Join long rider Tim Cope for an evening on the Eurasian Steppe.
In June 2004 Tim set off on an epic journey: to ride horses on the trail of Genghis Khan, a 10,000 kilometre march from Mongolia to Hungary. The journey took him more than three years and led him deep into the fabric of nomad society on the Eurasian steppe.
Six months into the trip, a Kazakh nomad concerned that Cope was travelling alone gave him a puppy named Tigon.
“This little guy was meant to be the new spirit that would accompany me. We had lots of routines that kept my hopes up. In the winter time when we stopped I’d put him in my big canvas duffle bag while I went about setting up the tent and unsaddling the horses. As the pot began to boil, this bag would come to life and start hopping towards the petrol stove to where the dinner was.”
This episode of Live at the AM: Trailblazers Talks was recorded on 7 April 2016 in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum.
Tehmi Sukhla: Good evening everyone, welcome to the Australian Museum. My name is Tehmi Sukhla, and I'm the director of Marketing, Communications and Development here at the Australian Museum. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
I'm delighted to welcome you to tonight's sold-out Trailblazer talk, recreating Genghis Kahn's journey from Mongolia to Hungary with Tim Cope.
Tim grew up in Gippsland, Victoria, and followed his childhood passion for adventure and exploration. He is trained as a wilderness guide in Finland, ridden a bicycle for 10,000 kilometres across Russia and Mongolia, and rode a wooden boat 5,000 kilometres through Siberia to the Arctic Ocean.
Tim has combined his experiences with a fascination for traditional cultures and history and a love for writing, photography and film. His work includes Off the Rails, published by Penguin, and documentaries for the ABC in Australia and National Geographic. He has also directed, filmed and co-produced a documentary series for French and German TV.
In 2006 he was awarded the Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and in 2007 honoured by National Geographic as a cultural ambassador at their annual awards in Washington.
Tim has worked as a guide for eight years in Mongolia and Russia, and in 2015 was made the International Envoy for Mongolian Tourism in recognition for his work celebrating nomadic culture.
Tim's most renowned journey was an odyssey by horse on the trail of Genghis Kahn from Mongolia to Hungary. His book about the journey, On the Trail of Genghis Kahn, won the grand prize at the 2013 Banff International Mountain Book Festival. Would you please put your hands together for Tim Cope. [Applause]
Tim Cope: Thanks Tehmi. I wanted to start tonight way back during my first experience in Mongolia where the embryo of the idea of this horseback journey really was seeded. And that was when I was 20 years old and I found myself in the middle of the Gobi Desert, which of course is this big, vast expanse of sand dunes and empty horizons that stretches right out through Southern Mongolia and what is now Northern China, or Inner Mongolia.
When this photo here was taken we were already twelve months into a journey by bicycle from Western Russia. We'd set off with my mate Chris on a budget of two dollars a day to do about 10,000 Ks to Beijing. By this stage we'd been through the early snow. In fact just a few weeks into the trip we were in a small village called Babushkina when this lovely old woman, Baba Gulya, she stopped us in our tracks, wouldn't take no for an answer, took us inside, laid out this beautiful meal of hot mushroom soup. And as I was sitting there slurping down this beautiful soup, I noticed this tingling in my toes, and I discreetly took the socks off and there were these great big purple extensions on the end of my big toes.
She looked down and screamed out this word in Russian, which means frostbite, and she then picked up our shoes, which were just cheap running shoes, threw them out the door—it had been minus 20, 25 for the last few weeks—she then dragged me down to the local doctors clinic, laid me down on a bench where a doctor just went 'snip, snip' and these little bits of flesh were tossed into a bin.
And he looked down at me and said, 'Well, don't worry, I'm not going to charge you for this operation. It's free, but when you come back from Australia next time would you mind bringing me a baby kangaroo as a gift?'
Fortunately the frostbite wasn't too bad. I ended up spending two or three weeks in this wonderful little village tucked up in the northwest corner of Russia. And it was a way in to this community. We spent this time living with Baba Gulya and her friend Sveta. She started to really teach me the local Russian dialect. She'd wake me up with three shots of vodka before porridge every single morning, and she became, with time, my surrogate Russian grandmother. In fact many years later during the horseback journey, I went through Crimea, and since that time on the bicycle journey she'd moved there to live with her daughter, so I spent another few weeks living with her. And although she was almost 80 at that stage, we were still having two or three shots before breakfast.
Unfortunately she died two or three years ago. After that time, we'd been through the melting snows and where the road ran out pushed our bikes along what's called the BAM Railway, the Baikal-Amurski railway that goes to the north of Lake Baikal, and eventually all the way across to the Pacific.
This is one of the people I'll never forget. This man got out of his truck one day, his steamroller, and blocked the road. He said, 'You're not going any further until you have three shots of vodka with me.' And I looked back and said, 'Well it's a bit difficult. I've got another 80 kilometres to ride, it'll be very hard.' And he became mad, beetroot red, looked down and said, 'Well, you think it's easy to drive a truck after three shots of vodka?' And something in that moment crystallised for me about the difficulties that this society was going through. Russia was going through a very difficult transition since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they were just taking every opportunity to embrace a connection with someone, to take on board friendship, even with a passing stranger.
For me, in the end, travel had become merely a vehicle for getting to know cultures, and getting under the skin of landscapes. But anyway, here we were in the Gobi Desert, only a month to go to Beijing. When this photo was taken there were a couple of reasons to celebrate. We'd just broken our record for consecutive days without a wash, which was 25 or 26. But much more importantly, despite the fact that the bike had snapped in half for the second or third time and the stove had long broken so we were gathering dried dung to burn as fuel, we were starting to see nomads for one of the first times on our trip. These people that would just come galloping from over the horizon, they'd say hello and then gallop off to wherever they pleased, with this incredible sense of freedom, leaving us feeling like wimpy tourists pushing our bikes through a land where it can really be minus 30, 40, even minus 50 and below in the winter. In that same area it can sometimes reach 40 or 50 degrees of heat. And these people don't have nice central heating and insulated walls, they've just got a few inches of tent felt to protect them from those extremes.
