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Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews

On the Trail of Genghis Khan

On the Trail of Genghis Khan
Tim Cope.
Bloomsbury. 2013. 509 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 4221 8.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! "It is my great great honor to introduce you to a very unique person... a modern day Marco Polo, speaker of fifteen languages, employee of the Royal Geographic Society, traveler on Mongolian horses, he carries a sheep in his pocket. I welcome here tonight... Kimofi Pope." The vodka soaked Director of the Bakchisaray Historical and Cultural Preserve in the ancient Tatar capital of Crimea may not have got his facts right, but it would be difficult to exaggerate Tim Cope's achievements.

In 2004, knowing nothing about horses and with just a five day pack-horse trip and three days of expert advice behind him, he set out to ride 10,000 kilometers across the Eurasian steppe following the trails of ancient nomads from Mongolia to the banks of the Danube. This was not his first adventure. Having given up a law degree to study wilderness guiding in Finland, he went on to hone his survival skills by riding a recumbent bike 10,000 kilometers from Karelia in European Russia to Beijing. Then, with friends, he rowed down the Yenisey River through Siberia to the Arctic Ocean.

Undeterred by the difficulties he had faced in both those journeys, Cope was keen to experience the sort of freedom he had seen in wild Mongolian horsemen as he had pushed his bike through the sands of the Gobi Desert. He was fascinated, too, by the Mongolians' nomadic way of life and by their ancestors who, under Genghis Khan, had ridden through the harshest climates and terrains to establish a vast empire which stretched from Korea, across Asia as far as Vienna, south to Baghdad, and north into the Sub-Arctic. The Mongols' fast, horse-borne military tactics and their terrifying attacks and pillaging are well documented; yet, they were clearly effective administrators who established efficient public services in the countries they conquered and created fast, reliable, communication and trade networks which lasted for centuries.

As well as wanting to experience the exhilaration of the nomads' fence-free journeying, Cope was also keen "to discover the human face of the nomadic cultures which history and legend has obscured." In this respect he succeeded admirably. Throughout the book, his knowledge of the history of the countries through which he rides is constantly reinforced by the people he meets: people whose still live or remember the traditional nomadic life and its customs; people whose lives are shaped by the needs of their animals; old people who have survived the famines, exile and ethnic unrest caused by Soviet era policies and practices; and those who live with the results of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cope's journey began badly when two of his three horses were stolen from outside his tent on his sixth night. By luck, he managed to get them back, but he quickly understood the nomads' custom of accepting passing horsemen into their gers (family tents) and sharing shelter and fodder, the common "door-knock" being a loud throat-clearing and spit. As the herder who stole (and returned) his horses told him: "A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe."

Many of Cope's new friends were nomadic people with few possessions. Others were thieves and drunkards, and some were shockingly corrupt, but he could not have survived without any of them, especially when it came to dealing with bureaucratic nightmares over visas and quarantine regulations. Of all the dangers he faced in the three years that it took him to complete his journey—camping in sub-zero temperatures and in scorching deserts, surviving precipitous mountain tracks, wolves, wild stallions and plagues of flies and tics—bureaucracy was the challenge which he found the hardest.

With such a long and varied journey to describe, this is a big book. But it is never dull. Cope captures the magic of the land through which he rides as well as the hardships. And his connection with the animals which share his journey is part of the charm. "These same animals I had been terrified of in the beginning had transformed me," he says as he ends his journey.

Taskonir, the Kazakh horse, and Ogonyok, the stallion whose gelding he describes in eye-watering detail, accompanied him for most of the way. Tigon, the puppy that had been annoyingly foisted on him because he "needed a friend on the road," is a constant companion and is often seen as just ears and a tail forging through tall grasses or dramatically posed on a distant craggy skyline. On his web page (timcopejourneys.com), which contains a wealth of notes, maps, photographs and video clips, Cope writes that Tigon marked his way all along their tracks and probably now owns the largest territory of any dog in the world.

With his animals and with occasional companion riders, Cope was never alone, and his equipment, which he lists on his web site, included compass, GPS, and a mobile phone. Occasionally, he broke his journey for bureaucratic or personal reasons. One early break was made when he flew to London to be made a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Later, in Australia, he was made Young Adventurer of the Year by Australian Geographic. Most distressing was the four-and-a-half month break he made to return to Australia after his father was killed in a car crash.

This is an absorbing, exciting, and informative book, and the maps, photographs, and glossaries included in it are excellent. So, too, are the notes, which often add interesting and surprising details. Cope wears his knowledge lightly, and he writes vividly and almost poetically when he is stirred by the natural world around him. In his epigraph, he ponders recent political and economic changes in the countries of the Eurasian steppe, and in particular, he notes the establishment of commercial mining in Mongolia and the potential threat to the already marginalized nomadic life there.

In the end, Cope's greatest challenge came once the journey was complete and he had to be parted from his horses and, temporarily, from Tigon, and then learn to live again in a more mundane, domestic environment. Needless to say, he is already dreaming of new adventures, preferably "on foot, with animals."

 

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