‘Beware of the most dangerous wolf is that which walks on two legs’ - Kelmick Buddhist Priest
I prepared for the journey in a world where time is money but came to understand that on the steppe time is measured by the seasons.
"Out on the road I am challenged to learn. Feeling the air, in touch with the way the world works, aware of everything around you. In the winter time you even realise when the days shorten by one or two minutes. If I'm in an apartment for a week I totally lose touch with what the moon's doing, where the stars are, what the weather's doing, and I start to lose my strength. To live in the city, in a world of abundance and disconnection where everything is controlled at the touch of a button, for me that feels like... death."
Tim Cope Journeys | Independent.UK
Tim Cope is a 30 year old from Gippsland, Victoria (Australia) is an adventurer, who speaks fluent Russian, and works as a wilderness guide in Antarctica, Siberia, and Mongolia. He has spent around five years travelling in regions of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine by bicycle, row boat, skis, horse and camel. Most of all Tim enjoys coming to know people in their home environments by traveling in traditional and local ways.
Tim Cope on Journeys: "Journeys are integral to all our lives. They present testing challenges, moments of exquisite reward and insight, and times when you are racked by self-doubt and problems. Battling it out involves confronting fears, making yourself vulnerable, aiming for something worthy and clinging onto self-belief and passion even when it seems that everything is stacked against you. In the end a journey invariably offers us a chance to learn and grow and reach out for our dreams. I am still amazed at how things seem to work out in the most unlikely ways; it’s as if you just have to be willing to give it a go. There is always something new to be discovered, something waiting to surprise us around the next corner."
His journeys include: Cycling a recumbent bike across Siberia: from Moscow to Beijing: Tianeman Square, across Siberia and the Mongolian Gobi Dessert, a distance of 10,000 km over a period of 14 months. Rowing the Yenisey River from Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean, a distance of 4,200km: "The statistics about the Yensiey are mind boggling: the Yenisey has some 20,000 tributaries that form an aggregate length of 880,000km and drain a basin of 2,580,000 square kilometres. That is an area larger than all but six of the world’s nations! Every year 600 cubic kilometres of water is discharged into the ocean." On the Trail of Genghis Khan: a 3 year 10,000km journey across the Nomadic Steppes from Mongolia across Kazakhstan, S.Russia & Ukraine to Hungary by Horse.
Tim Cope: 'Civilisation feels like death to me'
“I had begun in Mongolia measuring the journey in kilometers and time, and finished aware that the true richness of my experience lay in the hundreds of friends I had made. I prepared for the journey in a world where time is money but came to understand that on the steppe time is measured by the seasons. Although I couldn’t ride a horse before I began, my animals had become my family by the time I reached the Danube, and I could no longer imagine life without them.” - Tim Cope
He has ridden 6,000 miles through some of the most remote, rugged places on earth. After three years, Tim Cope's journey in the footsteps of Genghis Khan is about to end... and he is already feeling claustrophobic.
This is a story so epic in scale and so close to the folk legends of middle Europe that it can only start in one way. Once upon a time... there was a young man who could never stay in one place for very long, because he yearned to keep travelling through the open countryside, under a big sky.
He learned to ride a horse and began to travel from the east to the west on a journey of almost ridiculous ambition: to cross the vast Eurasian Steppe, the plain stretching from the mountains of Mongolia to the pastures of Hungary, in the hoof-steps of the warrior emperor Genghis Khan. Without the rape and pillage though, obviously.
Tim Cope set off three years and three months ago. On Saturday the journey will come to an end at last, when he dismounts at the Opusztaszer National Park on the western edge of Genghis's former empire. Afterwards he will come to London, for a gathering at which some of the world's greatest adventurers will acclaim him as one of their kind.
"I don't know how I'll cope exactly," says the 28-year-old, who was baked by 54C sun in the deserts along the way and frozen by winter temperatures of -52C in the mountains. He appeared out of the heat haze and snow storm to astonish people living in the most remote places during the 10,000km (6,200-mile) ride and was often welcomed (but sometimes robbed). The lean, bearded stranger with the faraway look in his eye shared tiny yurt tents with large families, ate camel's head and goat's hoof, got food poisoning and fell in love, but always kept on moving. "This has become my way of life."
