In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan

DeFrances, John. In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Reason read: DeFrancis was born in the month of August – read in his honor.

When I first cracked open In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan I thought DeFrancis was thumbing his nose at his readers. The first chapter of In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan is called “You can’t Do That Anymore” Here, DeFrances spends time listing all of the routes he was able to travel back in 1935 that are now closed to present-day (in 1993) travelers. But, that’s not bragging – it’s the simple truth. As it was, retracing the steps of Genghis Khan was not a simple affair, even back then. Just getting camels at that time of year (May) proved to be difficult because in the summer months the camels were traditionally “retired” and put to pasture to fatten up. When the travelers were presented with only female camels their journey was further slowed as females need to rest more often, get later starts in the day and their loads had to be much lighter than males. Typical women!

This was a fun read. Besides the fragility of female camels I also learned that lamas teach and can marry while monks don’t teach and shouldn’t marry (most do). There is very little about Genghis Khan, per se, until they reach Etsina.

As an aside: I am also reading a book about things in society “speeding up” for the sake of wanting everything faster. In In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan I learned that lamas of Tibet and Mongolia devised a way of speeding up their orisons by using prayer wheels of varying sizes. They could spin them in order to have the text read faster.

One last comment – I was shaken to read about the “voluntary” human trafficking that went on. Families would sell their children (by the pound) for labor and even prostitution in order to survive.

The best lines, “…ignorance of the past also impedes understanding of the human landscape” (p 7), “I had to admit it was a matter of historical record that Genghis Khan had conquered China without the benefit of Band-Aids” (p 96), “Rhubarb, however served, even in pies that others found delicious, always seemed to me not fit for consumption by humans and, I would now add, by animals as well” (p 185), and one more, “In recalling my early travels it is fascinating to see how often a minor jigsaw piece of the past acquires greater significance when fitted into a new mosaic of the present” (p 228).

Book trivia: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan is filled with wonderful illustrations by Myra Taketa who is,  as DeFrances describes, a “multitalented secretary.”

Author fact: at the time of publication DeFrances was working on a “ground-breaking alphabetically based computerized Chinese-English dictionary” (p 285). He had since passed away. I don’t know if the dictionary was ever completed. I’ll have to look that up.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “In the Footsteps Of…” (p 102).

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