When he went marauding about the known world some 800 years ago, Genghis Khan almost certainly never slept on a bed scattered with rose petals. He was a hard guy. So it seems fitting that the journey east from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, toward a 131-foot stainless-steel statue of the infamous Mongol warlord is a stark experience. The roadside is barren of trees and unpeopled, and brown rubbly mountains stretch into the distance. When you travel the 35-mile route on a bicycle, as I did recently, the headwinds can be cruel.
Still, I pedaled on, for Genghis Khan is Mongolia’s future. After his conquests were downplayed in the history books during seven decades of de facto Soviet rule, the nomad who ruled an empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to Siberia reemerged in 1990, as democracy was being established. Today, he is a poor nation’s avatar of hope—and he’s becoming a major industry.
In Ulaanbaatar, you can drink Chinggis beer at the Grand Khaan Irish Pub. (For obscure reasons, the local spelling differs from the Western.) The Genco Tour Bureau, an Ulaanbaatar-based company, has spent about $7 million on the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex, a commercially minded homage where the giant steel Chinggis will soon be flanked by an artificial pond, a skating rink, and 200 small gers, or round tents, for paying campers. Nearby, Genco has also built a 13th-century living history museum, sort of a Colonial Williamsburg on the steppes, where artisans make felt by beating wool with wood sticks. And at the Chinggis Khaan Golf Country Club, the greens are tiny, bright patches of artificial turf on the infinite brown.
With a poignant hopefulness, Mongolia, population 2.7 million, is trying to establish a market economy in the deep shadow of neighboring China. One morning when I was looking for a pastry in Ulaanbaatar, I strolled into a grocery store and found all the bakery workers watching me with quiet, expectant pride. “You are our first clee-ent,” the manager told me, explaining that it was opening day. “We are so honored.” Down the street, Louis Vuitton opened its first Mongolian outlet last year, and Hugo Boss likewise set up a shop for the Mongolian elite who have grown rich mining gold. I stood beneath an ad for a Mongolian department store— I am all new, read the slogan, next to a picture of a beautiful woman—and then the wind kicked up, uprooting a small road sign that came catapulting toward my head, pole and all.
Mongolia doesn’t quite have the modernity thing down yet. It remains a poor country where the electricity is constantly flickering, even in the capital, and it’s so dependent on ranching and sheepherding that last winter’s dzud, or unusually heavy snow, was still wreaking havoc on the economy when I visited in May. The tourist map I bought depicted what I swear were phantom roads. When I tried to follow one, I ended up in a cow pasture, being chased through a snowstorm by barking dogs.
On my way to the statue, I got lost. No road signs pointed there yet, and the only pedestrian I found outside Ulaanbaatar was an old man gathering horse dung for heating fuel. He could not help me. Finally, I found a gas station, built in 2009, where the attendants wore matching red-and-blue uniforms and sat inside a glass-and-steel booth.
“Chinggis?” I said.
“Ah!” They smiled and pointed.
A few miles later, I came upon a truck driver, who’d pulled over to pee. “Chinggis?” I said.
When he pointed, I saw it—a glimmer of silver down the hill. Genghis Khan sits astride a stallion, grimacing as he clutches a gold-tinted stainless-steel whip. The statue’s pedestal is a columned, white-granite rotunda, and everything inside the rotunda is calibrated to impress and make money. There’s a collection of Bronze Age artifacts, a screening room wherein a stentorian video (with English subtitles) heaps praise on the Mongolian construction industry, and a luxurious conference room and restaurant, both empty when I visited. The landscaping is brutal: not a tree or bush in sight. The black iron fence surrounding the complex goes on for more than a mile. Cumulatively, the place shouted, “Watch out, folks— Mongolia is back on its horse!” But I detected an undertone of desperation too. A more plaintive voice seemed to whisper, “Believe in us, please. We’re trying very hard.”
I snickered for a moment, but then, riding home, I felt guilty for laughing. I remembered a kid I had met earlier, while lost on a back road, named Ertene Bulgan. He was a shepherd, with a shaved head and a stud earring, and he invited me into his grandparents’ ger. Later, he drew a map of his world into the dirt with a stick. “Home,” he said, pointing. Then he drew a little rectangle. “School.” Then, with a solemn nod, he said, “Chinggis.” And he drew a long road, hooking into the distance, toward a steel marvel he hoped to visit one day.