I stopped picturing that Pulitzer and popped a few more Tums when we reached the top of the rock-strewn hill. After climbing down off his horse, Ishdorj began jumping up and down on a heavy stone slab that sounded as though it were resting above a hollowed-out section of ground. "Heyyy! It's, you know, something in it. Over there is not," he said to me, pointing down with an excited look. "It looks like natural rocks, but I think this is a tomb." My heart sunk. Not the most convincing moment in archaeology. And definitely not the peek at a gauze-wrapped mummy lying among gold chalices that I had been hoping for.
IN THE FOLLOWING WEEKS, everyone I interviewed - from Mongolia's prime minister to top Mongolian specialists at universities around the globe to Japanese archaeologists who had searched for Genghis's tomb in the 1990s - poured buckets of cold water on the Genghis Khan Expedition's claim. They each gave reasons why this "find" was nothing new and most likely not even close to true. Shimpei Kato, the chief Japanese archaeologist from a well-funded, high-tech expedition that had visited the Oglogchiin site in 1996, told me, "Inside, there was a relatively small Mongol-era grave, but, for sure, that was not Genghis's tomb." And Christopher Atwood, PhD, a respected Mongol from Indiana University, actually laughed when I asked him about it, saying, "The [Mongolian] government only approves digs if they know the teams are looking [for the tomb] in the wrong place."
Thus the catch-22: No one - not even those in the government - is absolutely positive of the grave's location. There is one spot that many suspect is the tomb's location - a sacred mountain that's in the Khentii district and off-limits to digging - but, in the end, it's all speculation. Add to that fact the objections of Genghis's descendants, the Mongols, to disturbing the remains of the founder of their nation, and anyone searching for his elusive tomb has some pretty big obstacles to overcome. Granted, the government realizes that extending the permits to dig has some economic benefit to them (e.g., bringing wealthy foreigners in, providing jobs for translators); however, the people of Mongolia seem overwhelmingly against disturbing their ancestor's remains. They don't want him dug up - for the same reason that people in Britain would object to anyone rummaging around the tombs of the English kings in Westminster Abbey. Genghis was their first king. He is the revered ancestor of a living people.
As a result, the American team’s initial 2001 announcement and a subsequent one in 2003 about unearthing skeletons dating to the thirteenth century (the time period in which many of the Khans lived) were greeted with a bit of nervousness. Then came the news, in 2004, that the returning Japanese-Mongolian team of bona fide archaeologists had discovered a site that they claimed was Khan’s palace — about 50 miles east of the Oglogchiin site — and the government felt the heat once again.
Since then, things have been quiet on the Khan front, but this summer, the race to be the next Heinrich Schliemann continues. And the good news for those looking for a different kind of vacation is that the American-Mongolian Genghis Khan group is currently enlisting the help of tourists. Over the course of the next five and a half months, through the adventure-travel company iExplore, the Genghis Khan Expedition is inviting in-shape globe-trotters to spend at least $4,295 (airfare not included) to take part in one of history’s last great treasure hunts.
Who knows, you might just end up in a vast tomb, knee-deep in a pile of riches from all across Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. More likely, though, you will have one of the most memorable trips of your life and leave feeling the same way many Mongols (and I) do — rooting for Genghis to stay hidden, undisturbed. Just as he wanted.