Out on the Steppe with only his three horses, a dog and the horizon for company, Cope would ride for four or five days without seeing anyone else. Under the stars, by the light of a fire, he wrote a blog on his laptop and sent home photographs of what he had seen.
The supporters and high-tech sponsors reading his website expected Cope to finish two years ago, but he was in no hurry. A series of arguments with border officials over the horses held him up for six months; his own tempo slowed too: living among people for whom rushing is "almost a sin", he learned to ride, eat, live and think like a nomad.
"I have changed so much," he says. The calmness in his voice is unsettling, but that comes from the nomads too, apparently. "They live out in the open in the toughest conditions I have ever seen, but they never complain. They just get on with it."
His world changed behind him as he travelled: his girlfriend, who began the journey by his side, left and married someone else. His father, his inspiration, died in a tragic car accident. Meanwhile Cope became famous. Last year he was named Adventurer of the Year in his home country by Australian Geographic magazine. In London, where the reception next week will be hosted by the Australian High Commission and attended by the granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
"I can't imagine what it will be like to stop," Cope says now, riding through southern Hungary. "I feel like I'm slowly losing my way. Everything that gave the journey gravity is becoming irrelevant. I have relied on my navigation, my horses, my knowledge of water and grass, but that's all going now I am in a place where there is an abundance of everything."
He has begun to feel claustrophobic, as he edges closer to what the rest of us call civilisation. "It's hard to find a place where you're out of earshot of some kind of noise. That's a huge change from where I have come from."
Cope began in eastern Mongolia in 2004 and passed through Kazakhstan, southern Russia and the Ukraine on the path taken 800 years ago by the Mongol warriors from whom so many modern Europeans are descended. His horses were stolen twice, but he bought more – one to ride, one to carry grain and one to bear his equipment. But why do it at all?
That is a question every self-appointed adventurer faces. It was asked of Steve Fossett, another RGS Fellow, as the search for the missing American billionaire continued last week. "Steve Fossett and I would share a common belief that it is possible and good to challenge yourself to the extreme," says Cope. The Genghis Khan connection gave him the angle he needed to sell the trip to sponsors, in a competitive market that sees crossing the Arctic or climbing Everest as relatively commonplace – but he insists it is all about travelling deeply as well as widely or quickly. "We also both know that while scientists can map the whole globe now there is a very real difference between that and being in the air, in the storm, on the land and experiencing it. That is what adventurers can offer to society: we know what it is like to be there, alive in the wild places."
So what is it like? The Russians call the Steppe hell. Cope's blog describes days going giddy in a desert furnace, and restless winter nights in a ripped tent lined with frost, or chipping ice out of a horse's hoof with fingers so cold they refuse to work. The horse nearly kicked him in the head – later it bit him in the back. But a local who rode alongside for 11 days, sleeping without a bag in -20C, gave Cope his dog Tigon, whose name means wind, to keep. They are still together.
Families in the most remote place were astonished to see this stranger come out of nowhere. And delighted. "In Khazak culture, historically, if any traveller comes riding from a long way there is an obligation to take him into your home. For the first three days the host doesn't even have the right to ask his name, his destination or his business. Then they can ask questions, or ask you to leave. But they don't, because having a guest is considered a great sign of good luck. When the traveller arrives, at the same time luck slides in through the opening of the yurt, the tent; and in the spring your lambs will give birth to twins."
The former vegetarian had to adapt to a nomad diet. "It was difficult to start with, when you find a horse head on the table for breakfast, or a camel head. Sometimes you suck on the hooves of the goat or eat the ears or eyes. But when you come to a nomad camp after hours riding on the Steppe, especially in winter, it is paradise to have this massive mountain of meat in front of you, steaming hot. You eat it and drink vodka. It's a wonderful celebration."
It was often hard to leave. "When you come out of the storms and sub-zero temperatures into a tiny yurt there's a sense that family love and care is the most important thing in the world. Many times I felt envious and frightened and alone when I knew I would have to pack up and go out into that cold alone. But at the end of the day I'm a traveller."
Handsome, charming strangers fall in love as they go. That's what all the stories say, isn't it?
"Erm. Yes. I had a relationship with a girl in the Ukraine. A painter. Yeah, I guess I was in love with her. We were together for about a year. But I've got to keep on moving, to finish the journey and she's got her painting to do. The ways parted."
