empire builders


Judgement at Karakorum

The death of Mongke Khan in 1259 brought the end of the Mongol Empire. Perhaps what made the Mongols most successful as conquerors was their unity, a unity which was always tenuous at best.  When Mongke Khan died he left no heirs to take over the empire, and as a result the Mongol Empire fractured between many khans and warlords. The largest and most powerful Mongol state that resulted was the Yuan Dynasty, founded in 1271 by Kublai Khan, which controlled all of China, Mongolia, Korea, parts of Siberia, and parts of Central Asia. 

The Yuan Dynasty didn’t even last a hundred years before collapsing, showing that while the Mongols were great empire conquerors and empire builders, they were not very good empire keepers. The Yuan Emperors created a class system with the Mongols at the top, controlling all high level government and military positions. The native Chinese were relegated to second class status within their own country, which fomented resentment against the Mongols. Furthermore, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty were terrible administrators, and over the decades the Chinese economy collapsed due to economic and financial mismanagement. The countryside was ravaged by outlaws and criminals. Corruption was rampant, as was political intrigue. Like I mentioned before, what made the Mongols most powerful was their unity. Without unity, the Mongols were nothing more than small bands of marauders and brigands. Infighting was common among the Mongols as heirs of Kublai Khan fought for control of the empire. The Yuan Mongols themselves were not the same Mongols bred during the days of Genghis Khan.  Rather than being fierce and ruthless steppe warriors, decades of luxurious living and wealth had transformed the Mongols into a horde of overprivileged brats who needed a good ass whoopin’ for their own good.

By the 1350′s, Chinese hatred of the Mongols had reached the boiling point. The Mongols ruled under the Mandate of Heaven, an ancient Chinese doctrine that said that rulers governed with the blessings of the gods. However, the gods could withdraw their mandate, giving the people the right to overthrow an incompetent or tyrannical ruler. Heaven would give a sign that it had withdrawn it’s mandate with a series of natural disasters. In the 1350′s China was plagued with a number of disastrous floods, droughts, and famines, disasters which a weakened Mongol government could do little to mitigate. To the Chinese, the Mongols were both incompetent and tyrannical, it was time for them to be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail.

In 1351, a religious political movement called the White Lotus Society founded the Red Turban Rebellion, a movement to kick the Mongols out of China once and for all. The Mongols were almost powerless to stop them as millions across China rose up in arms. While the Mongols were extraordinary conquerors, the sucked at defending and holding ground. Back in the days before Genghis Khan, if the Chinese sent a massive army into Mongolia to quell the tribes, the Mongols would simply pack up their yurts and bug out, disappearing into the vastness of the steppes. Now that they had to defend an empire and hold on to territory, they had lost the advantage of mobility.  The Mongols were not prepared to deal with such a mass uprising. Over the next seven years the Mongols were forced to retreat toward the north, until in 1358 the last Yuan Emperor, Toghon Temur, ordered a complete withdrawal from China. 

The Mongols would found a rump state called the Northern Yuan Dynasty in Mongolia, while a Red Turban leader named Zhu Yuanzhang claimed the Mandate of Heaven and founded the Ming Dynasty.  The Ming Chinese continued to advance against the Mongols, driving father north and eventually kicking the Mongols out of Manchuria. In 1388 the Ming invaded Mongolia with a massive army. The Mongols attempted to stop them, but were easily crushed at the Battle of Lake Biur, which resulted in 70,000 Mongols surrendering to the Chinese Imperial Army. The Ming then marched on the Mongol capital of Karakorum, and burned it to the ground. Talk about comeuppance.

After the destruction of Karakorum, the Mongols reverted back into their old tribal ways, splitting into factions that remained in almost constant civil war. The Ming watched closely, and whenever it seemed that a leader would emerge to unite the Mongols once again, the Ming would invade, cut that person down to size, and the infighting among the Mongols would begin again. As a result, the Mongols would never be the existential threat to China or any other civilization like they were back in the days of Genghis Khan. Some came close to bringing back old Mongol glory, such as in 1449 when the Mongols defeated a 500,000 man Ming army, captured the emperor, and laid siege to Beijing, but Mongol infighting destroyed the offensive and regressed the Mongols back to their old ways once again. In 1757, the Manchu Dynasty conquered Mongolia, reducing the Mongol population by 80% through warfare, disease, and genocide. In the meantime, the Russians advanced from the west, conquering and occupying traditional Mongol lands in Central Asia.

Mongolia would remain a province of Manchu China until the fall of the Dynasty in 1912. In 1924 Mongolia became a communist state under the Mongolian People’s Republic. While technically Mongolia was a sovereign nation, in reality it was a puppet state of the Soviet Union, who occupied the country with Red Army troops up until the end of World War II. As a result, around 30,000 Mongolians were executed as part of Stalin’s purges in the late 1930′s. After World War II Mongolia would become a pawn of the Soviet Union in it’s Cold War squabbles against China. Communism came to an end in Mongolia as the Soviet Union collapsed.


4 Photos of Burlington Northern 9971 and 9972 by Marty Bernard
Via Flickr:
BN 9972 on April 2, 1971 with Chicago bound combined Trains 26, 32, and 8 at Westmont, IL. Train 26 was The North Coast Limited, 32 was The Empire Builder, and 8 The Morning Zephyr.

