Author Talk with Tim Cope
On the Trail of Genghis Khan
Talks / Lecture
In words and images Tim Cope shares his epic adventure as he journeyed through the land of the nomads following in the footsteps of Genghis Khan’s conquering armies.
Transcript of ‘Author Talk with Tim Cope
Speakers: Stuart Baines (SB), Tim Cope (TC), Audience (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
SB: Good evening, everybody. Way more people than we thought were coming along, we’re very pleasantly surprised, it’s fantastic. Thank you for coming along to your National Library. I’m Stuart Baines, the Library’s Assistant Director of Community Outreach. Just before we kick off if you have mobile phones on you can you please switch them to silent? Be great, thank you. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
I’m delighted so many of you have come along tonight. Tim is a National Geographic Adventure Honorary and the Australian Adventurer of the Year for 2006 who has pursued a life of adventure, life and documentary film. If that’s not enough he speaks fluent Russian, guides in Serbia and Mongolia, has spent the best part of a decade travelling across Russia, Mongolia and central Asia by bicycle, rowboat, skis, horse and camel. His most renown 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 Steppes. I’m exhausted just thinking about all that. Tim’s journey produced 137 hours of film and four-and-a-half years of writing which resulted in his 2010 documentary series, The Trail of Genghis Khan, and his award-winning book, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, An Epic Journey Through the Land of The Nomads, published by Bloomsbury in 2013. Tonight Tim will share his experiences and adventures with you but before Tim comes to the stage we’ll whet your appetite with a short video.
“When I was 20 years old my friend, Chris, and I were cycling across Mongolia. While struggling through the Gobi Desert one day these amazing wild horsemen came galloping from over the horizon. They headed off to places that our bikes could never have gone. These people had a world without boundaries from here in Mongolia stretched the great Eurasian Steppes to Hungary and their ancestors who were once warriors who crossed this vast space. It inspired in me a dream, to live the life of a nomad and ride a horse from Mongolia to the Danube. I never imagined what lay before me, long nights alone menaced by wolves and thieves, impossible mountain passes and the most extreme climate on earth. I’d even be caught in a war between sedentary and nomad people, and face a personal tragedy that almost ended my journey. But I was driven on by an old nomad wisdom, to understand the wolf you must put on the skin of a wolf and see through its eyes.”
Ladies and gentlemen, can you please welcome Tim.
TC: I thought I’d start tonight right back where the embryo of this journey was born in a sense and that was here in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia when I was 21 years old, about 16 years ago now. At this stage my friend, Chris, and I were in the ... 12 months in fact into a journey by bike to cross Russia to Beijing. We’d had this kind of dream that we’d head off on a budget of $2 a day across Russia, Siberia with the aim of finishing in Tiananmen Square. By this stage we were ... you can see we’re looking a bit worse for wear. There were two main reasons to celebrate, we’d just broken our record for consecutive day without a wash which was about three or four weeks and we’d also just experienced my bike snapping in half for the second time in the journey but by this stage we’d been through the snow. Early on in the journey we’d had one of our first adventures or misadventures, we’d been riding along in -15, -20, getting colder and colder when in this village called Barbushkna [? 4:26] right up in the far north-west corner of Russia we were waived in by an old lady called Babagalia [? 4:27], a lovely old Babushka and she said you’re not going any further until you have some hot mushroom soup with us.
So we ... we of course went inside and as I sat there starting to defrost and melt I felt this terrible tingling in my toes and eventually discreetly pulled the socks off under the kitchen table and there were these great big purple extensions to my big toes and I kind of ... I nudged my friend, Chris, who I’d met here actually at ANU during my six months of university life and Chris shrugged, he was from Bathurst, never really seen snow or been in the cold, Babagalia looked down and screamed out this word, obmorozheniye, which of course means frost bite in Russian and then she used all manner of expletives, picked up our cheap running shoes, tossed them out the door, gave me some knee-high felt boots known as valnakey [? 5:20] and then dragged us both down to the local doctor’s clinic, straight past the queue, into the room, the guy let me down onto a bench, got the scissors out and went snip, snip. These couple of bits of flesh were tossed in the bin and he looked back with this great big grin on his face and said well, don’t worry about it, I’m not going to charge you for this operation but if you wouldn’t mind bringing me a baby kangaroo as a gift when you come back from Australia, that’d be great.