It's also a land of no fences for thousands and thousands of kilometres. And I wanted to know more. More than just following these miserable wheel tracks that had a predetermined path. And when I got back to Australia after this journey I learned more about the Mongols who under Genghis Kahn had ridden out, in the 13th century, all the way to Europe and even further, eventually creating the largest land empire that's ever been. And it struck me that our stereotype of the Mongols may be these violent barbarians that came galloping in from the East bent on destruction. Yet any conquest in any empire building process is inherently pretty violent and pretty destructive.
So why should the Mongolian culture be defined by their conquest any more than any other culture on the planet? So when I was walking the dog with Mum one day back in Gippsland, where I grew up, I said to her that I'd like to ride a horse from the capital of the Mongol empire, Karakorum, all the way across the Eurasian Steppe to the Danube River in Hungary, a journey of about 10,000 kilometres. And she stopped and turned around and almost fell over because, like me, she understood very well that I couldn't ride a horse. In fact I was still terrified of horses at that stage.
Tonight I'm going to tell you a little bit about what transpired. I planned it to take 18 months. It took in the end more than three and a half years. And I hope you get a little bit of a glimpse into this very different world. For me, Mongolia, the Steppe, even Russia, it's a place that exemplifies the fact that we might live in an era when heroic exploration and putting flags on new continents is long gone, but discovery's never just been about mapping new places. It's about human discoveries, about meeting people and bringing back those learnings to our own society and changing one's perspective of the world.
This was the man who sold me my first horse, Ochitabat, and he and his mates looked on and said, 'What are you going to do when the wolves attack, and what happens when the thieves steal your horses? Why aren't you carrying a gun?' But that's not the kind of journey I'd imagined. I'd really just pictured slapping the gear on the back of my animals, compass in one hand and just heading off into this unadulterated horizon. In fact one of my mates had reassured me that all I had to do was keep following the sunsets and when the people started speaking French it would mean that I'd gone too far.
But ultimately, when you start any adventure you're trusting that by taking a risk the odds will somehow fall your way. But the trip didn't start particularly well for me. This was about five days into a journey I'd been planning for 18 months or perhaps even longer.
I woke up in my thermals, jumped out of the tent, I could hear these horses galloping into the night and then someone kind of sniggering along with it, and they were stolen, they were mine. I went over and the only thing I could find at that stage was a bell that, ironically, a vet here in Australia had said I should put on the horses at night so that when the thieves approach the bell rings as the horses becomes nervous, it wakes me up and I get to rescue them in time. In fact the sound of the bell ringing had simply led the thieves straight to my camp in the dark, they'd slipped the bell off, and galloped off.
The previous evening everything had seemed perfect. I'd landed in this utopian environment, a sea of green. There were people bringing their animals down to camp, children galloping around bareback, ladies out milking the yaks and the goats. But at three in the morning that was a very different feeling. But fortunately, one of my friends had told me earlier that in Mongolia if you don't solve your problems before dawn, then you never will. So I set off, and I had one of the three horses remaining, and about two hours later this great big herd appeared from over the horizon, and there were my horses at the tail end.
This guy came up to me and intimated, 'Well you must have tied your horses really badly. They came to me themselves.' That didn't explain where the hobbles had gone, and the halters and everything else, but it didn't matter. He took me home—these are the tents of the nomads, known as yurts or gers, in Mongolian, that nomads once lived in all the way across the Steppe as far as Europe—introduced me to his family, slaughtered a goat, and eventually taught me this remarkable saying that would prove to rescue me and the horses on many occasions in years to come: 'A man on the Steppe without friends is as narrow as a finger, and a man on the Steppe with friends is as wide as the Steppe.
In hindsight, it could have been these guys who stole my horses. I'll never quite know. In fact there's a saying that my editor of my book told me that in retrospect would have been another good wisdom to carry with me.
He always said, 'Be less offended and more curious.' And certainly that would have to be the case for me, because horse rustling was just part and parcel of life out here. My horses would be stolen three or four times more during the course of this trip, and eventually I'd learn that if someone's trying to steal your horse out there you should take it as a compliment. It means that you've got a good one. But more than that, if you've had your horse stolen you've got the right to steal it back, although there are traditionally rules: you have to steal it back in broad daylight for it to be honourable, but more than that, you're allowed to kidnap the wife of the thief until everything's resolved.
Now this came back to me and crystallised in a very unexpected way months later in Kazakhstan. I was riding along this lake called Balkhash. It was cold and miserable. It was below zero and there was no snow, so I went to an industrial railway line where there were some track workers. That night one of the guys came to me and said, 'I've heard on the wind that there's someone from the village 40 Ks away who's coming out to steal your horse tonight.' And I brushed it off. It was just scaremongering. Obviously no one knew I was out here. But sure enough, three in the morning there's all this crashing and banging. I leapt out, I could just make out the shadowy figure of someone stumbling off with my horse. What had happened was this guy had jumped on my horse, galloped off, and then discovered that my horse was still tied up, unfortunately for him by the front lower leg. So he'd been somersaulted to earth. I got some of the track workers to come out and help me. It was the same guy who had warned me about horse thievery earlier in the night.
The next morning…afterwards they said well there's only one thing to do in this situation, it's to drink vodka. So they did that and in the morning he managed to give back, eventually, my head-torch and a pair of hobbles that he'd stolen, and he said to me, 'Tim, well done. According to [buddemtah?] you've stolen your horse back. Now please, just take my wife and take her all the way to Hungary.' [Laughter]
And I rode off terrified and really angry at these guys, because to lose a horse out here would be like losing your boat on the sea. But on the other hand there was nothing malicious. It was all part and parcel of life, and it was a privilege to be part of such an ancient tradition. And that really laid out the reality of my trip. It was always a fine line between friend and foe. Often it was one and the same person.
