Perth Writers Festival Blog

Interview with Travel Writer Tim Cope

Monday 9 January 2017

Gippsland-born travel writer Tim Cope has spent the best part of a decade pursuing adventure around Russia, Mongolia and Central Asia. His most famous journey, captured in his bestselling book On the Trail of Genghis Khan, took him from Mongolia to Hungary on horseback.

We find more about this intrepid explorer before he travels to Perth Writers Festival for his sessions Adventure Trails and Nomadic Lives and his workshop The Journey of Book Writing.

How did people react when you told them about your intention to travel from Mongolia to Hungary?

There were some who saw it as an obscure, crazy, seat of the pants adventure, particularly when they learnt that I did not have any history of horse riding (apart from falling off at age seven and breaking my arm). However, many, including the people I met along the way, not only understood the reasons for my journey, but harboured dreams to experience the same kind of life – a life that was lived by their nomadic ancestors. For me, the wide expanses of steppe that stretch 6,000 miles from Mongolia to Hungary without fences beckoned as a place where I could transcend the modern mechanised, time constrained world and slip into the past, and a world of unfettered freedom.

By travelling on horse I hoped to come to understand the reality of nomad life firsthand and meet the people on their own terms. I believe that the child in many of us would be inspired by the sheer space and freedom of the steppe and nomad life – and also that ability to write the script of one’s own life beyond the facilitating hand of authorities and conventions.

Having said that, when I first told my mother, she went pale and speechless. She could not imagine me on a horse for starters. It was a special moment more than three years after I set off when she greeted me on the steppe in Hungary and the journey had become a reality and somewhat transformed me. ​

Why did you decide to take this trip?

When I was twenty years old my friend Chris and I were in the midst of riding bicycles across Siberia and Mongolia to Beijing. It was while struggling through the sands of the Gobi that I had some of my first encounters with nomads – horsemen and horsewomen who would suddenly appear, galloping from over the horizon where our bikes could never go.

I was inspired by the free spirit of these people who lived in a world without boundaries, often with little more than a couple of inches of tent felt to insulate them from the extremes. They had a deep connection to the land that I yearned to understand.

Some further research when I returned to Australia left me spellbound. From Mongolia stretched the Great Eurasian steppe – 10,000km of fence-free land all the way to the Danube in Hungary. Ever since man first tamed the wild horse 5,500 years ago, people had been riding across this vast space creating nomadic empires that culminated with the greatest of all time under Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

I couldn’t help wondering: did the nomad spirit still exist among the nations scattered across the steppes? What would it have been like for a nomad to ride into the fringes of the settled, European world and view their very different way of life? What had been the legacy of the Soviet Union on the many difference nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe? I decided that the only way to answer these questions was to get on a horse and ride the same trails that mounted warriors had travelled on their journeys to Europe.

What was the plan? How did you prepare and research for your trip?

My plan was to travel on horseback with packhorses, and at times a camel, across the entire Eurasian steppe, traversing Mongolia, Kazakhstan, southern Russia, Crimea, Ukraine and Hungary, finishing on the Danube. I wanted to come to know the nomadic and formerly nomadic steppe societies including Mongols, Kazakhs, Kalmyks, Cossacks, Crimean Tatars, Hutsuls and Magyars.

In terms of preparation, it had been a long road prior to this journey becoming a reality. Previous to this journey, I had trained as a wilderness guide in Finland and Russia, and spent more than 18 months in Russia on various expeditions (including a five month journey by wooden rowboat following the Yenisey River north to the Arctic Ocean). In this time I had learnt the Russian language and more or less come to understand the realities of life in post-Soviet countries. These all equipped me with knowledge that I knew would be immeasurably important on my journey ... however, one big issue was that I could not ride a horse!