Fortunately the frost bite hadn’t been that bad, in fact it had repaired itself within two or three weeks and Babagalia had ... by this stage had become like both of our surrogate grand ... Russian grandmother. In fact I would stay in touch with Babagalia for many, many years until she unfortunately passed away about four years ago. She’d cook up these enormous breakfasts, always served three shots of vodka before the porridge and it really set the tone for our journey, that adventure for me and particularly on this trip was actually all about finding a way into the local culture and the people, it was a vehicle for getting to know their culture, their history as well as of course a little bit about myself.
We’d then eventually been through the melting snows of spring where the road ran out, where you pushed along the barm, the bicarlamuskimuskastral [? 6:47], and this construction lasted for about a day before we realised that the trains would come unpredictably from both directions on both lines. One day I met this man and he kind of epitomised in many ways the many Siberian families we stayed with and he stopped in the middle of the road and said right, you’re having three shots of vodka with me and I said well it’d be a little bit difficult to have three shots and then do another 80km of bike-riding today and he became increasingly mad, his face went beetroot red and he said something like well, you think it’s easy to drive a truck after three shots of vodka? And as I ... we wobbled off down the road it kind of dawned on me that this spoke volumes about these people going through a very, very difficult transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were taking every opportunity to embrace the moment, to celebrate, to make friends.
But here we were in the Gobi Desert as I said and it ... we could never have been prepared for what we witnessed, for me at least, arriving there, pushing our bikes through this sand and suddenly seeing this little dot that would grow and grow over the horizon, a man or a woman on a horse. They’d come over, perhaps give us a handful of dried curd known as arul [? 8:07] or a swig of fermented mare’s milk and then off they’d go in the other direction leaving us feeling like wimpy tourists, just pushing our bikes through their land where it can be you know -40 or 50 in the winter, can be 40 or 50 degrees of heat in the summer and unlike where I grew up they only had a couple of inches of tent felt to insulate them from the extremes. But much more than that what really struck me was that this was a land without fences, a land where the people still move with the seasons. It’s the kind of vision that I probably dreamt of as a child growing up in Gippsland, of seeing this kind of unadulterated landscape precolonial times if you like. I wanted to know a lot more and to experience that connection to nature that nomads have and that freedom as well.
And when I went home to Australia I started to learn more and more about the ancestors of the modern-day Mongols who of course under Genghis Khan went on those great journeys from Asia into Europe and further afield, creating the largest land empire ... contiguous land empire the world’s ever seen. And what really interested me of course wasn’t the war path of Genghis Khan or his soldiers, it was the fact that here was the leader of the largest contiguous land I’d ever been and he wasn’t a king sitting on a throne in a castle somewhere in Rome or Beijing, he was in fact a nomad who lived his entire life on horseback, died at the age of 72 apparently from falling off a horse. There was a lot more to nomadic culture than many of us know and knew. So one day when I was walking the dog with my mum back in Gippsland I said to her that I’d like to ride a horse from the Karakorum, across what’s known as the Great Eurasian Steppes as far as the Danube River in Hungary which is where the Steppes kind of tapers off.
Mum kind of stopped, looked back a bit speechless. She knew just as well as I that I couldn’t ride a horse. In fact I was still terrified of these big animals ever since I was ... I’d been ... I was seven when I was bucked off a horse at home, broken my arm and been shipped off to hospital. But I was determined to at least give this idea a shot. I wanted to go from east to west because I wanted to learn about nomadic life in Mongolia firsthand, carry that banner or the spirit of the nomads west and come back into Europe looking at sedentary life through the prism of their world. And it wasn’t just the Mongols of course that interested me, I wanted to understand who the Kazaks were who occupied that ... the largest Steppes nation at the core of the continent, the Kalmyks whose ancestors were the last people to make the great trek from A ... from Europe into Asia and ... oh sorry, from Asia into Europe and then back again. I wanted to know about the Cossacks, the mercenaries of the Steppes ... southern Steppes of Russia, the Crimean Tartars who Stalin accused of being the descendants of Mongol invaders, the Hutsuls who still live a seminomadic life in the high Carpathians of Ukraine and finally the Hungarians whose ancestors, the Majars, also came riding out of Asia as nomads about 1,000 years ago. But there was a lot of water to go under the bridge before I could start this journey and you might be wondering you know where did the inspiration come from. Hopefully that’ll become obvious as this story evolves.