But coming back to this first experience. Of course, from that saying I have learned that I needed to get out there and start meeting the people, understanding their ways and making friends, and once I did that and asked if I could camp in the vicinity of their own homes, they saw me as a guest and someone to protect. I started to understand a little bit more about who these nomads are and why it is of course that they do pack up their homes three or four times a year at least and move with the seasons, on camels, sometimes yaks towing carts, children included.
In fact this photo here was taken on a day I'll never forget, in the far west of Mongolia. I was in the Altai Mountains with these great big 4,000-metre peaks of ice kind of jutting up above the cloud. Huge crumbling cliffs, avalanches here and there. That's another reality of nomads these days. This lady came down from this environment leading a camel, and the lead camel knelt down, and she pulled back this sheepskin and there was a baby on the back of it.
And it left me with this extraordinary sense that these people live so close with their animals in such camaraderie with them that they put more trust in their horses and their camels with their precious loved ones than we might in our society sometimes with fellow human beings. And of course the reason that people do live so closely with their environment and the animals are the bridge to that environment, is that it's proven to be the only sustainable way of living for the last five or six thousand years.
If they were to put up a fence and build a house it would be suicide. It's too extreme, it's too marginal. They need to move to where the grass is. Sometimes 600, 700 kilometre round trips a year.
And here we are again. Of course they're not only experts at adapting their lives to that very fragile ecosystem, but at integrating modern technology into that traditional life. And most people do have satellite dishes and 12-volt batteries, solar panels and wind generators.
At this point of the journey I was beginning to learn that there would never be a perfect day. I could expect problems big and small no matter what happened. You might be wondering where the inspiration of mine began. Someone who grew up in Gippsland and ended up in Mongolia. Well, I think I was lucky to have a father who was into the outdoors. He was an outdoor educator for Monash. I grew up often having holidays at the beach, hiking down at Wilson's Promontory in Victoria, cross-country skiing. Nonetheless, Dad wasn't very happy when I handed back my law studies after one semester at ANU. But over the years he and Mum became quite proud of me and they could see that travel was more than just an in-between thing. This was going to be a way of life.
The greatest thing I learned growing up I think was that going out into the wilderness, it's a place where life itself is distilled. Where all of the unimportant things melt away and you're left with your personal qualities, and it makes me realise that in life of course it's working on yourself that matters most, not about the latest technology that you can surround yourself with.
On looking back, Mongolia was a bit of a honeymoon. It was four or five months riding through beautiful summer weather. But Kazakhstan was a very, very different prospect. A country about two-thirds the size of Australia, and like our country very, very sparsely inhabited in the interior.
More than that, Kazakhstan was a very different place to Mongolia for another reason, and that is that in the 1930s this country that stretches from the Altai in Siberia as far as geographical Europe on the Caspian Sea, was once the largest nomadic nation on earth but it's no longer the case. In the early 1930s Stalin's industrialisation campaign reached the Steppe. The nomads had their animals confiscated; within two winters about one-third of the population, or about 2.2 million nomads perished in what was essentially an artificially created famine—or, some would argue, genocide.
So I was entering a country that was going through a very difficult transition. They didn't have that traditional life to fall back on. By this stage the Soviet Union had collapsed but they didn't have that structure that had originally replaced the nomadic life, the realities of the Soviet Union. So these people were scraping a living in very tough times.
My first job was to find new horses. It's tough to find a good horse in any country, but eventually I was offered this one, Ogonyok. He was a big, five-year-old gelding. I could see he'd make a great pack horse but what I didn't realise until later was that he was also such a paranoid, jumpy animal, that he would sometimes rear up and bolt away merely at the sound of his own fart—which didn't give me a lot of confidence, given that I was in a similar frame of mind as a newly arrived foreigner.
But I was also offered this horse to buy. His name's Taskonir, or Brown Stone. He was a 12-year-old gelding. He'd been around a while, he was a work animal. He'd spent his whole life bringing fish down from an alpine lake to market, and I knew he'd keep the others in line when they misbehaved. And sure enough, these two horses, Ogonyok and Taskonir would carry me for the next three years all the way to Europe. And it's not hard to understand why in the past people were always buried with their best mounts if they outlived them, because they believed that not only does the horse carry them into life, through life but, they hope, charging into the afterlife.
[Audio from journey: There's two metres of snow up here in eastern Kazakhstan in winter. If I don't move I'm going to be stuck here till March. But it's just bloody hard. Your fingers just get totally frozen tying up the saddles, and the tent's just covered in rime and frost. It's just cold. It's like the earth's just been entombed in ice.]
At this point I wasn't to know that it was going to be the coldest winter in about 40 years in northeast Kazakhstan, and it was the start of what they call a dzud, these very harsh winters that sweep across once or twice a decade. This was early November. You can see everything becoming encased in ice. This then melts fractionally and then refreezes, forming what appears to be like an ice-skate rink over the land. Very, very steel-hard ice. They say that horses that survive until spring in these conditions are sometimes naked by that stage because they resort to eating the hair off each other's bodies.
Luckily I was taken through my first couple of blizzards by this man, Aset. And after ten days together, as we were saying farewell, he said, 'Tim, you definitely need a friend on this long road to Hungary. You need someone to keep you warm at night in the tent, and most importantly, to protect you from the wolves.' And that's when Aset decided to give me Tigon. And Tigon was this six-month-old little pup who was leaping off the snow onto my shoulders just to get his paws out of the cold. So I didn't think he'd survive more than a couple of weeks. Fortunately it was only later on I realised that he was thinking, 'well thank God Tim's protecting me from the wolves' as we went to sleep at night. But it didn't really matter. After a couple of days Tigon and I were inseparable. And ironically I called home on a satellite phone one day after saying goodbye to Aset, and discovered that our blue heeler of 14 years at Mum and Dad's place had just died, and it was almost like this little guy was meant to be. This was the new spirit that would accompany me.
