Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

Tim & Tigon (A Young Reader's edition of On the Trail of Genghis Khan)

Review by Ann Skea

Tim & Tigon (A Young Reader's edition of On the Trail of Genghis Khan).
Tim Cope.
Pan Macmillan. 2019. 335 pp.
ISBN 978 1 7605 5429 3.

"What are you going to do when the wolves attack? What about when the thieves steal your horses?"

"You are going to ride to Hungary... and you are not carrying a gun?"

Tim Cope's early meetings with the nomads of Mongolia convinced them that he was crazy. But his fear as he started his 10,000 kilometer horseback trek in the footsteps of the ancient warrior, Genghis Khan, was not wolves, thieves or the harsh climate and terrain he would face, but fear of his horses. His early experience with horses had been of being thrown from one at the age of seven and shipped to hospital with a broken arm. Since then he had been on a five-day pack-horse trip, had some advice from a horse expert, and had spent just a handful of days in the saddle. As he set off across the nomad lands of the European steppe with his three Mongolian horses, he was terrified: "I imagined being thrown off, kicked, bitten and not being able to control a wild, bolting horse."

His fears were not unfounded. Mongolian horses are known to be either calm or temperamental. Two of the first three horses Tim bought were of the latter kind—wild and temperamental. Later, in Kazakhstan, he had Ogonyok, who got spooked by the sound of his own farts; Zhamba, who kicked and bucked and annoyed the other horses; and Taskonir, who once took a bite out of Tim's back leaving broken skin and bruising which took a week to heal.

Horses, wolves and thieves were not the only challenges facing Tim as he set out to make a long-held dream come true. There were high mountains to cross, desserts and bogs, and temperatures which ranged from deathly cold (-50 degrees centigrade) to "scorching summers where, it was rumoured, you could become dried out and mummified in a single day."

Then, just six days into his journey, two of Tim's horses were stolen while he slept. As so often happened on this journey, a local man rescued him, bringing back his horses, then inviting Tim to his ger (a traditional, felt-walled tent) for a drink of fermented mare's milk. It had "a couple of blowflies floating belly-up on the surface," but Tim didn't mind at all, because "A man without friends," as the man told him, quoting a traditional saying, "is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe." Time and again, Tim was to find that this was true. But the dog, Tigon, too, was often his rescuer.

Tim first met Tigon at a nomadic village camp on the borders of Kazakhstan. Invited to dinner at the home of Aset, Tim was surprised by two warm paws on his chest and moist doggy breath on his cheek, only to glance up and see "two milky white paws vanish into the night." "He likes you," said Aset, who had agreed to be Tim's guide for the next few days. But Tim was annoyed when Aset brought this skinny young dog who "looked as if he might struggle to stay upright in a stiff breeze" with them when they set off. He was even more annoyed when a few days later Aset declared: "In our country dogs choose their owner. Tigon is yours," then left to return to his village. Tim had no choice but to accept him.

Tigon, Aset had assured Tim, was a "tazi," a fast, hunting dog, unafraid of wolves. But Tigon was young, and adept at sneaking into Tim's sleeping bag, happy that Tim would protect him from wolves. He was also in the habit of pretending to be asleep when it was time to get up. And, of course, he became Tim's faithful companion and won his heart.

Throughout the book, Tim and Tigon share the dangers—and the food, some of which ("freshly boiled camel's head," for example) is a bit daunting. Tigon ranges far and wide hunting foxes and hares as Tim rides. He disappears and re-appears, bravely protects Tim and the horses by facing off a threatening stallion, and, at one point, herds inquisitive camels towards them instead of away from them. His ambitious chase of a wild boar, leads to an ignominious retreat from a whole family of vengeful pigs. He is all ears and tail on distant horizons, and he is a delight. Tigon, like Tim, has adventures. He gets sick, is kidnapped and beaten, is run-down by the first car he encounters, and gets trapped on a railway line. He is also Tim's comforter through a period of grief when Tim's father, back in Australia, unexpectedly dies.

As well as being a record of his friendship with Tigon, and of his own interactions with the local people, Tim writes of how he comes to understand the nomadic way of life and some of the bloody history of Genghis Khan's conquests. He writes, too, of the changes which Soviet control of many of the countries has brought to nomadic people, few of whom now live a traditional nomadic life, although they still observe many old traditions.

Like all good adventure stories, Tim and Tigon share encounters with bickering guides, aggressive drunks, thieves, gun-wielding locals, poachers and police. They also survive dangerous terrains, a local war, and near-death experiences. Unlike the early explorers, Tim could use his mobile phone to keep in touch with his family, and GPS to help him navigate, except when both were frozen solid and would not work. He also speaks Russian. Nevertheless, the dangers, the personal learning experience, the chance to learn new things and the knowledge of nomadic life which he gained, made him determined to tell this story as a way of inspiring young readers to be brave, to be unafraid to take risks, and to have fun.

"This story is for you," he writes, "so that you can step into the saddle and ride towards your dreams." But it is also a way of reminding himself "to never stop making new friends or nurturing old ones and to never let go of dreams."


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