But this was about three or four years later after that first moment on the bike, this man, Ochitobat [? 11:52], and ... sold me his ... my first horse and he and his mates looked on and said well what are you going to do when the wolves attack? What happens when the thieves steal your horses? Why aren’t you carrying a gun? And I was a little bit taken aback, it wasn’t the kind of journey I’d pictured in my mind, I’d pictured putting the gear on the back of my animals and heading west, compass in one hand, no Monday to Friday, no 9 to 5, complete and utter freedom. In fact one of my friends had said that all I had to do was keep following the setting sun and when the people started speaking French it would mean that I’d gone too far. And it was a fairly naïve and simplistic idea but in reality that’s part of what had drawn me to this journey. There was a simple ingredient, there was the horse, myself and that it’s ... in itself would connect 6,000 years of horseback nomadic history and of course all these different countries and cultures that have since become separate with modern day state boundaries. And I think you do need to start any big expedition with a pinch of naivete, it’s a virtue that’s often overlooked. Mind you the trip didn’t start very well.
“I heard this terrible neighing from my horse and so I [unclear 13:15] in the dark and just discovered probably the worst thing possible, two horses were gone. Come back.”
So that didn’t work obviously but this was five days into the trip. I’d been planning for 18 months by this stage, I’d shipped all my gear to Mongolia, finally bought the horses, the previous evening had been like that Utopia dream that I’d had in my mind, this big oceanic space of grassland, people bringing their animals in for milking, kids galloping around bareback but at 3 in the morning it had become pitch black, the wind was wrapping at my tent and I could just hear these two horses galloping off into the night. And I didn’t want to believe they were mine until I realised that there was also a sniggering sound. By the time I’d crawled out it was pretty obvious that they’d been stolen. Fortunately one of my friends, Seren [? 14:10], had told me that if you don’t solve your problems in Mongolia before the sun comes up then you probably never will so I headed off on my one remaining horse of the three and miraculously really a couple of hours later, this great big herd came galloping over a hill and there were my animals at the tail end. The nomad nearby came up to me and he kind of intimated well I know they’re your horses, you must have tied them up really, really badly, they came to me themselves. And that didn’t explain where the halters had gone, the hobbles but he took me ... it didn’t really matter, he took me back to his home ... these are the felt tents that nomads once lived in right across the Steppes as far as Europe. He slaughtered a goat, we had some fermented mares’ milk and he eventually taught me what would become a crucial nomad proverb, a man on the Steppes without friends is as narrow as a finger and a man on the Steppes with friends is as wide as the Steppes.
Now it could have been these guys who stole them, these were the last people I spoke to before dark. With time I’d learn that ... however that horse-stealing was simply part and parcel of life out here. I’d learn that if someone was trying to steal my horse, that I should take it as a compliment, it meant that I had a horse that was worth treasuring, that was worth looking after. More than that I learnt that if someone can steal a horse and get away with it then the horse is more deserving of that owner than you anyway. In Kazakhstan I learnt about a tradition called barumka [? 15:44] which dictates that if someone can ... is good enough to steal a horse, you also have the right to steal it back although there are rules for it to be honourable, for example you need to be able to steal back your horse in broad daylight. The other thing is of course though that you’re allowed to steal the cattle of that family, the horses, you can even kidnap the wife of the thief until everything’s resolved and this crystallised in a very unusual way at one stage in Kazakhstan six months after this experience. I’d stopped at this little railway siding in the freezing cold in the dark desperate for water. One of the men came to me, a rail track worker, and said Tim, I’ve heard that there’s people coming to steal your horses tonight from a nearby town and I brushed it off, I said it couldn’t be possible, no one knows I’m here. But sure enough, middle of the night, crashing and banging, I leapt out. What had happened was, I could see this figure stumbling off in the dark. Someone had jumped on my horse, galloped away and then realised that my horse was still tied up and the horse had kind of somersaulted, he’d been thrown to the earth. The other track workers came out, we caught the thief, it was the same guy who’d warned me about thievery earlier that night.
Eventually the next morning he handed back my head torch and the hobbles that he’d also stolen and he said well done, according to Barantay [? 17:06] you’ve stolen my horse ... your horse back but please, now just take my wife but take her all the way to Hungary. And I kind of rode off in two minds as I often did on this trip, on one hand kind of terrified and feeling under threat, to lose a horse out here would be like losing your boat on the ocean but on the other hand there was nothing malicious, it was a privilege in a way to be part of this, this very ancient culture.
