Centaur of Attention

John Man, author of biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila, traces the journey that took him to Mongolia and Hungary, with a detour to the Gobi, and reveals the secrets of mounted archery.

It started in Vienna, while I was away from university for a year as an exchange teacher. This was the 1960s. The edge of the Soviet empire was an hour’s drive away. One summer afternoon, I stared at the wire and the watchtowers on the Czech border and dreamed of exploring the immense and closed-off universe beyond, of finding somewhere remote, exotic and very hard to get to.

Back in Oxford the next autumn, a notice named the very place. It was a request for applications to join an expedition to Mongolia. Perfect. The back of beyond, locked away between the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Cold War, hardly visited by Westerners in forty years, a mystery inside an enigma. But the expedition was to be a scientific one, to collect blood-samples, and I had absolutely nothing to offer. On impulse, I asked if I could join if I spoke the language. Yes, that would do nicely. So, as a post-graduate, I enrolled with Charles Bawden, the eminent Reader in Mongol Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. I was his only student. I went for lessons at his home in Iver, Bucks, and never discovered the glories of the SOAS library until much later.

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