An Expedition to Oln Sum – Huhehot 2010

I taught translating and interpreting at Inner Mongolia Normal University in 2010. I and my colleague and mate Richard decided to make a two day expedition in search of the ruins of the ancient Ongut capital of Olun Sume, near Huhehot.

My field of study is in the use of Persian as an official language and lingua franca during the Mongolian era. This only has slight connexion with the old city, but I had Igor de Rachewiltz’s Papal Envoys to the Mongol Khans with me, wherein he tells the romantic story of the Catholic church out in the grasslands, and I was fascinated. An old Mongolian bloke who sells notebooks from his cart near my hostel told me which buses to take. It’s pronounced Oln Sum, he told me.

During the time of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, at the beginning of the 14th century, it was the Summer Palace of Ongut King George, who was a Nestorian Christian bearing a Greek Christian name. Franciscan Roman Catholic missionaries began to trickle into Khanbalik and other major Mongolian Chinese cities at this time, and one of these, Brother John of Montecorvino, rode up to this city and converted George to Roman Catholicism. King George is supposed to have built a Catholic church there, as well as a great library.

The city was destroyed by Ming armies in a single day on mooncake day in 1368. Later generations of Lama Buddhists built stupas on the site with the stones of the destroyed city, and it came to be called by the Mongolian name Olun Sume, many temples. These too crumbled away, leaving smooth mounds across the site. Thus it still lies, though thieves and archaeologists have carried away gravestones, steles, statues and tiles. Huhehot is on the Yellow River plain, close to the range called Dalun Har Oool, Seventy Black Mountains in Mongolian. We got an 8.45 bus and climbed up through the mountains to Bailingmiao, a tidy grasslands town on the high country, arriving there at 12.30.

There was a 2.00 pm bus to Olun Sum, and after a hearty meal of barleywheat noodles and potato and beef stew at a Mongolian restaurant, washed down with a bottle of Mongolian wolfberry wine, which Richard had thoughtfully brought, we headed out into bleak treeless steppeland towards Olun Sume.

When we asked the driver what time the bus would go back, he said – 8.30 am tomorrow, but you can stay at the site; go and talk to Ma Quan. He set us down at a deserted spot on the side of the road and drove away. A cold wind whistled around us as we walked down to a signboard in a large field and a fewdeserted concrete yurt buildings, beside the first of the weathered mudbrick walls of the city.

We decided to find Ma Quan first, and then explore later. It was a pleasant mixture of excitement at being in this interesting place, and alarm, wondering if we would survive a freezing night out on the steppe if we didn’t find him. We supposed we could break into one of the concrete yurts and make a dung fire.

Richard cheerfully improvised a comic news report: “The bodies of two teachers from Huhehot have been found in a remote location at Oln Sum. They are believed to have died from exposure. Their entrails have been completely eaten away by wolves. Locals have welcomed this as a sign that wild wolves are returning to the area”.

There were more white yurts about a mile away in the distance and we trudged over to them. Also empty – more excitement and alarm. But a track led to a farmhouse nearby, where a dog barked at us. Two men were there, Ma Quan the farmer, and his friend, a shepherd and farm agent. Richard explained who we were and asked if we could pay to stay the night. Ma Quan considered for a second and said – yes, go into the house. It was nice to go into the warm house and be welcomed by his wife, who sat us down and brought us each a glass of milk tea. I felt embarrassed for imposing, but they showed only cheerful hospitality.

Ma Quan gave us a few directions about where to find the church ruins. He is a sheep and cattle herder, who having hosted many international archaeologists before, is very knowledgeable about the ancient city. We set out back to the ruins again, much happier now, and spent the last two hours of daylight inspecting the mudbrick walls. The sky was a clear blue, and the setting sun lit the scene brilliantly.

We found a high place which must have been the north-eastern corner tower, where we could make out the perimeter wall, and various buildings, as well as the mound-like remains of the later stupas, and the winding grasslands river beyond the city to the south.

The last rays of the setting sun lit the walls a bright orange colour, then the sun was gone and it got much colder, as we walked back to Ma Quan’s house.
A meal of Mongolian meat pancakes was cooked, and we sat on the settee, entertained by Ma Quan’s son, his wife and baby boy, and the friend, while the old couple served us. There was a bowl of egg and tomato soup each, vinegar and chilli paste for the pancakes, radish and carrot pickle, and tea.

I was asked what I knew about the Christian missionaries and the church, and the later ruin of the city, but I found the family greater informed. Ma Quan is the official guardian of the old city, and his son is the local environmental protection officer, though they no longer receive their stipends. They take part in a travelling museum project which arrives there once a year to set up exhibitions in the concrete and canvas yurt buildings. Ma Quan’s wife brought out a book with pictures of her in Mongolian costume, making cheese at one of the exhibitions.

Christianity arrived early into Mongolia and China. Nestorian Christian missionaries probably started carrying their message along the Silk Road from Jerusalem and Aleppo soon after the formation of Christian communities following the death of Jesus. This church’s dyophysite understanding of God as simply the father and Jesus his human son was abhorred by Roman Catholics in the west, who insisted on a Trinity including the Holy Ghost as an extra aspect. Thus, Nestorianism had a separate and important existence in Persia, Transoxiania, Mongolia and China. Nestorians had a church at Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty, as the Nestorian Tablet, now in the Confucian Temple at Xian, attests, and their Syriac script was later adapted for writing Uighur and Mongolian, which is the Mongolian script used in Inner Mongolia today. Genghis Khan and the later Mongolian Emperors had Nestorian clerics providing both religious and secretarial services to their courts. It is possible that Nestorians introduced Persian forms of chancery and diplomacy into Mongolian courts, a subject which I explore my PhD research.

When the Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the Mongolian empire at the end of the 13th century, they set up Churches of the Trinity to differentiate themselves from the dyophysite Nestorians. The church at Oln Sum is thought to be one of these, although there is still some doubt, and a proper archaeological study of the church site remains to be done. Archaeology of the city began under Owen Lattimore in the 1930s, and was continued by Egami Namio in the 1950s. Many researchers have visited and studied the site since then, most recently Tjalling Halbertsma, whose comprehensive work Early Christian Remains of Inner Mongolia; Discovery, Reconstruction and Appropriation was published in 2008.

We slept alongside the other guest on the heated kang, while Ma Quan, whose bed we had taken, slept on the couch in the sitting room. The farmhouse was beautifully designed, with double glazed windows facing south to get the sunlight, internal glazing to let light into the other rooms, heated sleeping platforms in two rooms, and solar hot water. Beautiful antique Buddhist posters decorated the walls.

The sunrise the next morning was unforgettable, and Ma Quan, his son and the farm dogs took us for a last look at the supposed church site, before putting us on the bus back to civilisation.

My six month long stay in Inner Mongolia is almost over, but the bleakness of the landscape, the vast blue tent of the sky, and the forthright hospitality of Mongolians, have deeply impressed me. Now I’m trying to learn the script, which is as plain and tough as the landscape.


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