On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads by Tim Cope
Sometimes the journey is the destination. Australian Tim Cope traversed the entirety of the Eurasian steppe from Karakorum to the Danube, Mongolia to Hungary, on horseback. This journey of some 10,000km over three and a half years is recounted in his somewhat misleadingly titled On the Trail of Genghis Khan. Misleading, because Cope is neither looking for Genghis Khan nor is he attempting to follow any of his campaigns: instead, the Mongols and their thirteenth-century conquests provide the inspiration—if that is the right word—for and delimitation of Cope’s expedition.
The “epic journey”—in the words of the subtitle—is eye-opening, romantic and completely mad; all three are in considerable complementary evidence. Crossing the steppe by horse rather than modern wheeled vehicle is alternately and simultaneously the first two; crossing the empty wastes of central Kazakhstan in the dead of winter is rather more the last.
Cope’s credentials as a traveler, adventurer and, indeed, filmmaker are hardly in doubt: he has a clutch of awards to his credit. He is also a quick study: he has a way with languages, horses and making do in difficult circumstances. Whether he is courageous or foolhardy is something that readers will need to decide for themselves; he certainly is dogged.
The book itself, however, is—if one will pardon the metaphor—somewhat pedestrian. The tone is matter-of-fact, a largely flat account of run-ins with bureaucracy, wolves, thieves, blizzards and what must have been breath-taking vistas. Comparison to others who have traveled to and written about the region—John Man and Colin Thubron among them—is inevitable. It’s stiff competition. Cope’s diaries were stolen from his car after his return which couldn’t have helped, and the book was preceded by a documentary: some parts of the book are almost a decade old.
But if a book is judged by the amount of thought it provokes in a reader, then On the Trail of Genghis Khan is a success. Some of this introspection is of the sort that Cope evidently wishes to encourage, such as the role of traditional ways of life in a world which is increasingly squeezing them out of existence. Cope is not much given over to philosophy, but he doesn’t have to be: the narrative pretty much speaks for itself.
Nevertheless, one’s admiration for the achievement is tinged with some unease. The most affecting parts of the book are Cope’s relationships with his horses and a dog he picks up along the way. Cope also seems to inspire great loyalty and affection among his human acquaintances, but he dwells less on these and it’s clear he has other priorities. His then German girlfriend accompanies him on the first leg through Mongolia; she goes to Germany to wait. When Cope reaches the far side of Kazakhstan, he is informed that she has been diagnosed with Cushing’s Syndrome, a life-threatening condition that required immediate surgery. Not only did he not interrupt his journey to be with her, he breaks up with her while she is recuperating. Cope, in all fairness and to his credit, is entirely honest in the book about this.
These matters, their entire relationship, are covered in a mere few paragraphs. Cope moves on. His dog Tigon, also close to death on several occasions, receives more attention and an order-of-magnitude more pages. Another girlfriend, a Ukrainian artist he met not that long after (with whom he apparently had a relationship for a year http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/tim-cope-civilisation-feels-like-death-to-me-402494.html), apparently merits even fewer words.
A project of this kind is almost entirely self-centered, and arguably has to be if it is to be seen through to its conclusion. And yet Cope’s journey isn’t in fact inviolable: he breaks it to fly back to Australia to accept an award; the horses are stabled, the dog is housed while he’s away. More understandably, he flies back again when his father dies.
Understandable, but the nomads Cope admires didn’t and still don’t have this option.
Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books. He was at one time a consultant to the Governor of Atyrau, the westernmost Province of Kazakhstan, a place that features in this book.
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