But going back to this original experience what I did learn was that I needed to take note, I needed to start breaking out of my own little dream world and getting to know the people and getting to know their ways no matter how different and how difficult it was. My editor later told me something when I was writing the manuscript that I think retrospectively it was very relevant. He said you should always be more ... when you’re confronted by something be more curious and less offended. Certainly had I been offended by the things that happened to me on this trip it would have been a miserable journey.
“This Mongolian system requires two people most of the time but these guys know what they’re doing because they pack up their girth [? 18:23] twice a year and off they go with all of their gears, could be up to 50 Ks away to their winter home.”
So I started to learn a little bit more about who these nomads really are and of course why they pack up and move with the seasons, putting their animals, their belongings, even their children on the back of camels or could be yaks in some areas, horses. I’ll never forget the day I took this photo was in the far west of Mongolia in part of the Altai Mountains and I’d been kind of clinging onto my horse for dear life, going along the edge of a gorge and suddenly in front of us this backdrop of rock and ice came a lady leading about six or seven camels down and she stopped with the lead camel ... knelt and she pulled back a sheepskin to reveal her baby and it left me with this very humbling feeling that these people put more trust in their animals with whom they live like comrades in alms than we might put in ... than the trust we might put in fellow human beings, strangers especially in our society. And the reason these people do live so closely with their animals and through them to their environment is of course that unlike where I grew up in the nice green pastures of Gippsland there simply isn’t enough grass to support nomadic life all year ‘round. If they were to put up a fixed address, fence, a house, it’d be virtual suicide. They need to move with the seasons according to where that grass is and according to the unique weather of each year.
“There’s 2m of snow up here in eastern Kazakhstan in winter. If I don’t move I’m going to be stuck here ‘til March but it’s just bloody hard, the fingers just get totally frozen tying up the saddles and the tent’s just covered in grime and frost. It’s just cold, it’s like the earth’s just been entombed in ice.”
In retrospect Mongolia had really been like the honeymoon of the journey. It was also my apprenticeship but it was summertime, there were plenty of people around to ask when things went wrong but Kazakhstan was a totally different prospect, about two-thirds the size or width of Australia, a place very sparsely inhabited, particularly in the centre and nomadic life had changed somewhat there in the past century. What I didn’t know at this stage was that it was also going to be the coldest winter in about 40 years in this little northeast corner at least of Kazakhstan. In fact just after arrival people had told me that it was the beginning of a zhut [? 21:15] and the zhuts are these very, very harsh winters that sweep across the Steppes once or twice a decade, traditionally wiping out millions of animals. This is what specifically the Mongols would call a glass zhut when the ice begins to encase everything in sight, it gets very, very heavy on the grass, it leans over, it melts a fraction and then refreezes. The animals have to forage for their own food all year ‘round. When they can’t break through, the result’s inevitable and they say that horses that survive through ‘til spring in these conditions are often naked by that time because they resort to eating the hair off each other’s bodies.
Fortunately I met this man, Aset [? 21:58], in a small village called Zhanazhol and he decided that he would guide me for a couple of weeks, ride with me and at the end of that time he said to me Tim, you definitely need a friend on this long road, you need someone to keep you warm at night in the tent and most importantly to protect you from wolves and I thought that he was about to offer his services as a guide all the way to Hungary when of course he gave me his puppy, Tigon, or in fact it was his son’s puppy. And Tigon was this tiny little bony six-month-old who was leaping off the snow onto my shoulders just to get his paws out of the cold. I resented having him, I tried to give him back in fact but Aset wasn’t having any of it, in fact he said Tim, not only are you going to have him but you're going to pay me for him as well because in our culture you cannot give dogs, guns, knives, axes and traditionally wives, you can’t give them away, you must at least symbolically hand me something back at least for my son. So this transaction took place but I didn’t have much hope that he’d survive, at best more than two or three weeks.
“Tigon, come on. Come on, mate.”
“Tigon, no way.”
