Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ghengis Khan Rides Again

. . . on the silver screen, in the newly-released Mongol (links to trailers here), and in the person of a young Australian adventurer and writer named Tim Cope,
who recently completed a 3.5-year journey on horseback, from Mongolia to Hungary, on the trail laid down by Ghengis Khan's warriors in the 13th century .

A couple of weeks ago, the AP covered Tim Cope’s September arrival in Opusztaszer, Hungary, the end point of an ambitious effort that began in Kharkorin, Mongolia in June 2004. Fifteen months of the journey was spent crossing Kazakhstan, from the Altai mountains east of Ust-Kamanogorsk, south and west through the Betpak Dala desert (to miss the northern winter), though the myraid canals leading to the devastated Aral Sea, and finally to the north Caspian, over the Ural River into Europe, through to the Russian region of Kalmykia. After so much focus on the Silk Road routes through Central Asia, which almost entirely skirt Kazakhstan, it’s welcome and fascinating to read about a trek through the geographic heart of the region, and one that dwells in the villages and uninhabited steppe rather than the urban areas.

Cope originally planned the entire 10,000 km (6,200 mile) journey to take 18 months, but he seriously underestimated both complication time (sick animals, theft, personal illness, and red tape) and local hospitality. Time and time again, his intended departure date from one Kazakh village or another is delayed by a party, a wedding invitation, or just a bunch of guys toasting all night.
A heartening evening of toasts, food, and conversation ensued and we left in the morning feeling as if we were leaving old friends. That seems to be the feeling I have when I leave most Kazak homes. They are genuine when they say: ‘Meet once and you are a friend, meet twice and you are family.’ 19 November 2004
Like the British adventurer Burnaby, Cope undertook his journey pretty much for the heck of it. Unlike Burnaby, Cope’s quest also included online journaling, lots of beautiful photographs, and a planned documentary film. You can wait for the book, or you can read Cope’s journal/blog entries in his On The Trail of Ghengis Khan. It’s part introspection, part description and part insight into the regions travelled.

The pace and novelty of horseback travel opened doors into local life that higher-level travellers never see.
In the Betpak Dala one evening, I took off on a motorbike with a young local herder. We spent a few hours with the family as they set up their Yurt tent. The kids played, and sang, a joy and life in their eyes that I have never seen in village Kazaks. This was the equivalent of summer holidays and moving down to the beach for summer. A lamb was slaughtered, yards were built for the sheep and cattle, and by sunset everyone was sitting back sipping fresh yoghurt. The knowledge of the Betpak Dala of these people was so far beyond my comprehension. As they told me, every little section of the steppe has its good time of year when there is fodder, and you can survive. But this is a very small window of opportunity and the nomad is forced to move and move. If you stay in one place too long then you might not make it back to the sands before winter hits. And if you leave the desert sands too late then there will not be enough grass left there to keep you going through the next winter. Even if there was grass all year round near the river dries up by August, sinking into the sands and will not return again until spring. I realised that my journey in contrary is not dictated by the seasons and grass as it probably should be- but by the limits of my Kazak visa and the need to head west. I just have to adjust and tackle, and get through. I envied this family and thought that if I had time I could easily spend a few months with them moving slowly north, then south again. 29 April 2005
A couple of memorable episodes and observations: in Kyzlorda, he meets a fellow who helps him out by finding pasture for the horses out in the country. But,
there was a fear in his eyes when he was in the village, and he told me quietly several times how terrible and impoverished these people lived. It was a relief when he was gone- I felt much more at home with these village people who had a far better understanding of the reality of my journey. The gulf between city and village life in Kazakhstan is really quite astounding. There are two economies and two countries within this one state. 17 April 2005
Then, toward the end of the journey, near the eastern Caspian, Cope is royally swindled by a local man with money and connections, a disaster in his words, which, combined with major visa hassles, delay him for several weeks

This October 2005 entry (written by Cope’s brother) sums up the Kazakhstan experience:
Tim has basically crossed Kazakhstan from the widest points and along the way ticked over around 4500-5000km in real traveling distance. The distance however is an unhelpful measure of his experience- for example you can travel that distance in a mere three days on a train. What counts are the more than 70 families that took Tim in (plus the many others who looked after him), the hundreds and hundred of stories they shared, and the openness with which they revealed the secrets of their culture and homeland. Distance also becomes irrelevant when it is the conditions that make things tough and you are on horseback: no shortcuts. In winter he experienced lows of –48 degrees Celsius, and in summer 53 degrees. Finding water and pasture is what has dictated the journey from the very beginning, and in the desert regions of central/western Kazakhstan, Tim and his horses were tested to their limits. During this sometimes exhausting and patience testing process Tim has come to far more intimately understand the reality of life on the steppe and the mentality of the nomad.
After finally getting permission to enter Russia with 3 horses and his Kazakh dog Tigon, Cope spent another 15 months riding through Russia and Ukraine before arriving in Hungary in August 2007.

But, you want to know, what about the saiga?
Though he travelled by horseback and camel through the heart of Kazakhtan’s saiga territory, Cope did not see any of the endearing ungulates until he reached Russian Kalmykia. In this region is another wildlife sanctuary created to protect the saiga, and Cope describes his sighting of the saiga and the dedication of the sanctuary director in Astrakhan Oblast: Freezing Volga, Saiga, Caucasus meets steppe (27/1/06).

All photographs from Tim Cope

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