An Explorer in Asia

by Basha O'Reilly FRGS

Continuing our "Voices of Exploration" series, here Basha interviews Tim Cope.

Tim Cope -National Geographic Adventure Honoree 2007, Australian Adventurer of the year 2006 - is a 34 year old from Gippsland, Victoria (Australia), who is pursuing a life of adventure, writing, and film. Tim, who speaks fluent Russian, and guides in Siberia, and Mongolia, has spent the best part of a decade travelling Russia, Mongolia, and Central Asia by bicycle, row boat, skis, horse, camel and many other means. Most of all Tim enjoys coming to know people in their home environments by travelling in traditional and local ways. His most renowned journey was a three and a half year odyssey from Mongolia to Hungary by horse on the trail of Genghis Khan and in the spirit of the nomads of the steppe. Tim's book, "On the Trail of Genghis Khan", has recently been published.

How and when did you start riding?

My first memory on a horse was when I was 7 years old. I was bucked off by a horse at my parents home and broke my arm quite badly (my father had a shortlived experiment with a horse on our hobby farm). I was petrified of horses from that day on, but became entranced by the nomads of Mongolia in 2000 when I was travelling through on bicycle – these are people who have lived 24/7 with their horses, possibly for as long as the horse has been domesticated at least 5,500 years ago. To see them riding what is essentially indigenous animal left me with the impression of a land where people live very much within the web of life, and have a symbiosis with their fellow animals and landscape that I had never witnessed.

My first real ride was in 2004 when I joined a 5 day packhorse trip over the Victorian Alps in Victoria. That helped me a great deal with learning the principles of packing.

Did you ever imagine becoming an equestrian explorer?

Not until I read about Mannerheim [Note: Historical Long Rider Carl Gustaf Mannerheim], who explored Central Asia on horseback in the early 20th century. Then later when I witnessed the Mongols (info about this in my first answer) my interest coalesced. Horses to me, were, and are a way of breaking free of the shackles of roads and fences, the structure that dictates our sedentary lives, and of course horses enabled me to transcend time and place, and bridge with the land in a way that is impossible by any other means.

Who inspired you to become a Long Rider, and why?

Mannerheim certainly was the first Long Rider that I had ever heard of, and his journeys inspired in me this concept that there were vast and scattered nations of interrelated people, a thread of connection between which could be easily traversed on horseback given that the horse is the common heritage for all peoples of the steppe.

In reality though, my biggest inspiration were the original long riders – the nomads of the steppe, who, under leaders, like Genghis Khan, set off on epic journeys that are unfathomable in the modern era. Here were a people for whom the horse was a companion, not a working slave, and who would set out in -50 degrees of frost, marmot oil painted on their faces, carrying little more than some dried curd and meat in their cloaks for sustenance. The nomads of the steppe have learned to see and think like the horse, and I wanted to know what it was like to live in this world where people move with the seasons, according o the needs of their animals, rather than trying to control the environment and their animals for their own convenience.  I agree with Bjarke Rink that the golden era of horsemanship, if there was one, must have been deep back in time on the Eurasian steppe when man lived and died by his horse’s side.

What is your favourite equestrian travel book, and why?

My favourite is Henning Haslund – Mongolian Adventure. Henning I believe captured the spirit of the steppe people, and their inherently free life, the wondrous nature of their communion with the landscape, and the duality of enemy-friend, cold-heat, cruelty-kindness that is so much a part of life on the harsh plateaus, deserts, and plains of the Eurasian steppe.

There is a vacuum of knowledge regarding equestrian travel. How did you prepare for your journey?

The Long Riders guild was my most important and valuable resource. As I learnt, the horse community in general can be very dogmatic in their views, and knowledge is very much specific to specialist fields – stock horsemanship, trail riding, racing, camp-drafting, dressage etc. What I needed to learn was how to travel with horses and live with them 24/7. There was no paddock I could retire them to in the event of an injury, I just needed to prevent injury at all costs, find grass, grain, water and shelter, and ensure that I had the most practical and kind equipment. Everything from  horse rustling, wolves, border bureaucracy had to be taken into account – things that the average horseman does not really have experience with.

Through the Long Riders Guild I was able to sift out some great knowledge from other long riders, and some pearls of wisdom from more conventional horsemen and women in Australia.

During his journey from Mongolia to Hungary, Tim became the first Long Rider to be made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society while still in the saddle.

During your equestrian journey, what was the most dangerous situation you encountered?

