Have You Heard What’s Under the River? or The Life and Times of Genghis Khan by Okala Elesia


“Genghis Khan? Never heard of her.” – Diana Ross


When Genghis Khan died, they buried him in lowland shrub beside a river and then re-directed the river over his remains as per his wishes, so that he may lay undisturbed in the afterlife, if there was an afterlife; which he didn’t think there was. Better to hedge your bets though, he figured. In order that his resting place remain unknown, the men who diverted the river were slaughtered by the men who dug the first pit. This final group of men were themselves then instructed to commit suicide, or instead take jobs as estate agents. It was a shitty deal but Genghis knew best.

  The tomb they buried Temujin –or Genghis as he came to be known- measured seven feet by ten. There were no fancy adornments, no inscriptions of any kind. An oak cask in a stone shell, and that was it. To look, you wouldn’t have guessed that here lay the great Khan, conqueror of worlds. That is, but for one small detail; Temujin’s final wish.

  The Steppe Book of the Dead, a weighty tome containing the unabridged – albeit empirical – account of Mongolian conquest speaks of a family burial with his younger brothers, while the Mongolian Book of Motown tells a different story: that instead of his brothers, Khan was interred with the surviving members of the Supremes. With hindsight, we now know that the truth was actually much less extravagant: Genghis Khan was interred with a vending machine and a personal computer.  

It is common knowledge that Temujin, first of his name, had become towards the end of his life a fan of video games. It’s just never been certain quite when or how this interest took hold. Contemporary historical opinion now points towards the early 12th century and a battle that would shape history.


It’s important we set the scene. In 1201, war appeared in the sky clutching a guitar. It had been building for some time. R&B was on its way out, the philosophers said. Here is this new sound, this “motown”, with its multi-layered arrangements and memorable hooks. Change too, could be felt on the grasslands of the steppe. One tribe above all had begun to expand rapidly. Finally, and then suddenly, against this backdrop of strings and dynamic three-piece harmonies, thirteen sides found themselves drawn into an unavoidable fight. For several months, the Khanate waged war with those steppe-tribes yet to pledge allegiance to their cause. Genghis was trying to mobilise the many different Mongol groups within the steppe –a temperate grassland stretching thousands of miles from Romania to Manchuria- into a single centralised machine. By unifying this stretch of land under a single ruler, he hoped to flex dominion over much of east Asia, and perhaps the world. This struggle and counter-struggle has become known as  The Battle of the Thirteen Sides, though at the time it had a more unassuming name: The Years Before Disco. Khan’s men rolled through village after village, town after town, gathering momentum. Those who pleaded for their lives were sometimes granted clemency, but needless to say, those who remained defiant were cut down and fed to the earth. Genghis, as ever, fought from the front.

At some point during the battle, the great Khan took an arrow to the neck, necessitating his withdrawal from the fighting. With the Khanate close to victory, however, Genghis instructed his two foremost favoured generals, the fearsome Guyuk and Subutai, to command in his absence, and returned home to recover.

Camp, in those days at least, was different. Khan found himself surrounded by some of the worst people in society: weak men, angry children, and the elderly (in his autobiography, Khan’t Slow Down: the Life and Times of Genghis Khan, he speaks of a fear rooted in the “weakness of growing old”). Khan slipped into a diet of comfort food and soft drinks. Apart from the odd update from his generals, the days were long. And this is where our story picks up.


One day, while out looking for apples, Genghis Khan came across an arcade. It was not uncommon; early Mongolia was full of craft workshops, creative spaces, and, of course, places for those who needed their video game fix. Khan missed the thrill of war; the relationship of command. He’d heard about the arcades through his soldiers, and he was curious. And so it was that Genghis Khan found himself standing before a virtual recreation of ancient Egypt, stoning runaway slaves with the swipe of a stick, the push of a button. Slaver 7 had been a huge hit in China before finding success in the outer fringes of Asia, thanks in part to intrepid traders brave enough to smuggle it out along the Silk Road. With time on his hands, Khan soon set five of Slaver7’s top ten highest scores. These would come up on the screen in a bold white font as the game loaded up. Those with scores higher than his own were summoned to the national palace –a square tent attached to wooden columns in the ground –  where each then denounced their own scores as the works of fortune, fiction, or myth.   

There was no coming back now. Khan had a computer installed in his tent and commanded local designers to develop something more challenging to meet his needs.  He wrote in a WordPad document later recovered from a flash drive: “a love which burns brighter than Diana Ross, brighter, even, than conquest, burns for…

 an accurate hospital resource management simulation, the likes of which the world can barely imagine.” 

Speculating, as any historian must when trying to piece together events from so long ago, it is not difficult to see why Genghis may have found satisfaction in this genre above all others. The ‘management resource’ sim is a classic video game staple that requires mastery of the multi-tiered aspect of empire management; from overseeing a business day-to-day, to developing systems that might speak to its future; it is a genre that will test your ability to manage both people and linear time. 

Before long, the game, titled Hospital Makeover: Mongolia!, was complete, and installed in his tent. This period seems have been, broadly speaking, one of great satisfaction for Khan. He drank, ate well, and set new high scores. During this time, his advisors patented the catchphrase, “those bastards!”, so regularly was it heard to ring out from his tent. Guards, fearing the worst, would rush in, only to find Genghis sat on the bed in a state of agitation because his in-game hospital had sprung an in-game curveball; unannounced inspectors, a virus running rife; that kind of thing. “Trying to fool me like the Shah of the Khwarazmian empire, is it!” Khan shouted at the screen the first time this happened, before winking at his red-faced guard. 