Not surprisingly, one of the things that concerned me in terms of preparation for the journey was learning about horses, and specifically, how to travel with horses. Over many months I researched equipment – ranging from Canadian pack saddles, to veterinary supplies, tethering ropes, and hobbles – spent time with an equine vet specialist, and learned the basics of horse-packing during a trip through the mountains in my home state of Victoria (Australia). It is true, nevertheless, that I mostly learnt to ride on the steppe and look after the horses with the guidance of nomadic people, for whom horsemanship is second nature.

Instrumental for my preparation was also help from experienced equestrian travellers through the Long Riders Guild (co founded by author CuChullaine O’Reilly). ​ 

You said once that 'life is distilled' when one travels. What do you mean by this? 

Mongolia’s steppe is the most sparsely populated terrain on the planet apart from Antarctica, and I find that in such an environment, life is pared down to the essential elements. With the deprivation of familiar friends, family and conveniences, I came to appreciate the smallest yet most vital things in life. This could be the adulation of finding a patch of rich grass for the animals, fresh water, the clear crisp sky on a still autumn day or the generous hospitality of a nomad family who took me in and embraced me with warmth, food, company and compassion.

What intrigued you most about the Mongols and their culture and history?

Half the world’s population live in lands that the Mongols once ruled, and yet nowadays for most of us Mongolia is an obscure, poorly understood country wedged between the fringes of Siberia and northern China. More than that, whilst we often think of emperors and kings as aristocrats ruling from their throne in a castle, Genghis Khan lived his entire life on a horse, in a yurt. To me this obviously pointed to the fact that there was much more to nomad life and culture than we know – particularly with a historic trend of dismissing nomads as fringe dwelling, primitive barbarians.

You had a bad experience with horses prior to this trip, what made you want to attempt horse riding again?

There is an incredible romance in the connection between humans and horse and the earth – a symbiosis that struck me when I was first in Mongolia in the year 2000. Not only would the horse be my bridge to the land and the people, it was the only way to travel if I truly wanted to come to understand nomad cultures. Historians believe that the horse was first domesticated about 5–6,000 years ago on the Kazakh steppe – a revolution that changed the course of human history.

How did you meet your travel companion Tigon?

Tigon was given to me as a pup by a Kazakh herder called Aset. Aset told me: you need someone on your travels to keep you warm at night, be your friend and protect you from the wolves. At first I didn’t think this skinny six month old pup would survive more than a couple of weeks in the freezing winter but sure enough he became my companion and in more ways than one more of the reincarnation of Genghis Khan (having spread his DNA across the steppe!). Tigons own adventures included being stolen, hit by a car, and running on his own feet for at least 15–20,000 kilometres. I am now in the process of writing a children’s illustrated book about Tigon’s journey. Unfortunately Tigon won’t be joining me in Perth, but he continues to have adventures with me throughout Australia. We have been based in the Victorian Alps these last few years.

How did you deal with setbacks on your journey?

As a novice horseman, the horses themselves presented some serious risks – one the things I was scared most of initially, was falling off and injuring myself and having the horses abandon me in the wilds of the steppe (especially in the depths of winter). This never transpired, but in the course of my journey looking after the horses in all manner of conditions proved to be one of the greatest difficulties. Horse rustling was a big issue – as they say in Russian, the most dangerous wolf is that which walks on two legs. In fact, two of my horses were stolen on just the 5th day of the journey. On that occasion I was lucky to recover them and in the process was told a valuable Mongolian saying: ‘a man on the steppe without friends in as narrow as a finger … a man on the steppe with friends is as wide as the steppe.’ My horses would prove to be stolen on two more occasions, after which I eventually learnt that if someone is trying to steal your horses on the steppe it is to be taken as a compliment of my horses (after all, it meant I had horses that were worth treasuring).

