A crisp autumn day near the Danube River in Hungary in 2007 marked the end of a long journey for my animals and I. For three and a half years I had travelled with three horses, and a dog, Tigon, from the Mongolian empire capital, Kharkhorin, across the steppe of Central Asia on a quest to understand the legacy of the nomads – the horseback cultures, who under Genghis Khan created the largest land empire in history.
Experiences early on had foreshadowed the nature of the difficulties that would define my time in the saddle: within the first few weeks in Mongolia, my horses had been stolen in the night by thieves, the camp had been surrounded by wolves, and it dawned on me that there was much more to learning about horses than I had bargained for (before leaving Australia I had barely been on a horse in my life.) But at the same time, I was taken in by a nomadic people for whom hospitality is the linchpin of survival, and began to learn that friendship on the steppe is the true measure of life (in fact upon returning the horses to me, the man who likely stole my horse had explained that ‘a man on the steppe without friends is as narrow as a finger… a man on the steppe with friends is as wide as the steppe.’). Now, putting all that to rest, I had safely made it to Hungary with my family of animals. Surely, the hardship was over, and all I had to do was return home to the relative luxury of life under a roof and put my experiences to paper…..or so I had thought.
What I could never have imagined was that it would be another six years before I had penned the last words of my manuscript, four of years of which had been full time writing. As the writing unfolded, I found myself learning, and challenged to consider my personal encounters into context of the rich and complex histories of steppe nations. The book began as a way of re-adjusting to life in Australia, but became an adventure in itself: a process that transformed me, as month after month I returned to the steppe in my mind, only now with my dog Tigon on the couch next to me, rather than chasing hares and foxes on the horizon. Half way through the first draft, an author and friend of mine had mentioned something that stuck with me to the end: ‘If you knew what the book would be….then you would never start writing it.’ For me I am now convinced that the life of a writer is rich, raw, and vivid, precisely because the beginning of any unwritten chapter throws up the prospects of the unknown, and a path that is unscripted: and that to me is real life.
by Tim Cope
The extraordinary adventure of one man’s journey following in the footsteps of Genghis Khan’s conquering armies
The relationship between man and horse on the Eurasian steppe gave rise to a succession of rich nomadic cultures. Among them were the Mongols of the thirteenth century – a small tribe, which, under the charismatic leadership of Genghis Khan, created the largest contiguous land empire in history. Inspired by the extraordinary life nomads still lead today, Tim Cope embarked on a journey that hadn’t been successfully completed since those times: to travel on horseback across the entire length of the Eurasian steppe, from Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine to the Danube River in Hungary.
From horse-riding novice to travelling three years and 10,000 kilometres on horseback, accompanied by his dog Tigon, Tim learnt to fend off wolves and would -be horse-thieves, and grapple with the extremes of the steppe as he crossed sub-zero plateaux, the scorching deserts of Kazakhstan and the high-mountain passes of the Carpathians. Along the way, he was taken in by people who taught him the traditional ways and told him their recent history: Stalin’s push for industrialisation brought calamity to the steepe and forced collectivism that in Kazakhstan alone led to the loss of several million livestock and the starvation of more than a million nomads. Today Cope bears witness to how the traditional ways hang precariously in the balance in the post-Soviet world.
About the Author
Tim Cope, F.R.G.S., is an adventurer, author, filmmaker and motivational speaker with a special interest in Central Asia and the states of the former Soviet Union. He has studied as a wilderness guide in the Finnish and Russian subarctic, ridden a bicycle across Russia to China, and rowed a boat along the Yenisey River through Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. He is the author of Off the Rails: Moscow to Beijing on Recumbent Bikes. He is the creator of several documentary films, including the award-winning series ‘The Trail of Genghis Khan’, which covers the journey of this book. He lives in Victoria, Australia.