That was hard, you can hear it in the way his voice falters. But the hardest moment of all came last year when his father died. Cope was riding through the Ukraine and received a text from his brother. "It's ironic," he says, sadly, "when you're on an adventure that many people consider as highly risky and your father dies in a car accident not far from home. We live in a dangerous world. The nomads know that life is transient: we come, we live, we die, we go."
The news knocked him back. Cope was close to his father, a farmer and lecturer in outdoor recreation who took him, as a child, on his bush treks and skiing trips. After school the teenager came to work in an adventure centre in Shropshire, but bailed out after three months to go cycling with a friend through Scotland and Ireland. "That was when I realised that travelling was what I wanted to do. It made me whole."
Cycling Siberia (10:02)
After training as a wilderness guide in Finland – "learning to survive on the knowledge of traditions rather than the use of equipment" – Cope rode a bike through Siberia, Mongolia and China, and wrote a book about it. He took part in the first rowing expedition down the Yenisey River to the Arctic Ocean. His sponsors for the Genghis Khan expedition include telecommunications and internet companies; but he has put up more than half the cost himself, going into debt and existing on a budget of $10 a day. "There were times when the dog was eating better than me."
"Out on the road I am challenged to learn," says Cope, who has become a rugged mystic. "Feeling the air, in touch with the way the world works, aware of everything around you. In the winter time you even realise when the days shorten by one or two minutes. If I'm in an apartment for a week I totally lose touch with what the moon's doing, where the stars are, what the weather's doing, and I start to lose my strength. To live in the city, in a world of abundance and disconnection where everything is controlled at the touch of a button, for me that feels like... death."
Tim Cope Journeys: On the Trail of Genghis Khan & Cycling Siberia
The expedition at a glance
Tim Cope on the Trail of Genghis Khan (Trailer) (05:37)
Three years, four summers, and three winters on in the saddle, Tim has travelled across a kaleidoscope of countries and conditions- including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Southern Russia, Ukraine and Hungary- in what has become an odyssey reminiscent of a bygone era of exploration and true adventure. At many times, such as when he was invited to meet the deputy prime minister of the republic of Kalmikia and in Crimea welcomed into the Khan's palace with his horses, he was compared to a modern day Marco Polo.
Nomads live in particularly extreme and dramatic landscapes, and these have been a feature, and inspiration throughout Tim's journey. Often navigating with just compass and GPS, Tim and his horses have traversed high ice capped Altai mountains, snowy arctic-like wilderness on the 'Starving Steppe' of Kazakhstan, Camel country in the burning heat of Kazakhstan deserts, the spectacular black sea coast on Crimea, the forested craggy peaks of the Carpathians and finally the plains of Hungary where the Eurasian Steppe gives way to the temperate climate of Europe.
Experiences among nomads, and sometimes in extreme isolation, have ranged from horse stealing on three occasions, temperatures ranging from -50 to +54 celsius, bungled bureaucracy and delicate diplomacy on national borders, more than 160 families who have invited him into their homes, and a constant struggle to find grass and water for his caravan.
In the searing summer he traveled only at night with the addition of a camel, while in winter he struggled to travel in the few daylight hours when the temperature rose marginally. At one stage he was stuck in no mans land between Kazakhstan and Russia in a bureaucratic battle that eventually lasted almost six weeks. A mix of diplomacy and perseverance allowed him to get through this struggle and many others, and as a result Tim's caravan still includes two horses that have struggled and pulled Tim through from the distant Altai.
Memory and traces of the Mongols in Europe have been many and intriguing. Among the hutsuls- a mountain people of the Carpathians- he came across herds of horses that are renowned as the mounts left behind after the Mongols returned to their homeland.
Although you could fly the distance from Mongolia to Hungary in a matter of hours -and with the border problems that Tim experienced it would have been admittedly faster to walk- it is not time or distance that is a measure of Tim's journey, but the rich experiences, hundreds of special people, and rare insights that would not have been possible by travelling in any other way. Incidentally, one Kazakh, upon learning on how long Tim had been travelling remarked: 'Well thank god then that Ghengis Khan didn't travel by turtle!'
The journey and not the destination has never been more important.
Why and how by Horse?
Travelling specifically by horse was the logical decision since nomads of the steppe were the first people in history to tame and ride horses, and it was this great advancement that brought them into Europe and conflict with the sedentary world.
