Who is Tim?
Tim Cope is a 28-year old from Australia who has previously spent two and a half years travelling Russia, Siberia and Mongolia by bicycle, rowboat, and many other means. He speaks fluent Russian, has worked as a guide in Antarctica, and most of all enjoys coming to know people in their home environments by traveling in traditional and local ways. Sharing his experiences through writing and film is his passion-turned career, and to date he is the author of ‘Off the Rails: Moscow to Beijing by Bike’ (Penguin 2003), and maker of two documentary films for ABC Australia and National Geographic. Tim was awarded Australian Adventurer of the Year 2006, and is a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.
Where did the inspiration come from to ride horses from Mongolia to Hungary?
In 2000 during the latter stages of a cycling epic from Moscow to Beijing with his mate Chris, Tim found himself in the Gobi desert pushing his bike through sand and increasingly frustrated with being limited to tracks in such an open landscape. Every now and then horsemen would suddenly appear from over the horizon, rush towards them, and then gallop off in an equally random direction. Tim was struck not only by these people who seemed to live in a forgotten world of mounted warriors but by the incredible freedom that these horsemen traveled with. Although Mongolia today is considered unique as a land where the nomad lifestyle has survived intact, it fascinated Tim to think that these horsemen with their collapsible felt tents once lived a nomadic existence right across the breadth of the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia to Hungary. Further intriguing was that it was from this largely empty landscape that came one of the greatest world leaders of all time: Ghengis Khan.
Although on the back end of a journey and looking forward to some of the comforts of home, a question was nagging; if the steppe used to be connected as one, then did the many people scattered in todays modern world from here to Europe still have a common culture and connections? Were there still traces of the Mongols and Ghengis Khan to be found in the minds of steppe dwellers in Europe? Who were the nomads and what was their lifestlye like? What would it have been like as a Mongol to leave his home and arrive in Europe? There was only one way to find out.
During the unfolding journey, that would only begin four years later, he dreamed to write a book, and make a film, bringing to life the characters, culture, and history of the steppe for others.
On a personal note, Tim was inspired by a sense of adventure and wish to come to know the intricate human face of this expansive part of the world that often falls into a 'bermuda triangle' type hole in knowledge of geography in the west.
The era of exploring unknown continents and great untrodden mountains may be in the past, but Tim believes that learning about the world around us can be just as revealing, adventurous, and valuable now in the 21st century as it has always been.
Discovering the nomad rulers of the greatest empire in History
The Mongol Empire at its height stretched from China to Iraq, Poland to Indonesia, and to this day remains as the largest empire in history. In today's world it may surprise some that three Billion people (half the worlds population) live in lands conquered by Ghengis Khan and the Mongols. What made this empire stand out to Tim even more than its incredible proportions or notorious legends of barbary, is that its rulers in our eyes were fundamentally different: they were nomads.
The steppe and nomadism has always remained alien and on the very edge of the European consciousness. Perhaps it is due to this that the average European today knows little more about the people of Eurasia and the Mongol Empire now than his ancestors did 800 years ago when mounted hordes were threatening to take over the entire known world. So who were these nomads and where did they come from?
By traveling on horseback through the very conditions that shaped these once nomadic world leaders Tim’s aim was to learn about the nomad way of life from a human story point of view and imagine what it might have been like for a Mongol leaving his home on the steppe and arriving in Europe. Furthermore, Tim was inspired to understand in what ways the Mongols and nomads in general had contributed to the development of the modern world. Although we usually only hear of the destruction and cruelty of Ghengis and the Mongols, any empire as large and long lasting as theirs must have also had some very constructive and ingenious achievements to its name.
Why and how by Horse?
Travelling specifically by horse was the logical decision since nomads of the steppe were the first people in history to tame and ride horses, and it was this great advancement that brought them into Europe and conflict with the sedentary world. Incidentally, the horse, and horsemanship, which initially gave nomads the military edge over Europe, may be considered in the end the greatest contribution by nomads to the modern world.
