It's gone down in history as one of the most epic journeys of our age. Australian adventurer Tim Cope was a little known 25-year-old when he set out on his 10,000km journey across the Eurasian Steppe on horseback, retracing the hoof-steps of Mongol warrior Genghis Khan.
Accompanied by three horses and a dog, Cope set out from Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia, in 2004, armed with little but his fluency in the Russian language. All he could think, he recalls, in his just-released account of his experiences, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, "was that ahead lay 10,000km of this open land to the Danube and across all of these empty horizons, not a soul knew I was coming."
But by the time he reached Hungary 3 1/2 years later, Cope had become a folk hero among the people of the steppe and beyond, lauded not only for being the first person in living memory to complete this gruelling journey but for his extraordinary championing of the nomad heritage. For as the Gippsland- born Cope reveals in On the Trail of Genghis Khan, the journey was not about firsts but about arriving at a deeper understanding of the heritage of the steppe's nomadic peoples and of the precarious position of that traditional culture in the modern era.
"Their perspectives as steppe people really fascinated me. I wanted to discover what kind of connection to the past still exists among those cultures," says Cope, who despite making a multi-award-winning documentary film series of his journey adds, " I could never move on until this was on paper for me to share with others." Five years in the writing, the book is a celebration of nomadic culture and a plea for its survival as much as it is a deeply personal account of his own remarkable trek across the terrain the Russians call "Hell". Along with fending off wolves and horse thieves, he endured extremes of temperature from -52C to 54C, traversing the ice-capped Altai Mountains of Mongolia to the searing Kazakh desert and on through the Crimea, the Ukraine and Russia en route to the Danube.
"Even riding across it, the sheer size of that region is unfathomable. For most of us in the modern era, let alone 800 years ago, it's a kind of black hole in our geographical knowledge. I began to imagine as I went further west that when the Mongols appeared on the fringes of consciousness of the Europeans, the Chinese and Central Asians, they wouldn't have been able to fathom the incredible achievements these people had already managed by the time they reached so-called civilisation. It still beggars belief what the nomads were able to achieve and, of course, one of the main secrets was their horses."
Cope credits his own achievements to his "little family of animals", which he calls the real heroes of his epic trek.
"The sheer endurance of these steppe horses is just unimaginable. They're much closer to the Przewalski, the only surviving wild horse, and because of these really harsh winters, or Zuds, that sweep across the steppe every five years, only the toughest survive. As I experienced myself, these horses never really went lame, could eat anything. They dig for fodder in -40C and -50C."
But the animal that stole his heart, and which has become a celebrity in his own right, was his dog, Tigon. Half Tazi, an ancient Kazakh breed used for hunting, Tigon was given to him as a pup by a disabled boy in Kazakhstan, and wasn't expected to survive.
"I thought he'd be a liability but a very special bond developed between us, and after the first couple of days I couldn't live without him."
He also credits his animal family with sustaining him after his father's death, which happened while Cope was in the Ukraine. "It was the hardest thing, for me, and still is." Cope initially abandoned his trek but then resumed it "because the thought of leaving Tigon and my horses behind was too much to bear. I also knew my dad would have wanted me to continue and it was the best thing I could have ever done. It was such a cathartic process to be riding through spring, alone, with my horses and dog."
Yet caring for his animals, keeping them together, unharmed and healthy, was the most challenging task of all. "By the end I was thinking more like a horse than anything. I could recount every blade of grass for 10,000km because you become so attuned to your environment. And that's what I loved."
Integral to survival on the steppe too, is the nomad tradition of hospitality. For Cope, who was welcomed into hundreds of nomadic gers and rural dwellings, it was overwhelming. Not least when in Russia those extending him succour were a band of colourful, hard-drinking criminals. "Russia is an enigma with many faces," Cope says. "You're looking at a country that like Kazakhstan and the Ukraine saw its social fabric ripped apart in the 20th century. But in a sense Kazakhstan was the hardest, the most confronting. It's where I saw the most cruelty, the most difficulty. Even now, trying to fathom how their lifestyle was destroyed within the space of two or three years as a result of Stalin's industrialisation policies, it's impossible to see how a culture can overcome that."
Cope speaks impassionedly of the duality of the steppe, the extremes of its weather, its history, the cruelty and kindness of its peoples, as well as the marginalisation of nomadic culture. Even in Mongolia, where it survived the worst excesses of Stalin's policies, nomadic culture, he says, is now being marginalised by a rapidly expanding mining economy.
He now conducts tours of Mongolia that mirror his own journey, which changed forever the way he views people in the world.
"I'm stepping people through the history, the culture, the environment and the issues facing the nomads.
"People take away a lot from these tours, which are deeply rooted in trying to understand nomad culture."
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·On the Trail of Genghis Khan published by Bloomsbury ($29.99).·Tim Cope will speak about his experiences at a World Expeditions event in Perth on September 26 at the State Library of Western Australia, 26 Francis Street, Perth Cultural Centre, 6.30pm for 7pm start. Tickets $20. Bookings: worldexpeditions.com or timcopejourneys.com.