Later on it became pretty obvious that he was thinking well thank God, Tim's protecting me from the wolves but it didn’t matter because at the time at least we were getting really good sleep. Until then I’d been having this terrible kind of waking up four, five, six times a night. And Tigon’s sense of ... not just his friendship and the company that he gave but also the sense of humour that he inspired I think became really important as the journey went on. In winter we had one routine that I remember very clearly because every night the first thing I’d do, I’d put Tigon inside a great big canvas duffel bag and then I’d go about setting up the tent and the horses and every night just as dinner went on the boil and the aromas were wafting around camp this canvas bag would come to life and it would start hopping towards the petrol stove. And that was usually the cue for the nightly treat that was going over, zipping open a little bit and dropping in a piece of sala [? 24:39] which is salted or smoked pig fat.
We headed south to avoid the heavy snows and the cold and we went a little bit too far. This environment here was well below freezing but there was now no water at all and what water there was was frozen solid. This resembles what in Mongolian they would call the harzud or a black zud [? 24:59] which is essentially a winter drought and obviously they rely on snow for hydrating the animals in winter and when there is no snow it’s even worse than a glass zud.
In this area I came across a lot of these nomad graves, three or 400 years old. Aset had always said that I should sleep inside them and then the old spirits of the Steppes would look after me. I often would lunch inside out of the wind and camp nearby. The comfort they brought me was more in the sense that at least I knew I was on track. In Kazakhstan there’s only three or 4% of society which is now nomadic as opposed to 97% about a hundred years ago and that’s because in the late 1920s and early ‘30s Stalin’s industrialisation campaign reached the Steppes and about half the nomads died in a famine and those nomads that had survived that era had then become attuned to the new Soviet reality, only for that Soviet reality to come crashing down in 1990 but out here at least I could imagine that I’d ... once upon a time there’d been thriving nomad communities like this man who is one of those few nomads out there today. He’d spent 60 years as a shepherd looking after his sheep from the back of his camel and seeing him kind of get on board and rise up into the morning light was a perfect picture of that symbiosis between man and animal that has shaped not only the history of the Eurasian Steppes but cultures and histories around the world.
By this stage I was starting to transform a little bit in my thinking and the way I saw things.; The world looked very different from the back of a horse in a place where there were no roads, there were very few towns or villages. I’d been told in Russia that if you never know exactly where you are in life then you’re never lost and that started to make a real practical sense. It was meaningless if I had a GPS and knew where I was via satellite, it only meant something if I could find grass and water and help. And there’s this great saying that I think speaks ... tells you a lot about the philosophy of nomad life. I think this is kind of adapted from an Indian saying, to the mounted nomads possessions were for using, not hoarding, life to them was a bridge, one should cross over it, not build a house on it. And certainly in the big open areas of Steppes in Kazakhstan it was the moods of the weather, the availability of grass that created the character. There were no real features or fixed addresses.
You might be wondering at this stage where at a root level did that inspiration come from for me and my guess is that it came from my childhood. My father, Andrew, was an outdoor educator and some of my earliest memories as a kind were jumping in a car and hitting the road. The feeling that away from school, away from the Monday to Friday, suddenly I was able to write the script of my own life and anything seemed possible and being in the wilderness over the years had already by the time I finished school become a place I think where life became distilled down to those bare essentials, those important things, especially our personal qualities that sometimes get lost in a world of technology and possessions. And my dad had been a bit upset when I quit my law degree here at ANU after one semester but I went to study as wilderness guiding in Finland for a year and never came back. But as he saw it kind of develop into a way of life and a career he became more and more proud of what I was doing. I’ve since started taking groups, young people especially, back to Mongolia on treks and I tr ... one of the things I like most is just watching them transform during the journey. I get a lot more enjoyment in a way vicariously experiencing the journey through them these days than sometimes I do myself on my own trips.
But getting back to Kazakhstan things were starting to get pretty desperate, we headed into a place called the Starving Steppes and we’re starting to get very cold, -30, -40 degrees and the wolves were an issue.
“And just before I go to bed I throw a few fire crackers out the tent door into the dark as a way of scaring off the wolves and hopefully it works.”
These firecrackers did seem to work, at least no wolves ever came to my camp in the winter however the first time I filmed myself doing this I lit the firecracker before I opened the tent door. As I kind of fumbled there it exploded and burnt a hole right through the entrance.
