Monday, 5 May 2014

On the Trail of Genghis Khan: Tim Cope (Mongolia, Kazakhstan,Ukraine, Russia, Hungary)

The relationship between man and horse on the Eurasian steppe gave rise to a succession of rich nomadic cultures. Among them were the Mongols of the thirteenth century – a small tribe, which, under the charismatic leadership of Genghis Khan, created the largest contiguous land empire in history. Inspired by the extraordinary life nomads still lead today, Tim Cope embarked on a journey that hadn’t been successfully completed since those times: to travel on horseback across the entire length of the Eurasian steppe, from Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine to the Danube River in Hungary.

From horse-riding novice to travelling three years and 10,000 kilometres on horseback, accompanied by his dog Tigon, Tim learnt to fend off wolves and would-be horse-thieves, and grapple with the extremes of the steppe as he crossed sub-zero plateaux, the scorching deserts of Kazakhstan and the high-mountain passes of the Carpathians. Along the way, he was taken in by people who taught him the traditional ways and told him their recent history: Stalin's push for industrialisation brought calamity to the steppe and forced collectivism that in Kazakhstan alone led to the loss of several million livestock and the starvation of more than a million nomads. Today Cope bears witness to how the traditional ways hang precariously in the balance in the post-Soviet world.

I first heard about this book during an interview with Cope that I saw on the morning news, and immediately my ears pricked up. This was not only an opportunity to read a fascinating piece of travel literature, but also to cover several hard to find countries from the Around the World Reading Challenge in one book. Although it was a lengthy read, that took me, a relatively fast reader more than week to digest, it was well worth the effort and easily one of the best pieces of travel writing I have come across.

When Cope first started on this adventure, which due partly to red tape and partly to personal crises took three years to complete, he had little knowledge or experience of horsemanship. This was then an extremely ambitious journey and he depended heavily on the locals in the form of various nomadic peoples for support, along with his former girlfriend (who accompanied him for the first two months of his trek) and other members of his extended circle of family and friends.

The book can also be seen as a historic text book for it details in some depth the history and geography of the places he travelled through, in particular in the context of Soviet influence. His animals of course also played a pivotal role, and the relationships with these are also covered in depth. In some ways this book could be seen as a mourning for a lost way of life. It is a monumental piece of work, epic in is scope and no review could really even begin to give it justice. This for me has to be five stars.

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