Mongolia Must-Reads: On The Trail Of Genghis Khan by Tim Cope
For the next book in our series of Mongolia Must-Reads, we’re focusing on On The Trail of Genghis Khan by author Tim Cope who travelled 10,000 km on horseback across the Eurasian steppe (‘… the ocean-like plain in the heart of Eurasia…’) through Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Hungary – following the route taken by the Mongol Army in the 13th Century as they forged the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known.
‘ It is remarkable to think that at the zenith of Mongol power nomad herders of the little-known steppes of East Asia ruled an empire that included some of the most populous cities on earth and stretched from Korea in the east to Hungary in the west, the tropics of South East Asia in the south – the Mongols even campaigned in Java, Indonesia- and the sub-arctic in the north.’
‘ Some areas of the steppe were rich grasslands and other semi-arid zones, deserts, high plateaus, and even forests, but far away from the moderating effect of any ocean, it was all characterised by a harsh continental climate. For settled people who lived beyond the boundaries of this realm clinging to the safety and protection of more-fertile soils, river systems, and plentiful forests – the steppe was a mysterious, inhospitable, and almost impenetrable world.’
The journey took Cope over three and a half years and became a personal rite of passage (‘…not only was the scale of the journey beyond my comprehension, but the sum total of my experience as a horseman amounted to ten minutes on a horse almost two decades earlier, when I was seven years old.’). The book details his journey and the hardships he faced, describes the landscapes he traveled through, gives an insight into the cultures he experienced and the background history of each country that he passed through.
‘…, as we sail over the steppe, where nothing – not thoughts, feelings, time, the earth, or animals – was fenced in.’
‘The great plain that rolled out into a horizon of heat haze was inescapable. It was too big to fathom, yet amounted to nothing in the scheme of the overall scale of the steppe.’
This blog post focuses on the Mongolian portion of the epic trip which started in Kharkhorin – the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire to the border in western Mongolia via the Great Lakes Depression and the Kharkhiraa Mountain range. Cope wanted to ride from what is considered the cradle of Mongolian civilisation (Kharkhorin) through ‘… countries and cultures that shared a landmass and a common way of life.’ During the Mongolia section of his journey, he experienced the way of life of Mongolian Buddhist herders and Mongol Kazakh Muslim herders.
Map of key locations in Tim Cope’s Mongolia journey as part of his ‘On The Trail of Genghis Khan’ expedition – the focus of our latest Mongolia Must-Reads series.
‘ Here, though, the same boundless space of the sky was mirrored on the land. Scattered amid the faultless green carpet of early summer grasses, countless herds of horses, flocks of sheep and goats, shifted about like cloud shadows. For the nomads who tended to them, nowhere, it seemed, was off-limits. Their white felt tents, known as gers, were perched atop knolls, by the quiet slither of a stream, and in the clefts of distant slopes. Riders could be seen driving herds forward, crossing open spaces, and milling by camps. Not a tree – or shrub, for that matter – fence, or road was in sight, and the highest peaks in the distance were all worn down and rounded, adding to the feeling of a world without boundaries.’
‘ Free of fences and private land ownership, the natural lay of the earth was unhindered, defined only by mountains, rivers, deserts and the natural ebb and flow of the seasons. What’s more, with little more than a thin piece of felt to protect them against annual variations in temperatures that spanned more than 82℃, the nomadic people had a connection to the land I had never dreamed existed in modern times.’
Cope obviously has a genuine love for Mongolia and provides an insightful and honest portrayal of his experience of the country including the hospitality he received – the linchpin of human survival on the steppe. And although the journey took place between 2004-2007 Cope’s descriptions of life in Mongolia remain relevant today.
‘I had met the modern guardians of the steppe – those special people who are driving the culture into the future, fueling the pride of the nomad, saving the traditions, and keeping the memory of their ancestors alive.’
‘…, I had no doubt these were the hardest men I had ever met – not in the aggressive, macho sense, but in their gracious acceptance of the difficulties and privations of their lives. On the steppe when the grass was rich and thick, herds flourished, and the people rejoiced and gave thanks to tengri. When the land was in drought or stung by a bitter winter, their herds shrunk and the people accepted it. Life and death were at the whim of the earth and the sky, and there was nothing inherently wrong with that.’
‘…, whenever something came along that was suitable and could improve their lives, it had historically been embraced with unique nomad ingenuity.’
Herder Naraa of Gorkhi Terelj National Park. Naraa and his family are a great illustration into how Mongolian herders are adapting – setting up micro-businesses as a way of substituting their income. Image: EL gues Nick Fletcher
Some of the best moments in the book are those describing his relationship with his horses (‘Just the touch of a brush or a blanket could send them into a wild display of wild bucking and rearing,…’), his dog (the faithful Tigon) and his experiences sharing day to day life with the local people who host and provide invaluable advice such as ‘A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe.’
The adventures that inspired Tim Cope’s book On The Trail Of Genghis Khan led to him being awarded the Australian Geographic Australian Adventurer of the Year in 2006 and the book won Grand Prize at Banff Mountain Book Festival in 2013.
Our Mongolia Must Reads are a continuing series of blog posts focusing on books written about Mongolia. For more books on Mongolia – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/tag/books-about-mongolia/