Sheltering from the summer rain, a family poses for a photo outside Ulaanbaatar’s National Sports Stadium.
Like almost everyone in the capital attending the celebrations for Naadam, Mongolia’s national festival – a riot of wrestling, archery and horse riding – they are dressed in their finery.
A maroon deel and grey hat for the man, a navy silk deel for the woman: national costumes for the national celebration held every July that, in part, marks victory in 1921 over their Chinese occupiers.
But my eye is drawn to the backdrop of this family portrait: a giant picture of Genghis Khan, who is also honoured with a vast statue in Ulaanbaatar’s central square. To foreigners, the rapacious 12th-century conqueror may make an unlikely pin-up, but to Mongolians, Genghis is a hero, the father of their nation.
Thousands of miles away in London, a very different Mongolian face glares out from posters plastered across bus shelters, taxis and railway station hoardings. He is Archug Khan, the fictional hero of The Mongol Khan, a lavish theatrical production running in the West End until December 2.
Taking the lead role is Mongolian actor Erdenebileg Ganbold, a huge star in his native country; the ad campaign is part of a significant investment in lifting Mongolia out of the geopolitical shadow of its two problematic neighbours, Russia and China.
The play has already attracted controversy in China: on 19 September a run of performances in the Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolian city of Hohhot was cancelled by authorities at the eleventh hour, having previously granted permission to the producers. The director described the abrupt closure as a “major setback”. Fear of the play rousing separatist sympathies among ethnic Mongolians is the likely cause.
But the Mongol Khan is also an exercise in soft power. Enticing tourists to Mongolia, a rugged, beautiful country the size of Western Europe, with a population barely bigger that of Wales, is very much part of the plan.
Anyone in the audience expecting Genghis Khan – or Chinggis to use his Mongolian moniker – to gallop across the stage of the London Coliseum will be in for a surprise.
The man who united disparate nomadic clans to spearhead the creation of the largest contiguous land empire in world history, stretching from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Danube River and the shores of the Persian Gulf in the west, may be as synonymous with Mongolia as nomads, steppes and – these days – rare earth minerals, but he does not make an appearance.
That is because the play is set more than a thousand years before Genghis was born, when a tribe called the Hunnu, or Xiongnu, from the extant Chinese written sources, ruled the steppes – and beyond. The Hunnu amassed the world’s first nomadic empire, laying the framework for Genghis.
Back in central ‘UB’, as everyone calls the capital, I visit the new Chinggis Khaan National Museum, where I am greeted by an immense statue of Modun Chanyu, the founder of the Hunnu empire in BC 209. (All the information is in Cyrillic script, which replaced the traditional Mongolian script in the 1940s, but a QR code pulls up English translations on my phone.)
I learn that the Hunnu were the ‘beginning of the statehood history of Mongolia’, with Modun’s empire lasting 300 years. Setting a theatrical production during the Hunnu period is starting to make a lot of sense.
‘By starting with the Xiongnu, Mongolians are claiming deep roots for Genghis’s empire. They see the Xiongnu not just as predecessors but as ancestors, with both cultural and genetic links.
‘Few Westerners know about these people and they deserve better,’ says John Man, a British historian and travel writer who specialises in Mongolia, and who last year translated The Mongol Khan into English.
The London show is based on an earlier play, written in 1998 by renowned Mongolian writer Lkhagvasuren Bavuu, who died in 2019.
Man had a month to complete the task. ‘I was working 10 hours days with help from the Mongolians themselves,’ he tells me. The show’s producers needed the translation done at double speed if they were to have any hope of interesting a London theatre in time for a run this year.
The timing was crucial: 60 years ago, Britain became the first western country to establish diplomatic relations with Mongolia, which spent almost 70 years as a Soviet-dominated socialist republic.(Without Soviet intervention, Mongolia, which was colonised by the Manchu-led Qing dynasty from the 17th century until 1911, might be a region of China.)
France followed Britain in 1965 but the US did not formally recognise Mongolia until 1987.
There are parallels between that initial bid for global acceptance and the situation the landlocked country is in today, desperate to increase its international profile and cut dependence on its superpower Chinese and Russian neighbours.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is heightening tensions. Mongolia felt obliged to abstain from last February’s United Nations vote calling for Russia to leave Ukraine.
Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene, the 43-year-old Harvard-educated prime minister, is pinning his hopes on a resource boom transforming the country’s economy and has been glad-handing world leaders.
In August, he met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and vice-president Kamala Harris. Emmanuel Macron visited in May, lured by the country’s critical minerals, including the uranium that France needs for its nuclear energy. Global governments are racing to secure materials required for clean and green technologies.
The clock is also ticking for Mongolia, a multi-party democracy since 1990, to show that rampant corruption among officials and politicians who defrauded the state for years over coal is under control.
With parliamentary elections due next year, Oyun-Erdene will be anxious to avoid a repetition of December’s protests in Sükhbaatar Square, which is home to the president and prime minister’s offices.
Pope Francis made the first papal visit to Mongolia this month, where he held a mass for the country’s 1,500 Catholics, a tiny minority among the largely Buddhist population.
Like his secular counterparts, the Pope would like to have greater influence in Russia and China; Mongolia is the closest he can get, for now. Even Elon Musk said this summer that he may build a Tesla factory in the copper-rich nation.
Then there’s the nation’s burgeoning soft power, most notably wielded by rock band The Hu, who combine Mongolian throat singing, folk traditions and heavy metal. Last year they became the first rock band to be named a Unesco Artist for Peace for their work in promoting the country’s heritage.
They toured the US after playing Glastonbury. Typically, their videos depict muscle men charging across the steppes on Harley-Davidsons and horses, singing things like, ‘Let’s defeat them with the wisdom of our great Khan, Chinggis.’
Talking of Genghis Khan (and Mongolians are always talking about him: his face adorns their currency, the tugrik, and my souvenir bottle of ‘Chinggis Gold’ vodka), a major exhibition about how his Mongol empire changed the world opens in Nantes, France, in October.
Meanwhile, in London, the Royal Academy is preparing a show titled Arts of the Mongol World, due to open in 2026. Mongolia itself is now a cultural export.
Hero Baatar, 44, a softly spoken bear of a man, is The Mongol Khan’s director. We meet at the Soviet-built Mongolian State Academic Theatre, where the play has clocked up 151 performances.
The Mongol Khan is Mongolia’s ‘first cultural attack on the West’, he says. It is also an attempt to rebuild Mongolia’s battered sense of national character.
‘We were under the influence of China and then Russia for a long time, so we lost our national identity. This is our first attempt to preserve [it].’ Although the plot, which hinges on a brutal succession battle in an empire on the brink of collapse, is fictional, the staging, costumes, dancing and music are closely based on archaeological finds and cultural traditions.
Dr Elizabeth Fox, an anthropologist and Mongolian specialist at Cambridge University, says such cultural diplomacy is crucial. ‘Publicity is good for Mongolia; it is a small nation wedged in between two superpowers.’
If Mongolia were to be invaded, it would help for people to be ‘aware of the nation and the fact that it is sovereign and independent, [especially] if they feel some connection to its people and distinctive culture’. Fox draws a comparison between cultural exports such as The Mongol Khan and The Hu and Qatar’s hosting of the football World Cup.
‘It is all part of a wider name recognition strategy [for both countries]. There are a lot of people who have no idea where Mongolia is,’ says Fox, ‘It’s clear its military alone could never repel an invasion attempt from one of its neighbours, so [Mongolians] have no choice but to look for alternative strategies to protect themselves and disincentivise would-be invaders.’
All of this, however, assumes The Mongol Khan is a runaway success in Western theatre-land. It has been a huge hit in UB, but the London Coliseum is the biggest theatre in the West End, with an awful lot of seats to fill.
On the plus side, it also means there is space for the show to breathe, which, considering the cast numbers more than 70, with dancers, musicians, contortionists, stunt performers and seven lead actors, it very much requires.
There will even be a fire-breathing dragon puppet, made by Hove-based Nick Barnes, who created the award-winning puppets for the West End and Broadway production of Life of Pi.
‘Scale is really important in the Coliseum. Normal-sized things look swamped there and this won’t,’ says Stuart Murphy, who was chief executive of the Coliseum at the time of the show’s booking. He’s sure it will pull in the crowds.
‘There is a lot of really similar stuff in the West End that is either a spin-off, such as Frozen and Grease, or has been there for a long time. This is really distinctive.’
