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On The Trail of the Genghis Khan Empire Interview with Adventurer Tim Cope!

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Hey there Travel Tarters, today I have an interview with adventurer Tim Cope.

On The Trail Of Genghis Khan

He’s an intrepid traveller, author and film maker who wrote ‘On The Trail of Genghis Khan‘ which documents his 3 year journey from Mongolia to Hungary overland via horseback. Check out the cover to the left!

This is a great book (and also TV documentary) of how he was crazy enough to ride from Mongolia to Hungary over horseback for over 10,000 kilometres, and it took him three years to do it! I’m *almost* keen to do it myself!

Sounds like a journey that would challenge most travel insurance policies, but I’m sure it would be a great personal development trip!

Check out his website at Tim Cope Journeys.

You can also follow @TimCopeJourneys on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Here is a sample of the documentary for a taster!

Here is the chat!

The Tim Cope ‘On The Trail of Genghis Khan’ Interview!

The Travel Tart: Hi Tim, thanks for taking the time to chat. For the internet peeps out there who have managed to stumble across this interview in amongst the mass of cat videos and adult sites that make up the majority of the internet, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do!

Tim Cope:  The last ten years I have been working on a project to ride horses from Mongolia to Hungary by horse in the spirit of nomads, who under Genghis Khan rode out from East Asia and eventually formed what is still known today as the largest land empire in history. The adventure itself, with three horses, the occasional camel and my trusty Kazakh dog Tigon took more than three years. The last seven years has been a different kind of journey – the making of a film series, and finally writing of a book, which was released in the end of 2013 (it is called On the Trail Of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads).

(The Travel Tart) Just to put that into some sort of perspective, check out the expedition map!

Mongolian Empire Trip - The Trail Of Genghis Khan
Map from Australian Geographic

In terms of my background I am the oldest of four children and grew up on a small hobby farm in Gippsland. Early bushwalking trips, surfing and sea-kayaking with my father helped sew a passion for nature, but it was really a trip to Nepal at age sixteen with school that shattered the parochial vantage point I had of the world.

I took a year out in 1997 to do a GAP year in the UK, but left the program after 3 months and headed off on a rickety bike, eventually winding up in Eastern Europe. I will never forget spending a few days with some anarchists in a squat in Belgrade, where we would join the anti Milosevic protests by day, and roam the underground punk bars at night. I spent my 19th birthday walking down from Srbska into Sarajevo, and was engrossed by the postwar realities at that time. I wondered what lay further east.

Desert Trekking

When I returned to Australia I lasted one semester of my Law degree before finding a way to Finland to study a wilderness guide course for a year. During that year I learnt something fundamental – that what we call wilderness in the western world, is indeed a place where humans belong, and more than that it sustains us.

At the end of the course in 1998 I moved into a trappers tent in the forest, and began preparing for a journey by bicycle 10,000km across Russia and Siberia to China. On a budget of $2 a day, my friend Chris and I eventually set off on a journey by recumbent bicycle that would take us 14 months. In that time I would encounter frostbite, the Siberian clouds of mosquitoes and the end of the road on the BAM railway, but far more importantly I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the people, and the diverse ethnicities in Russia that are re-discovering their identity in post-Soviet times. We travelled mostly on minor roads and took a northern route through small timber-homed villages and ended up on the northern shores of Lake Baikal, getting a ship south to Buryatia, then across Mongolia to China and Beijing.  It was a formative experience for both Chris and I…and for our friendship.

The following year I returned to Siberia with three others, with the intention of following the Yenisey River on its path, 4,500km north to the Arctic Ocean. We found an old rotted out 5 metre dory on the shores of the Angara near Lake Baikal and spent three weeks building a cabin and fitting oars. We then spent 4 months or so rowing north 24 hours a day watching as the taiga forest eventually thinned out to Tundra, the river widened to around 60km, and we were spat out in the gulf on the northern coast. The highlight for me was staying with Nenets people – the reindeer herders of the northern hemisphere.

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I was fortunate after these experiences to write a book titled ‘Off The Rails‘ co-authored by my travelling mate, Chris, and released in 2003. The same year we completed a documentary for ABC Australia. Having developed an interest in documentary-making, I also filmed the Yenisey journey, and this footage was bought out by National Geographic Adventure.

The work I am proudest of, however is most certainly my book On The Trail of Genghis. I was privileged to be in Banff in 2013 when it won the grand prize for mountain literature.