And we had lots of routines that kept my spirits up. One of them, in the wintertime, was the first thing I'd do when I stopped, I'd put him inside my great big canvas duffle bag and then I'd go about setting up the tent, unsaddling the horses, and then later, as the dinner began to boil, this bag would come to life, and it would start to hop towards the petrol stove to where the food was. And that was usually the cue for the nightly treat, that was cutting off a little bit of salo, which is a salted or smoked pig fat, and opening the zip and this little snout would come out and snatch it out of my hands. I used to also paint vodka on his paws as a local method to keep frostbite at bay.
We headed south to escape the snows, those early snows, but went too far. This, conditions that were far below zero, resemble what they would call in Mongolian har dzud, or a black dzud. So it's essentially a drought, and animals die a lot quicker of dehydration, obviously, than they do of lack of food. In this environment I often came across these three or four hundred-year-old graves. I was always told that I should sleep inside them to ensure that the old spirits of the steppe would protect me as I slept. I never slept inside them, but I used to camp nearby. I used to lunch inside them out of the wind. And one of the reasons that they gave me such comfort was the thought that once upon a time there'd been a thriving nomadic community here. I was on the right trail.
Unfortunately Kazakhstan these days only has about 2% of the population who live that nomadic life. But there are those nomads still out there like this man, Buzibek, who'd been herding for 50 or 60 years. And to see him climb up on his camel in the morning light was the picture of that symbiosis between animal and man that's really defined the cultures of the steppe for the last five or six millennia.
At this point in time I was starting to have a very different sense of place, of movement, of time itself. You can see these two little white dots here, they could be there one day and then gone the next. Though I had a GPS, I had a reasonable map, so I could know where I was in terms of coordinates, but unless I could find people, unless I could find grass or water, then all of that was meaningless. They have this wonderful saying in Russian that, 'If you never know where you are in the first place, then you can never be lost.' And that certainly started to take on more meaning. But they also have this wonderful way of just transiting through life and transiting through the landscape, and I think this is derived from an old Indian saying that the mounted nomad's possessions were for using not hoarding. And to them life was a bridge: one should cross over it, not build a house on it.
The snows did come, and that gave me a wonderful freedom. I could ride out in whichever direction I pleased, as the horses ate the snow for hydration, and obviously I could use it for cooking and drinking as well. We reached a place called the Starving Steppe, and this was starting to get a bit cold. It was getting below minus 30, possibly minus 40. And when this photo was taken I was in a routine of waking up in the morning in the pitch black. I'd crawl out of the tent. I'd look over first and usually Tigon would be bundled up in my down jacket and he'd have this little beard of ice around his whiskers. Then I'd spend three or four hours packing and then I'd only make it sometimes 12 or 13 Ks before sundown.
But this was a time when wolves became a serious problem too, and I used a local method to keep them at bay.
[Audio from journey: Just before I go to bed I throw a few firecrackers out of the tent door into the dark as a way of scaring off the wolves, and hopefully it works.]
Well, it did work. However, the first time I filmed myself lighting this firecracker I lit it before opening the tent door, and of course it exploded right there and put a hole through the entrance. But as I said, it'd take three or four hours to pack, and at this stage of the journey it was getting a little bit desperate. This was two days to Christmas. One of the horses was developing an abscess, it was going a bit lame. The tent was falling apart, the GPS was going broke, and I did not want to be alone on the Starving Steppe for Christmas. So I picked a dot on the map, a place called Akbakai and got there as quickly as I possibly could, imagining all the while that there'd be this family waiting in a beautiful little romantic agricultural village. There'd be a roast on the table. There may even be a barn full of hay and grain. But this was what greeted me at dusk on Christmas Eve. A place otherwise known as the Place that God Forgot.
Akbakai was a very remote gold-mining town. The only people I could find were these two shadowy figures on the outskirts who took me into their hut. They thought I was a lost Russian geologist. And in the morning this was the first thing I saw. This was one of my hosts, Grisha, and his mate Vidka. And together they were fairly renowned alcoholics who had unfortunately lost their truck-driving licences delivering some equipment to the mines many years before. And they said, 'Tim, don't worry about it. Sit back. You're going to have a wonderful life in Akbakai.'
I went out to look for food. There was none. There was no grain or hay, being a gold-mining town and a very bankrupt one at that. I came back, they'd caught a couple of street pigeons and boiled them up for Christmas. And that night they told me some fairly gruesome stories. I remember Grisha on the right hand side at one stage, I don't know what time in the morning it was but he shook me and he said, 'Tim, you've got to meet my wife one day. You won't find anyone more honest than her.
The time that she murdered our friend in the kitchen with a knife she called the police herself. Only another eight or nine years and she'll be out of prison.'
So I crawled out of this hut the next morning, called on the satellite phone back home—Mum and Dad and my two brothers and sister were sitting out watching the Sydney to Hobart and probably the Boxing Day Test on telly, 26 degrees of sunshine, probably some red wine in their hand, and I wanted to be home. At least for a day. I would have killed for it. But it just was never possible. I had four hungry mouths to feed other than my own, and what I didn't know at this point was that this was just the beginning of my difficulties.
Eventually I'd be stuck in Akbakai for three months. I tried to leave many times. I got the flu, the petrol stove broke at one stage, I lost all my fuel, I came back. Then Tigon was stolen by some unemployed mine workers who were catching stray dogs and pet dogs to eat to survive. In fact through the process of searching for Tigon I discovered that most of the community was surviving on the contraband gold mining industry—rappelling 400 metres into old shafts, digging up the gold, and also paying bribes to the processing plant for tailings. And the going rate was about $10 a gram for gold. Everyone had their little backyard labs. The police would try to catch people in the act and if they did they'd pay a bribe and the business would keep going.