  Unlike his cousins, who found short-term amusement in the comical ailments of the game’s virtual patients, Genghis played in a state of alert seriousness, and always with furrowed brow. The emergencies and the accidents, the sprite of a ghost as it departed the body of one lost; everything was a challenge to be met head-on. After a time, we might ask why so serious? But perhaps that in itself is to miss the point. If we’re all just agents of the waking world, what’s the one absolute waiting for us in the wings? Well, perhaps in the early days of 1200, Temujin saw that too.


On the day they buried Genghis Khan, the people of the Steppe were told that the immortal Khan had ascended to Heaven, where he waited, bow in hand, for his people to join him. The river atop his grave ran with a new-found vitality. In time, on either side of its banks, flowers bloomed and lush reeds grew fat. The area became a place of great beauty and tranquillity. Roe deer and elk were drawn downstream to the pools of turquoise that would gather in unnumbered basins, as dragonfly skimmed across the surface drunk on the wind. Gobi bears bathed with their reflections in the cool waters, watched in turn by the solitary sand leopard waiting her turn. Truly, it was serenity; a cool slice of heaven under the baking sun.  


It was in this place of serenity that the first shouts went unheard. Genghis, embalmed within an inch of his life, skin finally flawless in death, stood upright in the tomb He stared open-mouthed at the disc sitting in the Hospital Makeover: Mongolia! case – the greatest hits of Leo Sayer vol. 2.

Who could visit such vengeance upon him? 

Vol. 2 – even that irked him somehow. Where was the first? He tore out the card inlay before pulling apart the case itself. Nothing.

He thought back to his final weeks above ground in the office. Everyone had said how well he looked, even though he knew they were just saying it.  Who could have done this? His instructions were crystal clear. Maybe, he supposed, an intern from one of the conquered kingdoms was at fault. They took on so many at a time, in part to beat child labour legislation, that it was sometimes difficult to keep track of who was useful and who wasn’t. He checked the hard drive of his computer to see if there was already an install of Hospital Makeover hoping that maybe someone had had the good sense to foresee an occurrence like this, but there wasn’t and they hadn’t.

The Mongolians, like many before and after them, believe in manifest destiny, a destiny that was… manifest. At the heart of that idea was death, which instead of being an end, rather represented a beginning: a short prologue tacked on to the business of eternity. In this moment now, Genghis saw the rest of his end stretching out before him. He wandered into the one other space in the tomb, a pokey utility room containing a mop, sink, and the vending machine. They hadn’t done a bad job on the interiors, though there were thin flecks of white paint dried onto the sink bowl. He turned towards the vending and machine pressed the button marked Cherry Onion. In fact, it was the only button – as he had requested. The machine’s unseen gut rumbled behind its logo of cherries superimposed on a waterfall and dispensed a can. Khan reached down, sighing. He had decided he would sigh for the rest of his life.

Sitting in the otherwise empty drop chute was a blue can. Khan gasped in horror. He already knew what it was. He grabbed at it all the same, squinting at the lettering. 

Seabass Shandy:

Mongolia’s favourite shandy…

With a hint of sea bass

– read the tag line beneath the picture of an anthropomorphic cartoon fish with an eye patch supping from a can. Mongolians loved the stuff, but not Khan.

He could feel his breath now coming and going with ragged velocity. It didn’t help that the vending machine bathed the room in a sickly cherry light. It also didn’t help, he realised, that he’d be wearing the same underwear for the rest of his afterlife, but that was less important. He looked down at the machine again. One button. A total failure of imagination.   

So, of course, he pushed it again.

Once, twice. Two more cans of Seabass Shandy. He pushed again –

another can.

Another push; another can.

The automated engine of the heartless machine seemed to roar back louder each time, challenging the great Khan to a fight he couldn’t win. 

“What in the fuck is this?” he thundered.

All this activity had the effect of tiring Genghis. He reached down into the machine’s chute and grabbed one of the cans, flipping it open with a single flick of the thumb, sucking from the hole ‘til blue foam ran down his mouth. He threw the can to the ground, reached down, and cracked open another, draining it in the same way.

It tasted like sea bass; it really did.

Just then, a low, barely audible moan seemed to very gently shake the room. Khan gripped the vending machine with the alertness of old. When it had gone, he chuckled. A distant earthquake they will never feel on the surface, he thought. How quaint to be closer to the earth’s core. And yet… the noise had seemed like it was in the tomb. Puzzled, Khan poked his head out of the utility room and performed one of his famous – he called them – “360 degree scans”. He felt giddy on the shandy. Had he imagined it? Was the trauma of the last ten minutes finally catching up with him? He leaned against the illuminated monster that had been the vending machine. No sooner had he calmed that the sound returned, shaking the utility room more than before, so that his teeth chattered. Genghis, frightened, unsure, looked down and saw the source of the violence: the noise was coming from him, from the volcano of his gut. In that moment, the volcano erupted again, firing out thick reams of bubbling molten lava. A fizzy phosphorescent blue. It was the Seabass shandy. Khan fell to the floor, sliding down the vending machine, into a fit of giggles. He was roaring. He was vomiting. He was roaring some more. He reached back into the chute, grabbed a third can.  

Time stopped.

Khan drank, Khan vomited. Khan wandered into the main room and slumped in his solitary fold-out chair.

One god-damn chair, he thought. There would have been more – three to be exact – but the Supremes had declined his offer. He looked at the empty can, then the CD, back to the can, now to his computer.  

He placed Leo Sayer in the optical drive and sighed. 


Genghis Khan’s final resting place remains unknown. In 2004, a Japanese and Mongolian research team located what they believed to be the site of his tented palace. Piecing together the calcified records of court officials from the time, it is thought his tomb lies nearby, though to this day it has refused every effort to yield its secrets.

Okala Elesia is a British-Nigerian writer living in London. His stories can be found in Extra Teeth Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and a few other places. He is currently studying for his MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck.

13 June 2022