And then there is the lure of the exotic. ‘People are curious about south-east Asia in a way they weren’t even 10 years ago. I know a lot of people who want to visit Mongolia. This show presents an easily consumable version of the history.’
It helps that Timberlake Wertenbaker, an Olivier Award-winning playwright, worked on the show’s English adaptation. She is married to John Man, and although she credits him with doing the bulk of the work, was involved in finessing the final English script. ‘The main thing was matching what [the performers] were saying with their movements,’ she says, describing watching footage of the show in Mongolian on her computer in London.
She cites the play’s grand theatrical themes. ‘It felt Shakespearean. It combines qualities of King Lear and Othello, given the betrayal and blindness [to what is happening].’
One thing The Mongol Khan will not be able to match, however, is the real-life experience of descending through the sky on a flight into Mongolia, the steppes appearing as a choppy green ocean, the dawn sun transforming small hills into jagged, mountainous shadows.
What look like scattered cotton-wool balls are gers, traditional collapsible felt domes that still constitute home for an estimated 800,000 of Mongolia’s 3.4 million inhabitants, although the country is urbanising fast.
Emerging from the airport (called, naturally, Chinggis Khan International), on the outskirts of urban UB, the clash of old and new is condensed into a single image of two men on horseback silhouetted against one of the countless car dealerships that contribute to the capital’s twin scourge of congestion and pollution.
My arrival had been timed for the last performance of The Mongol Khan before the company take a summer break, starting with the Naadam festivities. Chatting before curtain up, Baatar says the playwright, a friend, wanted to explore the qualities that make a successful leader – a ‘khan’.
‘You must be able to sacrifice your own happiness and well-being and put the interests of your people and your empire first. The reason I wanted to direct this play was to explore this philosophy, which still resonates today,’ he says.
He hopes to take it to Turkey, France and even the US. But, first, the UK. ‘Britain is the home of theatre and the country of Shakespeare. It is a great privilege to show what Mongolia can offer culturally in Britain.’
And to be clear, going by my whistle-stop trip, which included watching the main Naadam celebrations – think the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony but with more mounted warriors firing arrows backwards while galloping round a track – there is little Mongolia can’t offer culturally.
Naturally, then, a ticket to The Mongol Khan buys a visual feast of Mongolian heritage. The show begins with two dancing foxes: animal imagery, based on archaeological artefacts from Hunnu tombs, abounds, from the golden deer embroidered into the cloak worn by the Khan’s consort to the Khan’s falcon-tipped crown. The costumes make heavy use of historical finds and traditional designs.
The plot revolves around the birth of two princes, days apart: one to the Khan’s wife and one to his consort. The Khan is suspicious because he has spurned his wife’s bedroom for years: the baby cannot be his.
And indeed it isn’t: she has been betraying him with his trusted adviser. There follows a plot to switch the babies. It’s dastardly stuff. This all occurs against a backdrop of dancing, music and acrobatics to rival The Lion King.
The one slight niggle I have risks making me unpopular with some of the Mongolian actors and team behind the show. But… I hadn’t expected the actors to be performing in English. Neither had Man or Wertenbaker when I told them I’d watched a word-perfect translation of the Mongolian script.
To be clear, this was a text the couple had thought was destined for surtitles at the Coliseum. The actors had done a brilliant job but, for me, listening to English detracted from what I was seeing.
Not everyone will agree. Baatar certainly doesn’t, telling me that the plan is to stage the play in both Mongolian and English. ‘We have chosen to embrace the exoticism of having the king speak with a Hunnu accent. In this way, instead of relying on surtitles to grasp the text, our audience can fully immerse themselves in the performance,’ he explains.
The show’s producers hope that transporting British audiences back more than 2,000 years to the dawn of Mongolian statehood will open them up to a culture that is hard to grasp from our largely sedentary, desk-bound existence.
Half of all Mongolians may now live in Ulaanbaatar, but around one quarter of its population are still nomads, packing up their gers and moving with the seasons. With the country’s geopolitical future threatening to be as complicated as its past, one thing is certain: Mongolians long to be led by someone who will help them to thrive.
Bayanjargalan Togoontumur, my guide to the Naadam festival, smiles as she recounts the words spoken at its end by an actor dressed as Genghis Khan. ‘He said, “I’ll be back.”
That is what everyone in Mongolia wants: a resurrection of Chinggis Khan. We need a leader who will make us strong and prosperous again.’