Tigon was rescued, fortunately, after about a week. He was revived with a vodka and raw eggs and put in a sauna for a day, and three weeks later he was well enough to move again. But during this period of time I was starting to get a little bit depressed. I didn't think that perhaps this journey was worth it. This wasn't the picture of romantic nomad life I'd come for. And yet the local people kept saying, 'What are you rushing for? You're only six months behind schedule.' But there was wisdom in their words.
They have this wonderful saying that if you ever have to rush in life, rush slowly. And it's true that in this environment it wasn't about the nine to five or the Monday to Friday. Time was more measured in the availability of grass, the rise and fall of the sun, the seasons that dictated everything. And most importantly, for me, time wasn't necessarily money. And it was liberating to realise that and then accept that this journey was going to take a lot longer than I initially thought. But that was okay.
And sure enough, in the early springtime the snow melted and I had my chance to move out. The greenery was coming back, it was time for those great big shaggy camels to have their spring haircut.
[Audio from journey: Spring's also the time of camel shearing. They use the wool of the camel to make their winter clothing. A single camel can also feed a family for months. This is what you call a camel in the lounge room. A helluva lot of meat and you can see the two humps from the Bactrian camels sitting right here behind me.]
So that reminds me, looking at all that meat, of this fantastic Mongolian belief that it's only fair that as meat eaters, humans should be turned into eaten meat themselves after they die. In some parts of Mongolia people's bodies are still taken up to a mountain top for the wolves to devour.
And they believe that only by the wolves ingesting that flesh can the souls be set free.
After two weeks, after leaving Akbakai, the weather changed quite dramatically. In fact it was reaching 30 degrees by nine o'clock in the morning. People warned me that ahead lay at least 40 days in a row of above 40 degrees. And when that began to kick in it was time to rethink my routine altogether. So I started riding almost exclusively at night. I'd saddle up after sunset and try to ride right through till dawn. But I never quite made it. I'd normally catch a couple of hours of sleep, in the saddle, or even better on the ground like this, and wake up with Tigon in my arms or even, more importantly, a great big camel looking down at me.
They say in Kazakh that the first time as a guest you're a friend, second time you're part of the family, third time—well, you can stay for life. And that's genuinely the way I felt that I was treated. I probably stayed with 90 to 100 different families, families of different kinds. And eventually I came to understand this very cryptic but important belief that mountains never meet, but people do. I think the nomads can appreciate more than anyone that whilst it's great to go out there and challenge yourself in these very difficult conditions, there's nothing like coming out of that open, inhospitable space into the intimacy and warmth of a home, to be with friends and with family. The most important trait of being human, of course, is our capacity to have relationships.
It took about 14 months to cross Kazakhstan. I'm kind of racing through the trip now. Another six months in Russia.
Unfortunately I was stuck on the border here for about six weeks. At one stage the Kazakhs let me through and then the Russians turned me back. The Kazakhs wouldn't let me back in. So I was stuck in no-man's-land for a while until six weeks later I eventually got the right permits to continue my journey. By this stage, it felt as if I'd made it somewhere.
[Audio from journey: Made it to the sea! First time on the horse that I've seen the sea since I began. Almost two years ago. Real crispness in the air, and the horses are moving a lot faster, a lot more easily.]
For me, arriving in the Crimean Peninsula was like landing in horse paradise. There was this waist-high grass, flowers…Tigon was off chasing hares and foxes, his favourite hobby. You'd just see him kind of porpoise-ing through, and the horses were eating with the gusto of hungry lions. We hadn't seen this much food in thousands and thousands of kilometres.
Crimea is a remarkable place, really. It's where the Eurasian steppe abruptly meets the sea, and for that reason it's always been a strategically important place too, because the sea trading routes go from there to the Mediterranean and much further afield. The Mongols actually ruled Crimea way back for about 300 years. The Turks have ruled it, the Romans have ruled it, and as many of you would know, the Russians took it over in the 18th century from the Ottomans and more recently they took it over again.
Unfortunately there was a lot of tension at the time when I was in Crimea, mostly between ethnic Tartars, the indigenous peoples of Crimea, and Russians. In 1944 the Tartars had been deported to places like Uzbekistan and Siberia, justified by Stalin's assertion that they were the descendants of Mongolian barbarian invaders from many centuries before, which wasn't the case. They remained in exile until 1989, and on their return in the 1990s they were met with that similar kind of aggression and belief that the Tartars didn't really belong there.
Unfortunately when I was there in one particular case there was a big protest, the Russians came in with lots of violence, the army eventually closed the town down and it was only luck that no one was killed.
From the Crimean Peninsula we headed into Ukraine and I thought at this stage you might be interested in how I filmed this trip and how I took the photos. There wasn't a film crew for the vast majority of the trip, although right near the end in the Carpathians I got a grant from the ABC, and a wonderful cinematographer called Michael Dillon came and joined me for two weeks on foot.
But most of it was done like this with a tripod, so this kind of photo, for example, was done by setting it up on the tripod, pressing the button, and then I'd have 20 seconds to run to the horse. And in a roll of film—this is all done on transparency—there'd be shots of me chasing the horse, halfway up the horse and so forth.
And by this stage, speaking of Tigon, he was no longer just a passenger. I think he saw himself as this fearless guide taking me across the Eurasian Steppe, and he was so spoiled that he would no longer even accept bread from strangers unless it was lathered thick with cream and jam. At one point in time he was actually offered his own hotel room free of charge, and he kind of climbed up and gave me a look as if to say, 'Well, Tim, you're on the floor tonight, mate.'
On another occasion I got this email from the Moscow Academy of Sciences. I'd had my horses and Tigon on a farm for a while in southern Russia, and it was a polite letter suggesting that I should start sending child maintenance payments back to Russia because of all of the puppies he'd left behind at the research farm. So Tigon had certainly grown into a man in more ways than one.