Apart from these journeys and books, I have been travelling to Mongolia annually since 2008, and guide treks in the western regions among the Altai mountains. I have begun taking school students to Mongolia, and together with friends in Ulaanbaatar have set up a kind of charity for helping a small school dormitory for nomad kids in remote Uvs province. I have been following the Ukraine/Crimea conflict closely, and take a great interest in the geopolitics of the former Russian empire (otherwise known as the Soviet Union).

Currently I live in a small hut in Tawonga, which is nestled in Victoria’s high country. My trusty Kazakh dog is usually by my side!

Tigon - Kazkh Dog

The Travel Tart: I think you’ve done more in a decade that most people do in a lifetime! Believe it or not, I was one degree of separation away from Genghis Khan – which means that you’re only two degrees of separation way from him! I managed to score a trip to visit the tomb of Jochi Khan, one of his three sons. This place was in the middle of nowhere in central Kazakhstan, so I felt privileged to set eyes upon Jochi’s final resting place.  I find the endless horizon of steppe country is on my list of places that I classify as ‘impressive nothing’ – where there’s only you and your thoughts to keep yourself company. How did you get through the thousands of kilometres of flat, dry, brown land? Many travel bloggers who call themselves ‘nomadic’ wouldn’t survive two hours without wi-fi! I hope you also avoided the former Soviet Union nuclear warhead testing ground!

Tim Cope: The oceanic horizons of grasslands, undulating hills, mountains and deserts of Kazakhstan were at the core of my dream. It was in this landscape, which straddles the European/Asian divide, the horse was first tamed by man over 5,500 years ago. Since then Kazkahstan has witnessed untold nomadic peoples and empires sweeping through. It’s also true that Kazakhstan was perhaps the largest nomad nation on earth before the tragedy of collectivisation came along in the 1930s (when nomads were forced to settle in villages and collectives to support Stalin’s industrialisation campaign, and around 2.2 million died in a famine in the process).

It would take me nearly 14 months in the end to cross Kazakhstan, and it was both the hardest, the most enjoyable of the journey, and defined by the hardest and kindest of all people. It was in eastern Kazakhstan that I was given a small skinny pup called Tigon by a Kazakh man who said I needed someone to keep me warm and protect me from wolves. This little pup that I didn’t think would survive more than a few weeks of winter (it dropped to -40 and below when we were out on the so called ‘starving steppe’) turned out to underpin the journey ahead, and is still with me now.

In short, it was when I was out on that huge featureless ocean of steppe that I was happiest. I will never forget the feeling of riding with my three horses, Tigon roaming the horizon for hares and foxes, and a feeling of unparalleled freedom sinking in – a place where fences did not exist and neither time, or even thoughts could be hemmed in.

Wide Open Spaces

The Travel Tart: In an ironic twist, I’m more than happy to throw myself off a perfectly stable platform and do a bungee swing, but I’m scared silly when I ride a horse. They know it and try to control me! How did you manage to work out how to ride a horse in preparation for your trek across the trail of Genghis Khan, considering that you weren’t an experienced rider?

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Tim Cope: I was frightened stiff by horses before I began this journey – one of my only times on horse in my childhood had been when I was seven, and I had been bucked off and broken my arm. But seeing the way in which Mongolian nomads live and work with their animals, in a kind of symbiotic relationship connected to the land, inspired me. I wanted to learn something of what it was like, and the only way was to get on a horse myself.

It took months after setting off to become comfortable with horses, and it was a steep learning curve, but ultimately, like anything, its not natural talent or horse whispering secrets that are required for horse riding – it is time, and patience. By the end of my journey I was inseparable from my horses and I could not imagine life without them. The horses changed me, and gave me a rich insight into the world through which we passed.  I owe the journey to them (particularly Kok, Ogonyok and Taskonir, horses that were with me for three years), who were on the frontline, and bravely carried me through!

I should point out that I was fortunate to have the help and guidance of the Long Riders Guild in terms of how to prepare for travelling with horses. I also joined a pack horse journey through the Victorian Alps (kindly offered by the Baird family who run Bogong horseback adventures), and was given a crash course by the Watson family in Margaret River. I was also given a lot of assistance by equine vet Sheila Greenwell, who became my lifeline by satellite phone when the horses were ill or injured and I needed advice.

Tim Cope

The Travel Tart: Cool, but I’m still scared of riding a horse! But if you can overcome that fear of riding, maybe I can! Anyway, I like trying all sorts of weird food when I’m travelling. That’s because I have a rabid curiosity to try something different that I ‘d probably won’t have the opportunity to try again. I’m sure you would have tried some gut wrenching dishes on your Trail of Genghis Khan trip. What was the worst one that you tried that you found the most unpalatable?