There were many – wolves, heat, frost, lack of grass, and even thieves. But the greatest threat I found, was arriving in the violence of industrial towns, where the clash of steel, roads, and expedient attitudes of people inspired more fear in my and my horses than even the wildest of winter storms, or wolves. Here, it was so hard to protect the animals, and find them food. In Akbakai, a bankrupt gold mining town in Kazakhstan, I found myself having to set the horses free into the winter storms so they would not starve and would not be under threat of being eaten. During my time there my dog Tigon was stolen by unemployed mine workers who were catching stray and domestic dogs to survive. He was rescued by a friend of mine after 7 days of being lost – revived with vodka and raw eggs in a sauna and could walk 3 weeks later!

Heading towards the Betpak Dala (the Starving Steppe).

I also became caught in a violent conflict between Tatars and Russians in Crimea and was very nearly beaten after being mistaken by Tatars as Russian provocateur.

The closest I came to being killed was when a horse kicked out from behind at me. I hunched forward and the hooves nipped by the hair on the back of my head, missing my skull by a millimetre or two 

You must have met thousands of people on your journey. How did most of them react to you and your message?

When I arrived in Hungary in the spirit of the Mongols, one may have reasonably expected a less than warm response – after all, the Mongols razed Hungary in the 13th century during their conquest of central and Eastern Europe. However, to the contrary, the Hungarians took me under their wing, and I was escorted by a sortie of horsemen all the way to the Danube, without having to put up the tent more than once or twice. My journey after all had great significance for the Hungarians – their ancestors, the Magyars were horseback nomads who rode out of Kazakhstan/south Siberia in the 9th century, and conquered the Carpathian basin. In reality, the Hungarians I met seemed to have come to the conclusion that in the scheme of things, all of the nomadic peoples had coalesced into a broad brotherhood of nomadic society.

The generous Hungarian reception was very reflective of the way that I was taken in during most stages of my journey. To The Kazakhs who have lived through great trauma in the 20th century (one-third of the population starved to death in artificial famine 1930-32, the nomadic way of life uprooted only for the Soviet state to collapse anyway in 1990), I was riding into their culture, and it brought to life many of their traditions that otherwise lie dormant. In summer, for example, I would ride through the night to avoid 50 degrees of heat, and arrive in small communities desperate to find shelter and water. I was vulnerable, and at their mercy, and invariably, I was taken in like a long lost son. There is a tradition that the first time as a guest among Kazakhs you are a friend, second time you are part of the family, and third time you can stay for life. That is genuinely how I felt.

Sometimes Tim had to put Tigon on a leash in the Ukraine and Russia because the shepherds threatened to shoot at him, or because he might be killed by eating rat poison.

In Crimea, I sympathised with the Tatars – the original nomads of the Crimean steppe), in the Carpathians it was the horseback Hutsuls who ride the descendents of Mongol horses left behind from their European campaigns, on the Kuban it was the Cossacks, and in Kalmykia it was the Kalmys (descendants of Mongols who migrated to the Caspian region in the 17th century) – all people for whom my trip shared a special significance. All peoples found great pride in the way that I was honouring their heritage, and I believe that is why I was shown such great generosity of spirit…..mind you on a horse I also partook in other not so hospitable traditions, such as horse rustling, and I learned from hard experience that the same person who can shower one with food and shelter can attempt to steal one’s horse too. But that meant that I was firmly in their world and I had to take it as a compliment – I had horses that were worth stealing, worth falling in love with, and therefore worth treasuring and protecting!

Tim filming a herd of camels.

What is the most difficult sacrifice you have made to become an equestrian explorer?

I can’t think of one, I can only think of the great sacrifices we make when we choose convenience and control, over connection to our environment and a symbiotic relationship with our animals. Of course, travelling by horse, life for nomads, one is tied to the animals 24/7 – there are no holidays, there are no breaks, there is no tying them up in a hotel foyer and getting a nights rest in luxury…but for me that does not come close to sacrifice anyway.

I guess on the other hand, I could say that I sacrificed, in my case, the opportunity to have a long term relationship, but that is probably because I chose to travel solo.

What do you perceive as being the greatest threat to equestrian travel?

Roads, fences, private land, and borders with bureaucracy that totally ignores the long history of horses as a mode of travel.  

What equipment do you always take on your journeys?

Diary is crucial, and nowadays my dog Tigon. The Custom Pack Rigging pack saddle and hard plastic packing boxes were bombproof backbone of my journey and I would not go on another equestrian journey without them.  

What is the most important advice you would give to a would-be Long Rider?

Be sure that you rush slowly, pack lightly (‘even a needle is weight’), and do not expect it to be easy…trust that your passion to overcome all odds will be ignited by the friendship formed in the saddle with people and your loyal equine companions.


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