Incidentally, the horse, and horsemanship, which initially gave nomads the military edge over Europe, may be considered in the end the greatest contribution by nomads to the modern world.
The horse still plays a central role in the life, and culture of all steppe societies and so arriving with his caravan of three mounts would allow Tim to know the heart mind and soul of the steppe nomad. In addition, horses would allow Tim to experience a craved for sense of freedom and adventure, and importantly offer an opportunity to be a participant in the communities he passed through, rather than just an observer.
Although Tim had almost no experience with horses, he was able to research the art of travelling by horse largely through an organisation called the 'Long Riders Guild.' Tim would have three horses: two pack horses (one for carrying grain, the other for carrying equipment) and the third would be a riding mount. In some areas of rough terrain walking by foot or incorporating camels would also be essential.
The journey broken down in a nut shell:
Mongolia (June – October 2004)
Beginning near the once Mongol empire capital of Karakorum Tim bought his first three horses and set off into the unknown headed to the far western border. Through summer and into early autumn Tim traveled through sweeping olive green valleys and steppe dotted with the yurt tents. Nomads in Mongolia still consider Ghengis Khan a holy leader and live a life that still revolves around the nomadic needs of their animals much like it was centuries ago. After having his horses stolen on just the fifth day of the journey he had to learn very quickly to learn the rules of the steppe. In the west of Mongolia Tim reached the glacier capped peaks of the Altai and came into contact with remote nomads who talked of their relatives still living far away in Europe, left behind from mass migrations across Eurasia, the last of which occurred in the 18th century. Mongolians warned Tim constantly of the danger of wolves, and on one occasion Tim’s camp was surrounded by a howling pack. A Mongol elder later on gave Tim the ankle bone of a wolf to protect him and for good luck.
Near the Border with Kazakhstan, Russia, and China Tim was forced to sell his horses due to veterinary rules banning the export of horses from Mongolia.
Kazakhstan (October 2004 – December 2005)
As the temperature began to plummet Tim arrived in Kazakhstan - the largest and most challenging environment of his journey-, and bought three new horses. Kazakhstan is a country as much unknown as it is gigantic stretching around 3200km in a straight line from east to west. The Kazakhs are a Turkic speaking people whose ancestors date back to some of the first horse riding nomads in history- the Scythians and Saks.
Tims route took him from the Altai, along the shores of Lake Balkhash, across the Starving steppe to the Syr Darya river, to the shores of the dying Aral sea, then through the western deserts to the Caspian sea.
The landscape in Kazakhstan is typified by a continental climate with sparsely populated steppe. In the winter of 2004/2005 Tim endured an arctic-like winter on the 'Starving steppe’ where his journey nearly came to a disastrous end in conditions that reached as low as -52 degrees celsius. In the summer of 2005 with the addition of a camel Tim traveled at night to avoid the searing heat that rose as high as 54 degrees Celsius. Tim came to know the various Kazakh tribes and clans, and discovered a rich nomadic culture, and a very conscious memory of Ghengis Khan and the Mongols.
Many Kazakhs believe that Ghengis was actually a Kazakh and that contrary to common belief Ghengis was buried on the Kazakh steppe. Tims journey in Kazakhstan came to a close near the Caspian sea in the beginning of winter after a six week delay on the border with Russia.
Southern Russia – including republic of Kalmikia and Cossack country on the Kuban (December 2005 – May 2006)
West of the Caspian sea Tim finally crossed out of Kazakhstan onto the Volga river. Remaining with him were his dog Tigon, and his three Kazakh horses- two of which had been with him from day one in Kazakhstan where he bought them in the Altai.
Tims route now took hime across the Volga to the open steppe of Kalmikia, south to the province of Stavropol, then west onto the Kuban steppe.
Near Astrakhan on the Volga a scare occurred when Tims horses bolted into the black of night with all his equipment. Only with the help of the national rescue service and local police did he recover everything the following morning.
Beyond the Volga river Tim arrived in the republic of Kalmikia. This little known nation is inhabited by ethnic Mongols who migrated across the steppe from Mongolia in the sixteenth century. More then half of these people then migrated back to Mongolia in the 18th century, half of whom perished along the way in a perilous winter on the Kazakh steppe. Kalmik means ‘those who were left,’ and today they live in what is the only Buddhist republic within Europe. One of the Kalmik tribes are the ‘torguts’ who were renowned as being the personal body guards of Ghengis Khan in the 13th century.
