in such matters? Thirdly, it is a matter of negotiation and compromise, eventually. All parties involved have a stake in it and they have to strike a balance between different claims.”
Nichols says he’s aware of the sensitivities.
“I have an obligation to protect the tomb. And I’m not big enough to do it myself. It’d have to be the United Nations; it has to be cooperative.”
“I feel that responsibility to do my best. In fact, I even thought at one time that if I was unable to get the right people involved, I would not tell anybody. Or, like Chinggis Qa’an would do: I would tell them the wrong place,” he says. “I have an obligation to protect the tomb. And I’m not big enough to do it myself. It’d have to be the United Nations; it has to be cooperative. And the world has to know about it, and expect that we’re going to preserve this memory.”
Nichols says he thinks the analysis of the data he and his team have collected will be complete by March.
“As a scholar I look forward to learning about what he finds,” says Weatherford. “Yet, as a person who loves Mongolia deeply, I also love the mystery surrounding the end of Genghis Khan’s life.”
And if you’re thinking this is the explorer’s last big shot at glory before he retires, you’re mistaken.
“This is definitely not my last expedition,” says Nichols.
His next? All I can say is that it will take him into remotest Bhutan.
I could tell you more, but then I’d have to shoot you.