You finish the new civilization video game, only to discover it’s a recruiting tool of multi-dimensional empire builders. They want to talk to you about your latest game.


Amtrak - ‘Empire Builder’ by rrradioman on Flickr.

Amtrak Empire Builder approaching Chicago Union Station with the Chicago River and Merchandise Mart in the background


July 1974

Photos by Gary Sturm

Made with Flickr

For a very long time, I’ve dreamed about riding the train out west. Now that I’ve finished grad school, this felt like the year to finally do it.

So today, after a few snafus (including Amtrak pushing back my reservation by two days due to major track delays), I departed Chicago for leg 1 of my rail journey, heading west to Seattle on the Empire Builder. This month I’ll also be riding the Cascades line from Seattle to Portland, and then taking the Coast Starlight from Portland to San Francisco.

My train just passed through St. Paul, Minn., and the train attendant has flipped the seats in my roomette into a bed for the night. Looks like I’ll be waking up in North Dakota (or Montana if I sleep in).

Maria I of Portugal the Mad, the 1st undisputed Queen regnant of Portugal.

Her madness was first noticed when she had to be carried back to her apartments in delirium. The Queen’s mental state became increasingly worse, her husband died, she was devastated, and forbade any court entertainments.

It got worse after the death of her eldest son, was then deemed mentally insane and treated by Francis Willis, same physician who attended George III of England. He wanted to take her to England, but it was denied by the court. When Real Barraca de Ajuda burnt down, the court was forced to move to Queluz where the ill Queen would lie in her apartments all day.

Visitors would complain of terrible screams echoing throughout the palace.

This is For Our Boys.

On 3 December 2014, I watched the glaciers in Glacier National Park glide by my panoramic windows aboard Amtrak’s The Empire Builder at two o’clock in the morning. There’s something about the mountains in the dark of the night, lit from behind by a full, silver white moon. It felt oddly cleansing. Rather than feel like a failure for leaving behind a long term relationship and a life I had worked incredibly hard to build for over a year, I felt filled with hope and promise.

But I was scared. Not only had I left a relationship behind, I had severed ties with a group of friends I had known for ten years and I had come out to my friends, family, and everyone else. I didn’t know how to begin rebuilding. It’s something I’ve grown used to doing over my lifetime, but I felt overwhelmed and unsure. I resolved in that train compartment that night that I would be better for what had been and that I’d never look back.

But hard days happen and sometimes, even when we should know better, we forget to be prepared for them. I couldn’t have anticipated how alone I would feel in the world. How displaced. And even with a crystal ball I could never have predicted where I’d be a year from that moment. 

It was while I was sitting at my sister’s dining room table, waiting to go to dinner with her and my brother in law, that I heard a song drifting from the bathroom. (One day, I really should thank my brother for singing in the shower, even if he’s horrendous). I really enjoyed the song. I was going through a Mumford phase and it reminded me of them, so I asked my sister: “Hey, who is this?” She smiled a sly smile at me and said simply, “It’s One Direction”.

For weeks after that moment my sister continued to berate me by shoving her phone in my face repeatedly and telling me I “had to see this”. I scoffed at first, but always being a naturally curious person, I went back to my apartment and began researching. I went through entire tumblr tags, spent hours on people’s blogs, watched countless YouTube videos and read so many master posts my eyes were in danger of falling out. 

4 April 2015, nearly four months after that train ride, I changed my URL and made my first post on tumblr about One Direction. 

Over a year later, and I am still so enraptured and enamored by these four boys from Britain and Ireland, these four boys who wouldn’t know my name or my face, but have changed my life in so many ways I could never repay them if I had five lifetimes. I fell in love with their courage, their passion, their hopefulness, their playfulness, their unity. I fell in love with Niall’s laugh and Louis’ giggle. I fell in love with Liam and Harry’s smiles. I grew passionate about how they stood together through hard times and never wavered in their dedication and humility. The night I saw them burst on to a stage in Detroit, Michigan will stand forever as one of the best nights of my life.

I found people here who have helped me become a better person. They have taught me what it means to know yourself and why you believe what you believe. They have helped me become fearless. For a girl who has lived most of her life in fear, the feeling of confidence and empowerment is irreplaceable. They have taught me about friendship, something I always valued but never knew the depths of until I saw people here literally encouraging others to stay alive and to fight for themselves and their voices. I am the most lucky to have known each and every single one of you. Through good times and bad, joy and pain, laughter and tears, I will never forget how I forged a family out of strangers from all corners of the globe, united by a website and a band.

The boys have created a space where people have found the best parts of life- family, friendship, and even a sense of home. So many people wander through life seeking that home and never find it, attempting to create it for themselves in a thousand fruitless ventures. That could have been me, it could have so easily been me. I was listening to Mumford and Sons the other night (go figure) and I heard the lyrics “Hold me fast//Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer”. I used to identify very strongly with those lyrics, forever restless and unsettled.

But in Niall, Liam, Louis, and Harry and their fans, I have found a home. You all are my home. Those boys are my home. No matter what. Thank you, thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you to all of you and to our Band of Brothers, for making this feel like home.