Tim Cope: To begin with I found freshly boiled intestine filled with blood quite difficult to stomach at breakfast. However, by the end, I had come to appreciate the miracle of life on the steppe – that the thin pickings of grass out there can be transformed into fat and meat, and in turn support human life. I relished everything from barbecued camel head, to boiled sheep testicles, dried curd known as aral or kurt. One of my favourites was fermented camel milk at the height of the Kazakhstan summer – called ‘shubat.’

Mongolian People

The Travel Tart: I found it was almost essential to know a bit of Russian in Kazakhstan. My mantra of knowing 5 words in every language to get by (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and beer!) was stretched there! Just wondering, how many of these Russian swear words have you manged to learn? And like myself, have you ever used them whilst flying on a barely airworthy ex Soviet Union era plane? ;P

Tim Cope: I’ve been learning Russian since I was 19. In fact back in 1999 when I was holed up in a small Russian village with frostbite during my cycling journey, my host, Baba Galya, taught me the foundations of ‘Mat’ – the language of swearing in Russian. I remember arriving once in a Kazakh village. A man came out and upon sight of us exclaimed something along the lines of:

“What the dick? Yes, the weather here is really dicky, but we have grass up to the dick?”

It was a very endearing greeting, and one of the softer of those that I could repeat here.

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I remember flying in a helicopter once in Russia. It was winter, my mum had come to visit me, and I was taking her out to a famous island called Kizhi which is on lake Onega in Russia’s north west. The journey cost about fifty cents, and we shared with fishermen carrying their catch, people with bags of new year shopping, and new year trees, even a cat. It was a bit perturbing to see the large gaps in the floor structure of the helicopter through which one could view the frozen lake below.

How To Drink Vodka

The Travel Tart: Ha ha, brilliant! I’ll remember those dick quotes the next time I need to speak Russian! What was the single biggest lesson you learnt on your three year trip following the footsteps of Genghis Khan? I’m sure you would have learnt a truckload from this journey!

Tim Cope: Well….I just spent 4 years writing the book about the journey, so it seems a but cheap to offer you a simple answer. But at the risk of sounding simple, I would say that the Kazakh saying ‘If you must rush in life….rush slowly’ has had the biggest effect on me. I learnt that while holed up in a gold mining village for three months, some of it with two alcoholics who boiled up some memorable street pigeon on Christmas eve… patience, resilience, and being tolerant of others is the key to living happy, long, and overcoming the odds.

World Expeditions

The Travel Tart: I see you’ve also been in North Korea, a place notoriously difficult to enter. What’s it like? Many people like myself only know the Team America: World Police version, but I’m sure there’s a lot more underneath the surface of this country which is often parodied and pitied at the same time. Did you fly the one star airline, Air Koryo?

Tim Cope: It was a long time ago, in 2003, but I still have some vivid memories. I was in Korea with the Australian Society Of Travel Writers, and was lucky to be part of a group to cross the border by car to the diamond mountains where they were holding a lot of family reunions at the time. We were cut off from getting any real insight into the villages because every time we wandered off a side street a little policeman or woman would blow a whistle and raise a red flag and we would be ushered back to where we were allowed. Apart from the stern look on the border guards faces, the beautiful mountains, and a north Korean man who explained to me that their leader was to them, what god is to Christians, I will never forget driving back across the border to South Korea. It was only minutes into South Korea before there were billboards advertising coca cola, and Samsung etc etc, and it make me wonder how different that was to the propaganda splashed across the hillsides of North Korea….

How To Load A Horse

The Travel Tart: Do you have any plans to do another really long overland journey anytime soon?

Tim Cope: At the moment I am concentrating on my writing. I am planning a young adults version of the book, and an illustrated picture story book. In the future I have many ideas….I’d like to travel from India to Europe on the trail of the Roma people (gypsies), spend a year with a nomad family, and cross Tibet.

The Travel Tart: And finally, where was the place when you first thought, hell yeah I love travelling.

Tim Cope: When I was 16 and I went to Nepal – for a country kid, trekking there with a school group just shattered the parochial view I had of the world. In the culture I could see that there were limitless ways in which to live and approach life, and for me doing something physically demanding was a vehicle for getting into the fabric of a society and landscape that I had hitherto known nothing about.

National Geographic Adventure

The Travel Tart: Thanks for your time Tim, and more happy endless travel to you!

That was a great interview! Anyway. make sure you check out the ‘On The Trail of Genghis Khan‘ book to gain some itchy feet!

I might even try to hop on a horse again..!


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