The vast steppe of central Asia is a region that has always been on the very fringes of western consciousness. Indefinable, mysterious, a middle earth tucked between the taiga of the north and the world’s greatest mountain chains in the south, it continues to stir imagination. In June 2004, pursuing his passion for adventure Tim Cope will embark on a journey throughout this realm of mountains, steppe, deserts, and nomads. He will travel from Mongolia to Hungary by horse, foot, and camel- a route not successfully completed since Ghengis Khan and his descendants created the largest empire in history more than 700 years ago. A testing journey of 10,000km and 18 months, it will take him into the lives of the nomads still living today, and in the footsteps of those passed into legend. In particular it will follow the Khan Empire that stretched as far west as Hungary. What better way to understand this region than to experience it from the saddle, among the locals, intoxicated by the borderless steppe and taste of fermented mare’s milk?
From nomad heartland of Mongolia to civilized Europe where eight lane highways and cities abound it will be a unique look at the surviving legacies of the Mongols, the stories and issues of the current-day descendants, and how it must have felt as a steppe-dweller arriving at the end of his world and observing the oddity of sedentary life. At the heart of this will be Tim’s personal story as he strives to live a dream in the face of an epic adventure…first he has to learn to ride a horse!
The expedtion at a glance
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.
The end of a modern day odyssey
On September 22 when Tim finishes this epic journey in Hungary he will have made it to the edge of the Mongol Empire, where in 1241 the Mongols were on the verge of conquering Western Europe. It was in this same year however that the great Khan (Ogodai) died and the Mongols returned home to elect a new leader never to return with aspirations of conquering Europe again.
For Tim, just as significant is that Hungary is where the great Eurasian steppe gives way to the temperate climes and landscape of Europe. Here at the very fringe of the steppe, and therefore the end of the nomad's world, Tim can rest in the knowledge that he, like the common Mongol soldier, can pack up and go home, mission complete!
To add to a sense of History Tim arrived in geographical Europe in the 800th year celebrations of the founding of the Mongolian empire. Ghengis would surely have approved!
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.
Tigon the honourable travelling dog
Although Tim has travelled solo for most of the journey, he has not been entirely alone. In late in 2004 he was given a black Kazakh hunting dog as a gift called 'Tigon'- his name is the Kazakh word for hawk or fast wind. It was owned by a young disabled Kazakh boy, whose father 'Aset' accompanied Tim by horse for ten days. Upon departing Aset said 'Tim, take Tigon. You need a friend, heater, and protection on your long winter nights.' The very next day Tim phoned home via satelite to Australia to discover that the family pet dog had died. Tim took this as an omen, and ever since Tigon has become an invaluable companion with whom Tim could not do without.
Tigon has grown up on the road and parallel adventures include being stolen, resuscitated in a sauna with raw eggs and vodka, being hit by a car, but most importantly accepted as an honoured guest right across Eurasia leaving many friends and memories in his past. Like a true reincarnation of Ghengis Khan he has been marking his territory across the globe and now probably has the largest territory of any dog on earth.
Usually Tigon can be seen running ahead, leading the way, or protecting Tim from dangerous sheep and cows!
Tim plans to eventually take Tigon to Australia and write a children's book about this young fearless canine traveller.
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.
A Personal Statement
It took only seconds to leap from the tent and rush barefoot into the darkness but I was too late. The sound of galloping horses faded into the inky black beyond camp and I fell to my knees clutching the only remaining evidence of my equine friends – a bell and a pair of hobbles. The sweeping openness of the Mongolian steppe that had inspired me in the light of day now taunted with emptiness. At 2 a.m., just five days into my 10,000 km horseback journey from Mongolia to Hungary, my horses had been stolen.
It was June 2004, and this would not be the last time that I found myself exposed and frightened on the open steppe. Over the next three years I would experience searing deserts, glaciated mountains, wolves, and a tangled web of impossible bureaucracy in conditions ranging from minus forty degrees to plus fifty.
Yet its challenges such as this that drew me into an understanding of the land and its people and that was precisely what had led me to Mongolia in the first place. I wanted to understand what life was like for steppe nomads- their history, culture, traditions, and relationship with the environment.
Ever since riding through Mongolia by bicycle from Siberia at age twenty, it had fascinated me that stretching from Mongolia to Hungary there is a connection between cultures largely based on a common history of nomadism on the Eurasian steppe. In an age of technology dominated by a sedentary way of life, it’s hard to imagine the influence that Central Asian nomads had on the wider world. After all it was the Mongol successors of Genghis Khan who once ruled the largest empire in history.
What better way to come to grips with the heritage of the steppe nomad than to move by horse in search of pasture, spending long days in the saddle, ever intoxicated by kumis (fermented mare’s milk) and the beckoning horizon? My lack of experience – I didn’t know how to ride a horse for starters- was overcome by inspiration and advice from other equestrian explorers who believed that my journey would be very difficult but historic. I decided to begin near the site of the former capital of the Mongolian Empire – Kharkhorin- and planned to travel to the Danube River in Hungary- the western extent of the Mongol empire and the Eurasian steppe.
A Rite of Passage
Before I set off, I never imagined the true extent of the journey ahead of me. I planned it to take eighteen months, but by the time I reached Hungary, I had been in the saddle for three and a half years.
When I arrived on the Danube I had been through a personal rite of passage that had changed my life.
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.
When it seemed I was on the home straight in the Ukraine, I received news that my father had been killed in a car accident. To cope drew on all I had learnt from the nomads about the transience of life, and came appreciate the Kazakh saying: ‘Mountains never meet, but people do.’
Returning to Ukraine and leaving my two younger brothers and sister behind to continue the journey was the hardest decision of all. To go on without Dad, I felt more alone than I ever had. Yet I knew that he would have wanted me to continue, and I felt like the horses and dog I had left behind had become my whole life.
When I arrived on the Danube for the end of my journey I realized that having taken a risk, the odds had somehow fallen in my favor.
It was as if the Danube was staring back at me: ‘well Tim. I’ve always been here! You could have flown from Mongolia in six hours, driven a car in a couple of months……you probably could have walked faster.’ But I understood that had I not stepped into the saddle and been through this life transforming struggle, then the destination would have meant so little.