Not surprisingly Tim was embraced in Kalmikia as a hero having come from their spiritual homeland of Mongolia by horse.
Crossing just north of the Caucasus mountains Tim entered the ‘Kuban’ which is traditionally the homeland of the fearless ‘Cossacks.’ Cossacks are ethnic slavs who took to a life in the no mans land of the steppes to life a life of independence from the Russian tsars. The Cossacks adopted much of the nomad culture and became notorious mercenaries, at times fighting for and against Russians, turks, and nomads.
Tim here was also adopted as one of their own, and was intrigued to learn of the revival of their culture since the fall of the soviet era. Tims journey in Russia came to a close on the Black and Azov Seas where his horses took a well deserved swim in the salty waters.
Ukraine (May 2006 – August 2007)
From Russian Cossack territory Tim boarded a ferry with his three horses and dog for a crossing of the Kerch strait into the Ukraine where he was met with much fanfare from TV reporters, the city mayor, and curious border guards. Here, jutting out onto the Black Sea from the steppes is the legendary Crimean Peninsula. Rising from sandy beaches are majestic mountains clad with oak forests and alpine plains that cast their shadow over crystal blue waters awash with dolphins. Beyond the coast lie regions of dry steppe with an aridity and openness comparable to the great steppe of Kazakhstan. This astounding diversity is matched with cultural heritage that ranges from ancient Greek civilizations to nomad Scythians who inhabited the interior with their nomad lifestyle.
Tims route took him three months through Crimea, north into mainland Ukraine, across the southern and western provinces of Kherson, Mikolaiv, Odessa, Vinnitsa, Xmelitsa, Tornopil, to the Carpathians of Ivano Frankivsk, then to Transcarpathia on the border with Hungary.
Travelling through the diversity of the Crimean peninisula Tim understood that nowhere else in the world has there been such a flashpoint as enduring as Crimea for the conflict and collaboration between nomad and sedentary societies. In modern times the indigenous Crimean Tatars, descendants of millennia of nomad groups on the Crimea (and believed by the Slavs to be relatives of Mongol invaders) are still at odds with their Russian colonizers. Bitterly cruel stories still run fresh among Tatars who remember their brutal deportation to Central Asia and Siberia by Stalin. Russians on the other hand consider the Tatars to be unlawful citizens of Crimea being the descendants of ‘barbaric Mongols’ who invaded Slavic lands and took many into slavery.
In the old capital of the Crimean Khanate, Bakhchisarai Tim was at once invited into the khans palace, compared to a modern day Marco Polo, and found himself in the midst of a modern day conflict between Tatars and Russians. Tensions boiled over on the Bakhchisarai market when a confrontation turned violent and the army was called in. To Tim, this echoed the ancient conflict between nomads and the sedentary world.
On the Ukraine mainland heading into his third winter, Tim’s journey was broken for five Months when on November 18 2006 The learned of the tragic death of his father, Andrew, in a car accident.
In April 2007 Tim returned to his horses and made his way trough isolated villages and into the Carpathian mountains. Here he was embraced by a local mountaineer-turned priest who introduced Tim to the Hutsul people. The Hutsuls are a proud mountain people who migrate up to the high plains in summer and through whose land the Mongols made their final push into Europe on the plains of Hungary. The famous ‘Hutsul’ horses here are actually the descendants of Mongol horses left behind by the retreating Mongol army in 1241.
Tims journey in Ukraine came to an end on the river Tisa which separates the Carpathians from the steppe of Hungary.
Hungary (August – September 2007)
On the 2nd of August after another long battle with bureaucracy, Tim historically rode across the border from Ukraine into Hungary. The Hungarians trace their ancestry to mounted nomads who came from the Siberian steppe. It is here in Hungary near the Danube river that the Eurasian steppe comes to an end. This is therefore the western boundary of the steppe nomad’s domain. It was in Hungary too in 1241 that the Mongol empire reached its great height before the great Khan (Ogodai at the time) died and the Mongols retreated to elect a new leader.
The Ciskos of Hungary have still preserved the masterful art of their horsemen ancestors, and Tim was privileged to ride among these people who reminded him strongly of the land he had begun his journey in more than three years earlier.
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