Although the blizzards, and -40 degree temperatures during my first winter were difficult, the most challenging environmental conditions for both the horses and I were in the Kazakh desert during the summer when the temperature regularly reached well over 40 degrees. The only way to survive and beat the heat was to ride all night, and seek shelter with nomads during the heat of the day. The day to day challenge of finding water and grass during this time became extreme, and in a state of growing tiredness, there were many close calls, including one situation when a horse very nearly drowned in a swamp after it dived in to reach a patch of greenery. It was a reminder of just why the Mongols always mounted their conquests in the autumn and winter months, when the horses can eat the snow to hydrate, it is possible to cross frozen rivers, and there is no risk of the horses over heating.

Wolves were also a threat – in Mongolia my campsite was surrounded one night by wolves and in the winter I was constantly warned that wolves roamed in packs in the winter months, and would have their eyes on my animals. As a precaution against this, I decided to carry firecrackers, which I would light and throw out of the tent at night before going to sleep. I was told that this would help deter them from coming in close to my camp at night.

Other difficulties included coping with the isolation. It was the first journey I had ever carried out alone, and as it became clear that my journey would take much longer than the initial plan of making it to Hungary in 18 months, the feeling of aloneness became more acute. Through this process I learnt the value of friends and family on a level that I had not been previously able to comprehend. It took more than three years to eventually reach Hungary, by which time I was more than aware of the meaning of the Kazakh saying: ‘mountains never meet … but people do.’

I couldn’t leave this question before also mentioning my adventure in Akbakai: a bankrupt gold mining village in central Kazakhstan where I became stuck for more than three months in the winter. Initially I stayed with two Russian alcoholics who caught street pigeons for Christmas dinner and gave me an introduction to the realities of the town, where most people relied on the murky world of contraband gold mining and trading for survival, and the less fortunate survived by catching pet and stray dogs to survive … it is all in the book.  

What’s the best piece of advice you received on your journey? Or the best piece of wisdom offered to you.

‘If you must rush in life rush slowly’ – Kazakh proverb.

What creature comfort did you miss most?

A nice shower or bath.

Has this journey changed you as a person? 

One of the big changes was being more tolerant of all human beings no matter their flaws. When I was alone out there, I didn’t get to choose my friends based on superficial judgements – I had to appeal to the better side of human beings no matter who they were. In that process I developed friendships with the most unlikely of people – from Russian alcoholics in the bankrupt gold mining town of Akbakai, to mafioso characters amongst the cossacks in southern Russia, and simple nomad families who took me in like a long lost son.

I learnt over time that time on the steppe is measured more by the seasons, and the rise and fall of the sun, the availability of grass etc. rather than hours, minutes, weeks, money even. This has left me with a sense of patience that I did not have before.

As I have already referenced, this journey also gave me a much greater appreciation oft he value of family and friends.

And although it is difficult to express in a single sentence, I believe that perhaps the greatest success of the journey was that I did fulfil my goal of arriving in Europe, and reflecting on the sedentary way of life through the eyes of a nomad. Riding day in, day out, in a world without fences, or the concept of private property, irrevocably altered the way I see landscape, and the way that human beings interact with the natural world. To understand what I mean you will have to read the book, which has taken me four years, and which has ben part of my dream.

Why do you love travel? What do you get from it?

It’s all about constantly reassessing your assumptions and point of view and being open to the different, and the new, and sometimes the confronting. I find that travel allows me to grow.

What makes compelling travel writing?

Writing that is not a journal, but is written thematically with a balance of spirit, personal offerings, environment and people, and which doesn’t feel contrived.

Who are some of your favourite authors?

In the travel sphere as a young person I loved Wilfred Thesiger, Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin. I’m a big fan of Tolstoy. Recently my favourite authors have been Canadian – John Vaillant, and Paul Roberts (Impulse Society).

What is your next trip?

I work every year in Mongolia as a guide for 3–4 months and am very much looking forward to heading back to the steppe in June. My next projects are writing a children’s illustrated book about my dog Tigon and a young adults edition of my book. In the future I have many plans … road of the gypsies, a year with nomads and flight of the sandpiper.

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