The horse still plays a central role in the life, and culture of all steppe societies and so arriving with his caravan of three mounts would allow Tim to know the heart mind and soul of the steppe nomad. In addition, horses would allow Tim to experience a craved for sense of freedom and adventure, and importantly offer an opportunity to be a participant in the communities he passed through, rather than just an observer.
Although Tim had almost no experience with horses, he was able to research the art of travelling by horse largely through an organisation called the 'Long Riders Guild.' Tim would have three horses: two pack horses (one for carrying grain, the other for carrying equipment) and the third would be a riding mount. In some areas of rough terrain walking by foot or incorporating camels would also be essential.
Who are Tim's heroic equines?
With Tim at the end will be the animals in which he has trusted, and who are the real heroes of this epic trek.
Taskonir (which means Brown stone in Kazakh) is a 14 year old Gelding. and has been Tims main reliable mount since Tim bought him in the Altai region of Kazakhstan in October 2004.
Ogonyok, a tough pack horse up to the task of carrying heavy loads, is a seven year old gelding who is also from the Altai of Kazakhstan.
Kok (which means 'green' in Kazakh) is a young five year old gelding, and a relative necomer to the team.
Together these horses have weathered all of the extremes that Tim has encountered an more. They are all tough steppe breeds, who unlike sedentary animals can survive in any temperature without cover.
Historically it was these kinds of horses that allowed Ghengis khan and the Mongols to travel so far and fast. The steppe breeds can survive without hay and grain, and in Winter are accustomed to digging through the ice and snow to find pasture.
Who is Tigon the honourable travelling dog?
Although Tim has travelled solo for most of the journey, he has not been entirely alone. In late in 2004 he was given a black Kazakh hunting dog as a gift called 'Tigon'- his name is the Kazakh word for hawk or fast wind. It was owned by a young disabled Kazakh boy, whose father 'Aset' accompanied Tim by horse for ten days. Upon departing Aset said 'Tim, take Tigon. You need a friend, heater, and protection on your long winter nights.' The very next day Tim phoned home via satelite to Australia to discover that the family pet dog had died. Tim took this as an omen, and ever since Tigon has become an invaluable companion with whom Tim could not do without.
Tigon has grown up on the road and parallel adventures include being stolen, resuscitated in a sauna with raw eggs and vodka, being hit by a car, but most importantly accepted as an honoured guest right across Eurasia leaving many friends and memories in his past. Like a true reincarnation of Ghengis Khan he has been marking his territory across the globe and now probably has the largest territory of any dog on earth.
Usually Tigon can be seen running ahead, leading the way, or protecting Tim from dangerous sheep and cows!
Tim plans to eventually take Tigon to Australia and write a children's book about this young fearless canine traveller.
What were the dangers, difficulties and misadventures, he things that scared you?
The dangers on such a long and unknown journey were wide and varied. Before embarking Tim was warned that the horses could 'turn him to dust in an instant.' Dealing with such powerful animals as an inexperienced horsemen was one potential danger, but what worried Tim more was the possibilty of the horses galloping away and leaving Tim stranded in the wilds of the steppe- especially in the depths of winter. This kind of journey involves a symbiosis with the horses, and without the horses, Tims own survival would be in question.
In the end mishaps when he and the horses came close to disaster include: a horse falling off a bridge, horses galloping off in a panic with all the gear stranding Tim at night (this happened near Astrakhan in Russia), a horse sinking in a swamp and almost drowning, attacks by wild stallions in Spring on the steppe. Thirteen horses have participated in the journey, one of which was left behind after tragically stepping on a long rusty nail that caused an infection in the bone.
Along the way there were constant warnings of wolves which in winter were rumoured to hunt in packs and said to attack in winter when hunting during the mating season. For this Tim had firecrackers to warn the wolves away. On one occasion in Mongolia his camp was surrounded by howling wolves which he kept at bay by keeping a camp fire going all night.
As they say in Russian, the most dangerous wolf is that which walks on two legs. On three occasions Tims horses were stolen in the night....but on every occasion he was miraculously able to recover them.
