In 2004, 25 year old Australian Tim Cope, a law school dropout, adventurer, fluent Russian speaker and keen amateur historian, set out on an epic quest to span the entire length of the 10,000km steppe that makes up the legendary Mongolian Empire. He did so on horseback, despite having next to no experience of horse riding whatsoever, and subsequently the journey took him over three years.
It’s little wonder, then, that it took him until 2013 to publish this epic, 450-page account of his journey; that he edited it down from a manuscript double its size should tell you all you need to know about what an eventful, rollercoaster journey it was!
Before anything else, though, it is important to acknowledge the historical events that fuelled Cope’s boyhood dream in the first place. Genghis – or Chinggis – Khan is the stuff of legend the world over, and little wonder; he kick-started the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in the History of the World. His legacy remains polarising to this day – for every admirer of his achievements, there is someone who detracts him for his brutality – and he remains an iconic, fascinating and controversial figure as a result.
But if you come to this book looking for a Mongolian history lesson, look elsewhere. Yes, Cope dutifully chronicles significant moments in the development of the Mongol Empire, and with an admirably concise erudition at that. But he is sure to wear this knowledge lightly, for this is a narrative very much situated in the contemporary, and focuses heavily on the realities of the nomadic way of life in the modern, post-Soviet age of the six, mostly vast, countries he travels through.
With good reason too. To varying degrees, he ends up relying on the kindness and hospitality of many of the people he meets on his way to Hungary from Mongolia, steadfastly acknowledging that while he was technically alone whilst journeying in the saddle, he never would have made it without the help of other people.
Those he meets are undoubtedly a colourful cast of characters, and not everyone he does meet necessarily welcomes him either; indeed, he has the occasional genuinely hostile and scary encounter! But you feel that each person he meets instructs his, and by extension our, understanding of life on the steppe. The traditions and lifestyle of the people here still persist, but the changes of the world around them do impact upon and even threaten them sometimes. How they deal with these challenges, justly, informs a huge portion of the narrative.
The same applies to the personal challenge Cope undertakes in completing this journey. Other than two months with his German girlfriend at the start of the journey in Mongolia, and a few brief spells where he is accompanied by a mix of old friends, guides, locals and, on one occasion, a documentary filmmaker, he has to undertake the rigours of riding and camping daily on the steppe – in both extremes of temperature, and on largely harsh terrain – all by himself.
Well…not quite. He is completing the journey on horseback, and his relationship he forms with the horses that accompany him throughout (Taskonir and Ogonyok in particular, who carry Cope and his load for the majority of the journey) are profound and moving. But it is the bond he forms with Tigon, a Kazakh dog he is initially reluctant to have join him, which is perhaps the most affecting of all.
The ‘family of animals’ that help him through the steppe provide him with a mix of help and hindrance, rather summing up the sometimes turbulent nature of his journey. On a route like this, it won’t surprise you to hear that it was far from all plain sailing, and Cope documents the setbacks he has to overcome on the way – sometimes funny, sometimes thrilling, sometimes terrifying, and, yes, sometimes even tragic – with warmth, honesty, self-deprecation and humour.
As almost all of us wouldn’t even consider attempting to emulate Cope’s intrepid adventure (or similar), this book ultimately stands or falls on his skill as a storytelling narrator. Fortunately for the reader, he makes for a talented and engaging one, effortlessly succeeding in weaving a riveting, informative and moving book that never, despite its length, feels self-indulgent or overly long. Fitting, in my view, for the accolade of a travel writing masterpiece.