If I'd seen these kind of photos before I set off on the trip I might have just turned tail and gone home. But the reality is that these mountains, the Carpathians, that were the last big geographical barrier on the road to Hungary, they were one of the places I'd known all along where things could go wrong very quickly. But now that I'd arrived, I realised that the journey, with all its unexpected challenges, had equipped me with skills and knowledge to make this a pleasurable experience. To pass over these same snowy sections of mountains, peaks, forests, where the Mongols had tread all those hundreds of years before. And it gave me a little glimpse of just how hardened and skilled these nomads had been after their long, long journeys. And also how developed their mental map must have been of the world around them, especially compared to Europeans, who at that stage were living in parishes like goldfish in a bowl. Most people probably hadn't walked much further than the neighbouring parish, whilst these guys had traversed much of the continent.
Just before I go on towards Hungary, I wanted to give you glimpse of these wonderful people called the Hutsuls, who live way up in the high peaks of the Carpathians. Every summer they take their animals to the high plains. Their horses have been proven through DNA testing to be the descendants of those left behind by the Mongols when they turned around way back in the 13th century and went back towards Asia.
In particular I wanted to show you just a little clip of a very special man, an 80-year-old hat maker.
[Audio from journey: It's a common trait among nomads to colour their life with art. Vasil, who is now 84, has been making traditional hats from the age of 16. He makes about 100 every six months, and every single one is unique. And when the Hutsul people wear their clothing, you get the impression that they're not just wearing it for display. It carries the very soul of their way of life, of their ancestors. He even decides to show me his coffin that he personally hand made. Everyone does it up here in the Carpathians when they're about the age of 40. He's got his best clothes in there because he wants to be well dressed when he goes into the spirit world. They remember here that life is transient.]
Last year Vasil unfortunately passed away, and he lived up in this very small hut you could only reach by horse or foot, and he was put in that coffin on the back of a horse, balanced quite delicately, and taken all the way down to the valley for a funeral procession and eventually burial next to his wife.
So here we were, finally looking over the Carpathian Mountains to Hungary. I'll just take us down to the end now. From the Carpathians I headed down to the Hungarian plains, and after a six-week battle on the border with bureaucracy, they actually let my horses and Tigon across. And it was a very different kind of welcoming than it had been a send-off in the start of Mongolia. In the beginning no one had known I existed, and yet now word had spread and I didn't have to put up my tent more than a couple of times for those last few weeks.
For the Hungarians my journey had special meaning because their ancestors, the Magyars, had also come riding out from the east in the ninth century on horseback from southern Siberia to what we now know today as Hungary.
[Audio from journey: I'm introduced to Kassai Lajos, who's famous in Hungary for reviving the art of horseback archery. He's dedicated his life to living by the ideals of the ancient nomad warrior, and he's got thousands of followers worldwide. It's awe inspiring. He's able to shoot off six arrows in 12 seconds at a full gallop, and hit the target every time. It was these warriors that demolished the feudal systems of Europe and paved the way for light horse cavalry that was to become the standard for European armies of the future.]
One of these guys, a man called Tamash, came to me one evening and said, 'Tim, I've been discussing your journey with my friends and we've decided one thing. We think you're mad to have done it, but we can see in your heart and mind that you've become a horseman, you've become a bit like one of us.' And that was one of those many experiences in the dying days and weeks of my trip where it felt as if the journey had come full circle and it had been crystallised.
[Audio from journey: By the time Tim arrived on the Danube he'd become a celebrity, welcomed by diplomats and world media. Tim had achieved the first known crossing of the Steppe in modern times. He had learned from the nomads the challenge of the future for them, like for us, is to balance traditional knowledge of the land with the aspirations and needs of the fast-changing modern world.]
So finally I had my opportunity to make those last few steps. Mum had come from Australia, there were the ambassadors from various countries. In fact after the Mongolians and the Kazakhs got up and sang these beautiful renditions of 'Life on the Steppe', 'Nomads' Horses', the Australian ambassador got up and recited 'The Road to Gundagai', completely out of tune. But it was still a wonderful experience just to be there and reflect back on where this had all begun. And it still is extraordinary to me that what began as a small embryo of an idea, talking to Mum one day on the dirt road in Gippsland, had become not only my whole life but it had pulled in the lives of hundreds of other people. It would be fraudulent to suggest that it was my trip, that it was a solo journey.
I'd set off not knowing a soul, as I mentioned, and I think that was one of the really driving forces of this trip and any trip for me, the prospect of meeting people who had no idea that I was coming, that I existed, and to arrive on their doorstep in a state of disrepair; hungry, tired, with hungry and tired horses, and over a cup of tea or a vodka, create a sense of friendship, a sense of friendship that can't be replicated in any other kind of context.
And by the end it was of course the people that was the true measure of the trip, as the difficulties and the distance and everything else kind of melts away into irrelevance. There were times, like with Grisha and Vidka when I had to learn when to pull the reins in tight and ensure that the journey stuck on track. But on the other hand, with Grisha and Vidka I learned when to let go and accept that the way that I was approaching this, my mentality, didn't work here. Grisha and Vidka were wonderful people at the heart of them, despite their problems. Unfortunately Grisha on the right…no, Vidka on the left, he starved to death in 2006.
Not enough food and too much vodka. And Grisha died we don't know exactly how, but he went off to get firewood one day in the cold.
I was rescued later, by the way, by a man called Baitak, and he was the person who rescued Tigon when Tigon had been stolen, and I owe my life, truly, to Baitak. He looked after the horses when I was ill. His own dog was stolen and eaten in the process of looking for mine. At the end of the trip I gave Baitak a call, and in 2010 when I was writing the book I had a long conversation with him and he told me about the fate of these guys. And then I lost contact with Baitak altogether. I desperately tried to phone him, his email, nothing was working. And then two weeks ago I got a message on Facebook from his son, who was only about nine or ten years old back then. And unfortunately, two months after talking to Baitak he'd died of a heart attack.
