Travelling in the hoofprints of the great Mongol empire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 6:36pm

Tim Cope was a little known 25-year-old Australian adventurer when he set out on his 10,000-kilometre journey across the Eurasian steppe on horseback, retracing the hoof-steps of Mongol warrior Genghis Khan. However, his trip has gone down in history as one of the most epic journeys of the modern age. Accompanied by three horses and a dog, Cope set out from Kharkorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia, in 2004, armed with little but his fluency in the Russian language. By the time he reached Hungary, three and a half years later, he had become a folk hero among the peoples of the steppe and beyond. As the first person in living memory to complete this journey, he also became one of the youngest people ever to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society while still in the saddle, in 2004. Tim Cope has just released a book about his experiences, On the Trail of Genghis Khan

Tell us about your fascination with the steppe's nomadic people and with Genghis Khan himself?
Many things fascinated me about the empire of Genghis Khan and the nomadic empires before him. They not only conquered what was the largest land empire in history, but what was arguably the most sophisticated, advanced and most populated nation on earth, which is China. I wanted to discover what kind of connection to the past still exists among those cultures, and whether cultural connections still existed between these scattered former nomad nations. Certainly, their view of the world as steppe people is something I grew to appreciate as I travelled. For most of the modern era, let alone 800 years ago, the Eurasian steppe has been like a black hole in our geographical knowledge. Even while riding across it, the sheer size of that region was unfathomable. I began to imagine as I went further west that when the Mongols did appear on the fringes of consciousness of the Europeans, the Chinese and central Asians, they wouldn't have been able to fathom what these people had been through, their incredible achievements 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.

You also credit your achievements to your own "little family of animals", which included three horses and your dog, Tigon. Tell us about them.
The sheer endurance of these steppe horses is unimaginable. They never really went lame and could eat anything. They dig for fodder in minus 50 degrees Celsius. They're closely related 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. Tigon is half Tazi, one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, and when he was given to me as a pup in Kazakhstan in the winter of 2004, I thought he'd be a liability. But a bond developed between us and even after the first couple of days I couldn't live without him. He's tolerant of human beings but if he didn't trust someone, I learnt it was best to walk on.

In,you describe Kazakhstan as the "make-or-break leg" of your journey. Why?
It was the hardest time, it was the most confronting time, and it's where I saw the most cruelty and 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. But at the same time, Kazakhstan had some of the most hospitable, positive and intriguing people I've ever met. One of the most shocking things was to see how nomad culture and nomad life had been marginalised, intentionally, during Soviet times. But in the modern day with the oil economy in the Caspian area, the nomad economy - not just the culture - has been marginalised. And once you have a people who feel ashamed of their culture, and who can't make a good living, suddenly you've got a culture totally on its knees.

You also say Mongolia was, in a sense, your only real opportunity to learn what life was like across the Eurasian steppe centuries ago. Why? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the population of livestock in Mongolia actually increased, and that's a huge contrast with Kazakhstan where 80 per cent of the animals disappeared because of mismanagement. Mongolia, although it was a satellite Soviet state, was never part of the Soviet Union and never bore the brunt of mass collectivisation or Stalin's industrialisation campaign. It did go through a lot of horrific changes, but the nomads never lost their way of life - they continued living in gers and migrating annually, and never lost their knowledge as herders like they did in Kazakhstan.

Yet you also say the threat to the nomad way of life is very real there.
I've been going to Mongolia for 13 years now. In 2004, when I started my journey, the mining industry was just a whisper, but in 2011, Mongolia was the fastest-growing economy on the planet. By the time I finished the book, they were about to open Oyu Tolgoi, the second biggest copper mine in the world, and so suddenly in a nation where the nomadic way of life has always been dominant, the nomadic economy is being pushed to the margins.