Sitting in an office that overlooked the parliament building and Sukhbaatar Square, Shagdar Bira, PhD, secretary general of the International Association for Mongol Studies and a member of the expedition, began to carefully backtrack from their find. "We are not sure this is his tomb," he said, exchanging meaningful, furtive glances with his deputy, Tsogt-Ochir Ishdorj, PhD, department head at the Institute of History, Mongolian Academy of Sciences. I convinced myself to assume the best (being ever the optimist) and hoped that they were merely uncomfortable at the possibility of being perceived locally as modern-day grave robbers disturbing the resting place of the country's revered leader. Against his wishes.
Within a day, I had talked Ishdorj into leading my English-speaking (yet mute) driver and me to their guarded site, deep in the countryside.
Mongolia is three times the size of California and has about 2.83 million people, about half of whom are concentrated in the capital, so a journey into the sparsely populated countryside can seem like a trip back in time. Many rural Mongolians still live the same way as those who lived during the time of the Khans. They learn to ride horses before they can walk; they dress in traditional deels (gowns); and they dwell as nomads, moving their circular gers (yurts) from valley to valley, just as their famous ancestor did. Genghis is omnipresent. Everyone knows the story of his life, death, and secret burial.
Two hundred miles has never felt as long as it did on that off-road venture through the Mongolian countryside in the back of a shock-absorber-free Russian jeep. After 14 kidney-crushing hours of bumping around the carpet-covered backseat, we pulled up to the middle of nowhere, and I suddenly saw it: the Oglogchiin wall surrounding the supposed grave site. I got goose bumps. Then my doubts came rushing back. Popping a Tums to ease my pre-ulcerous condition, I wondered how previous searches could have possibly overlooked such a massive ancient wall circling a hillside.