For me, keeping in touch with these families and these people and remembering their contribution to my life is probably the most important thing in terms of giving back when it comes to travel. Travel's a mutual exchange. It's not a one-way street where you go and take and you come back with experience. You also leave, if you can, good memories for those and friendship is the most important one of all. I'd learned to be very patient amongst the nomads. I think they did change me in the way that I could be resilient and look to the longer term. I couldn't have done it without Tigon, as you all know now. And the journey had prepared me for those big challenges that I thought at the start might bring me down.
What I didn't mention, though, is that the biggest challenge of all was the least expected, and it came only 1,000 Ks from the end, just when I'd gotten through all of the winters and the deserts and the mountains. I was riding along and got a message on my satellite phone to call home, and that's when I discovered that my father Andrew had unfortunately died in a car accident here back in South Gippsland.
I got on a plane, left the horses behind, and spent five months back here. It was the toughest time of all of our lives. I was the oldest of four kids and there came a point when I had to decide whether to continue the journey, go back and leave my family behind, or stay longer through that grieving process. And obviously I returned and by the end of the trip I was looking forward more than ever to coming home and really appreciating time amongst friends and family.
There hadn't been a single day that had gone right on this trip. And in fact the very last day, as if to remind me of that, I camped 15 kilometres from the finish line, everything was set. I knew the path, the horses were in good shape, I thought nothing can possibly stop me now. And then at 12 o'clock at night just as I was preparing to lay back under the stars and reflect on this three-year journey, Tigon came running back into camp smelling like death. He'd just rolled in something dead in the local vineyard. So I spent my last night of the trip with a bottle of water and some shampoo, trying to clean him in my tent, and of course he shook off everything and it covered all my clothes, my sleeping bag, everything with the smell of death. It was lucky one kilometre before the finish line where there was all the media and the ambassadors waiting, I ducked into a village and hosed him off, and he was just getting dry by the time we turned the corner for the final straight.
For me, adventuring is all about being flexible. Planning's important, but I'd initially had an Excel spread sheet. I figured if I did 5 days a week, 20 Ks a day, I'd make it in 16 months. Couple of months for holidays, there was my trip; back after one winter. But it wasn't of course the case. I was now in the saddle for more than three years, and the Danube River was looking back as if to say well, what took you so long? And it's true that in the modern era you don't have to get on a horse to ride from Mongolia into Europe.
It could have been a few hours in a plane, a few weeks in a car, I could have walked faster in the end, but it's really not the point.
Even though we live in a time when you can see every part of the planet down to the square inch through Google Earth and so forth, there's no substitute for getting out and having that very sensory experience of the world. And certainly, had I not got in the saddle in the first place, that whole world of generosity, culture, history, landscapes, would have simply passed me by without meaning.
The destination only ever means something, of course, if you've been through a genuine journey to get there in the first place. So thank you very much. [Applause]
Tehmi Sukhla: Thank you, Tim. Now we've probably got about five or ten minutes to take some questions from the audience.
Audience question 1: [inaudible]
Tim Cope: Mostly Russian. The backstory is that when I was 19 and I was studying in Canberra, law, I desperately wanted a way out. And I found a wonderful course called the International Wilderness Guide course, and I ended up deferring my law degree for another year and going to Finland, where I studied together with Russians. And part of our course was in Russia itself. I started becoming more and more fascinated by the place. In 1998 Russia was going through a very difficult time. The economy collapsed, the country defaulted on all their foreign debt, and the rouble went through the roof. There was no cash in the shops and the banks, and we were doing our first expeditions there at that time. And in the middle of all that, the people were just so hospitable and spontaneous and big smiles on their faces, and I knew this country, the biggest one on the planet, was a place I wanted to get to know.
Particularly I think because growing up as a Gippsland boy, an Australian, I don't think I learned anything about the former Soviet Union in school, and it seemed a travesty, and I wanted to know.
So yeah, Russian was the most important language. And then in Mongolia that wasn't so useful. I learned a little bit of Mongolian. It wasn't great, but the language of the horse was really important. So they always knew what I needed long before I did, particularly in those early days when I was still learning to ride. I'd often go to sleep at night halfway into the tent, wake up with the toothbrush still in my mouth and toothpaste dribbling down my chin, I was so exhausted every day just trying to learn the horse. And the people knew how to help me, they knew everything. I didn't need anything else.
And that was a different experience than being there on the bike, where I was more like an alien novelty, I was strangely familiar for them.
Audience question 2: Tim, when you were sitting in the saddle and you're looking out to nothing, how did you occupy your mind for so many days and months?
Tim Cope: Lots of people have asked that, and have asked, you know, did you listen to music—but it may seem difficult to understand but there was not a single moment in the day when I wasn't fully occupied. When you've got three horses, navigating, you're looking at the land, you're looking for grass. Every moment you can, if you find a little patch of grass you stop, you eat, you're on the lookout for everything—the sign of tracks, the sign of animals. I was on the lookout for Tigon constantly. He'd be going out like 20 K radius journeys all the way around me and come homing back in every now and then.
But I had to be very, very acutely aware of everything, because even if an animal startles the horses, you could find yourself teleported 50 metres in a second. Had to be careful all the time. And I wanted to be. I wanted to be aware.
I didn't want to miss a single chapter of the story of that landscape. Towards the end of the trip sleeping in houses was a shock. I'd wake up and feel like I'd missed a whole chapter of what had gone on during the night. There was something about being engaged.
So I didn't have a lot of spare time. When I did, I was probably learning languages. I did have a couple of books with me at times, but it was busy. And if I did get a moment just to sit back and relax then I just sat back and let it in and let my mind go completely blank.
It was much harder to come back than it was to start the trip. An even steeper learning curve…I'm answering your question, aren't I? I think the reverse culture shock's always more difficult. And particularly when I first came back I was obviously without my animals that were left behind. I was here feeling like a fish out of water. I had no money, no one could really relate to the experiences I'd been through. And then tragically some of my diaries were stolen from my car in Melbourne, in St Kilda, which I never got back. And it felt like I'd just been…I couldn't get any lower, really.