The other main warnings and real dangers were those inherent in such an extreme environment: getting lost in blizzards in the minus forties on featureless steppe, running out of water in the desert, and generally coping alone in the face of problems.
The fears for Tim personally were always the uncertainty and unknown with so many unpredictable variables. He knew that one wrong move at the wrong time could spell the end.
There were of course times when he sorely missed the closeness of family and friends and would have done anything for a break from the journey, even for a day. This experience taught Tim much about the importance of family and friends in life in general.
What was the most challenging moment?
Having travelled for two and a half years and with the toughest terrain and majority of distance behind him Tim was in Southern Ukraine heading into winter. Ahead lay a mere 1500km to the Danube river in Hungary and it it seemed that within a few months he would be home safe and sound.
On the 18th of November however Tims world was turned upside down. Via satellite phone Tim discovered that his father, Andrew Cope, had just been killed in a tragic car accident. Tim left his horses for Australia immediately. Andrew had had a huge impact on Tims decision to pursue a life of travel and adventure and his relationship had ironically been close from afar during the journey.
The irony for Tim could not have starker; here he was living an adventure that had so many inherent risks that many would consider it dangerous, yet here was his father killed just 50km from home in a car! Tims world, like that of his two brothers, sister, and his mother Anne came to a halt. To deal with his dads death Tim would have to draw on much of what he had learnt from the nomads and their profound understanding of the transience of life.
What Tim considered would be a doddle to the end would actually now be the hardest part of his journey. In April he saddled up to continue, this time more aware than ever that he was alone.
Why did you choose a recumbent bike to ride across Russia?
We chose recumbents for various reasons: 1. Comfort and style: The layback position, much like a deck-chair on wheels, meant goodbye to sore bums and aching necks and backs. The position creates a great perspective, much like having a real-life movie screen in front of you all day. 2. Carrying capacity: We were also able to carry much more gear with a full backpack along with four panniers, a daypack and a toolkit- up to about 70kg without fuss. 3. Unique: the unique character we knew would be an icebreaker and conversation starter, especially in Russia. Secretly I was hoping that the novelty of the thing would distract me from the pain- I had never ridden anywhere near that distance before. If I was going to do the journey again I would no doubt choose a recumbent.
How do you get extended visas for Russia?
It is actually very simple to acquire a visa. We were able to get 12 month visas within a couple of weeks. The best way I have discovered is through a travel agent in Helsnki, Finland, who specializes in Russian visas. Go to their website (www.rtt-matkapalvelut.fi) to find more details- click on the english version if you don't speak Finnish! Everyone there speaks very good English and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in the world. You just need to send them your passport and all will be organised hassle free.
How are Tim’s toes?
My toes are actually pretty good after the frostbite incident during the cycling journey. They are still pretty numb and get cold easily, but you can’t tell to look at them.
What is your next journey?
My next journey is to ride a horse from Mongolia to Hungary, in the footsteps of Ghengiss Khaan. It will be across Kazakhstan, krygyzstan, Russia, Ukraine, and Romania along the way.
How much have your journeys cost?
Our bicycle journey cost a total of 3-4 dollars a day. When we began I estimated that I had 2000 Australian dollars to spend for the 14 months it took us to ride to Beijing. Other costs including gear, the bikes, plane tickets, insurance etc meant that it cost us each a total of 10,000 dollars. The Yenisey journey was more expensive mainly because of upgrades to filming and photography equipment. We found the boat for free and still probably lived on about 10 dollars a day.
Did Chris get married after the cycling adventure?
You will have to read the book to find out...don't want to spoil the surprise.
Are you and Chris still good friends?
Well, after the journey we didn't see eachother or talk too much for about a year. During such a long trip you get to know eachother very well- the good and the bad. We needed time apart. Writing the book was a chance for us to look at the issues between us from far more favourable conditions (ie after a long sleep, a bowl of vita-brits and a shower as being tired, hungry, dirty, and worn out). In this way it was easier to understand eachother's point of view and so yes, we smoothed most problems and are very good friends. When you share something special like that you have a special relationship and connection like with no other person. It is unlikely that we will journey on a big adventure together again, but who knows!