But then I began writing, so I started to write my experiences down. I made a sample chapter and I started going through all the footage for the film. And that process of sharing the story with others, it made me understand what it was that was so important about my journey, what I'd learned and how I could relate it to others. It suddenly became relevant in a way, and I think that's the most important part, for me, of readjusting to society. And it still is. It took two years to make the film and four years to write the book, and it's ongoing. I go back to Mongolia every single year and I'd actually employ a lot of the nomads that I met back in the day.
One of them, Dashnyam is the guy I gave a horse to as a gift on the first trip I went back to Mongolia in 2009 to his area I was really excited to see my horse and meet him and tell him about the journey and how it had gone, and he explained that they'd just eaten my horse the previous winter, so I just missed out. But being able to go back and forth has also helped me adjust a lot.
I think the way in which they interact with the land, they see themselves as being part of a much bigger ecosystem, a bigger web of life. They're only playing one little role. And in that way I think they offer a model of sustainability and putting our lives in perspective. The planet wasn't necessarily just laid out for humans to devour, as seems to be the case in some of our approaches to life. And the sense of patience, resilience—I never heard a nomad complain about anything, and if there are people on earth who have the right to complain, it's probably them. I tried to carry that uncomplaining attitude along but I knew I could never stick to it like them.
They're an incredibly hardened people. Every year I go back, like last year it was very cold, it dropped to minus 24 degrees during an Australian Geographic trip I took last year in October, and the nomad guides we had with us who I've been working with now for a few years, they just put a bit of felt down, they lay down and made a sandwich, put another bit of felt over the top and went to sleep toasty and warm. Woke up in the morning and got on with things. Just incredible.
Audience question 3: What happened to Tigon?
Tim Cope:I thought you'd never ask! But no, it was a really difficult decision at the end. If we could possibly have the screen back up…at the end I gave the horses away. I could never bring them back. But there was a slight chance I could get Tigon home, but I wasn't sure. He was a Kazakh dog, he needed to become naturalised as an EU citizen, which would take six months, and then beyond that it would cost $10,000.
So I came home, I was broke, I used to get these stories—and by the way I gave the horses to an orphanage and they then set up a riding program. They converted the soccer oval into a running yard. This is one of Tigon's progenies that was donated to the orphanage.
I've been back to Hungary two or three times, most recently in December, to see them, but I got these stories like Tigon's chased horses for half a day and the farmer I'd left him with, he'd taken all the dogs with him and they sent a taxi out at one stage to pick all the dogs up and bring them home.
But eventually a year passed and I got a letter in the mail from Australian Quarantine. I had permission to bring him home. And that's when I got him, with the help of, by the way, a lot of people who came along to fundraising events. I was over in Perth and did some big talks, and we raised about $8,000 in a couple of weeks. I got him in a taxi from Budapest to Vienna and then he was put on a plane to Dubai, and this was the moment that he touched down at the Spotswood Quarantine Centre in Melbourne. So Tigon should be somewhere near here…come on Tigon… [Applause]
Yeah, Tigon's now actually 12 years old, but he's still running 20, 30 Ks a day if he can, and he's showing absolutely no sign of slowing down. And the next project will actually be to write an illustrated children's book about him. I'm working with Alison Lester, some of you may know her, on a book.
Alison's actually got one of Tigon's puppies, and Tigon's puppy's made it into one of her books already. Had two legitimate litters and a couple that weren't as legitimate. In fact going back to your question about adjusting to life back here, when I went to live up in northeast Victoria, where I live now, renting this little cottage, I woke up on the first Sunday morning. Tigon was there, and there was this guy banging on the window of my house. I thought what's going on? I went out and he said, 'If your dog trespasses on my property one more time I'll call the police.' And I thought this is crazy. In the Steppe they don't even have collars or leads. Trespassing's not really possible because it doesn't exist. But a couple of weeks later the reality is that Tigon impregnated that guy's dog, so I understood that there are some occasions when fences and private properties should be respected. So Tigon and I both had to adjust to a more fenced-in world, but we also get to go up where we live, up in the mountains on a regular basis, where he has total freedom.
Audience question 4: [inaudible]
Tim Cope:Very, very sentimental. But in a way that might not appear as sentimental as we approach. I guess in our society animals become more pets. For them, animals are their comrades, they're part of the family. They rely on their horses not just for their physical wellbeing but their spiritual wellbeing. All Mongolians believe that they have a spirit horse which guides them and helps them through the difficult stages of their life.
And if any of you have been lucky enough to go to a small naadamin Mongolia, where you have the three what they call the manly sports—horse riding and wrestling—the way in which they venerate the horse is unbelievable. You see men who in 364 days of the year are tough as nails, they almost cry when their horses come out and they have the fermented mare's milk showered over the top, and when the winning horses are mobbed by the people who take the sweat of the stallions and rub it over their faces.
The horse is what keeps them going in life. They couldn't be more proud. But they might have in some cases 500 horses. They don't have names for them apart from the particular pattern or colour of the coat. And they don't necessarily pat them and stroke them and treat them in that kind of way. And certainly my Mongolian horses and my Kazakh horses, they never wanted affection. They never really wanted you to pat them. They were just more like, I want to be out with my mates having fun. But underneath they were incredibly loyal horses. Once you got on to them it felt like they would give their life for you. They took me through so many different difficult conditions. But they were kind of like toughened old men. They weren't going to show their affection openly. That's the way I interpret it. They're very, very different horses to European horses that would come up for attention and maybe a carrot. It's a different world in the Steppe, but no, horses are…what can I say, they're almost worshipped as if they are gods themselves.
Tehmi Sukhla:Thank you. Can you please put your hands together for Tim Cope. [Applause]
Trailblazers Talks, presented by Australian Geographic, brings together Australia’s greatest living explorers for a series of inspirational events. The 21-week series was held on Thursday evenings at the Australian Museum from 25 February – 14 July 2016.