It was taking three to four hours to pack the horses each morning and some days I’d only make it 10 to 15km. It was really more about keeping the big map of Eurasia hidden and concentrating on making it you know five, 10 Ks to lunch safely, eat and then make the rest to camp and then do it all again. However when this photo was taken I was becoming a bit desperate, it was two days to Christmas, it was -40 degrees, one of the horses was starting to develop an abscess in its hoof but more than that the tent had become the texture of cellophane and I was worried about it just falling apart if a storm came in. And also the GPS had started to freeze up and was unreliable so I decided to self-rescue, I pulled out the map and there was a town about 150 Ks away so I got there as quickly as I could and on Christmas Eve kind of limped into this place imagining that there’d be a lovely house with a family waiting, a roast on the table and hopefully a barn full of hay and grain. However this is what I saw.
Archmicki [? 31:07] as it was called, otherwise known locally as the place that God forgot, was a very remote and semi ... semi kind of bankrupt goldmining town. There were a couple of people I found on the outskirts, they thought I was a lost Russian geologist, they took me back to their mud hut and at least I wasn’t alone, I was warm but in the morning this was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes. This was one my hosts, Grisha [? 31:28], and his friend, Vitka [? 31:35] and it turned out that Grisha and Vitka were two notorious local Russian men who had lost their truck-driving licences drunk at the wheel many years before and they'd been eating out a living here ever since and they said, Tim, don’t worry about it, you’re going to have a wonderful winter here with us, we might even be able to find you a wife, you can sell your horses, start learning Kazakh language, everything’s going to be good. I went to look for hay and grain for the animals, there was none, being a goldmining town, I came back and they were rolling drunk, they’d caught a couple of street pigeons and boiled them up for Christmas dinner. And that night they kind of kept me awake with their antics.
In the morning I kind of crawled out with a pigeon bone, still munching on it and my and mum and dad and two brothers and sister, Boxing Day by this stage, they were sitting out, 26 degrees of sunshine, red wine, probably flicking between the Boxing Day test and the Sydney to Hobart and at that point I definitely wanted a way out. I wanted to be home at least for a day however on this kind of journey that wasn’t an option, particularly with three or four mouths to feed. What I didn’t know was that my difficulties in Achmakarb [? 32:48] were only just beginning, it’d be three months before I could leave this place. Many things went wrong, my ... I got sick, my petrol stove broke in a storm and eventually Tigon was stolen by some unemployed mine workers who were actually catching stray dogs and stealing people’s pet dogs to eat to survive.
Fortunately a friend of mine that I made, his name was Biduk [? 33:16], he found Tigon and eventually rescued him. Tigon had been beaten, he hadn’t been fed and apparently he was given some vodka, raw eggs and put in a sauna for half a day before he kind of came back to life and three weeks later he was ready to walk but during this time Biduk would often tell me, he’d say Tim, what are you rushing for? Just sit back, everything’s okay, I’ll take care of you, have a cup of tea, when the time comes you’ll be okay. And eventually ... I was now months behind schedule ... I had to embrace this kind of philosophy and they do say in Kazakh that if you ever have to rush in life, rush slowly and it dawned on me in this environment I couldn’t really dictate the terms and I couldn’t really afford to measure time in hours or days of the week, it was more about what the seasons allowed, the condition of my animals and what’s more in this environment time was not necessarily money. And it was liberating to realise that any goal I’d set myself arriving in Hungary was just an arbitrary one, there was no one actually waiting for me.
And sure enough my time did come, Biduk had a little farewell ceremony out here in the Steppes and I never ... never turned back. The grass was coming out, people were emerging from hibernation and it was time for these great big camels to have their spring haircuts.
“Spring’s also the time of camel-shearing. They use the wool of the camel to make their winter clothing.
People speaking in Mongolian
A single camel also feed a family for months. This is what you call a camel in the loungeroom. They have a lot of meat and you can see the two humps from the Bactrian camels sitting right here behind me.”
Seeing all that meat reminds me of this uniquely nomad philosophy which is that it’s only fair as meat-eaters that humans are turned into eat and meat themselves when they die and so that’s why particularly in the west part of Mongolia from which I’d returned only two days ago, that they still have the tradition of taking the bodies up to a mountain top for the wolves to eat and they believe that if the person is eaten quickly by the wolf then they were a good person in life, if they’re left to rot they’re not so good. But only by the wolf ingesting the flesh can that spirit can essentially be set free. They always joke with me that Mongolians are in fact vicarious vegetarians because they only eat animals that in turn eat grass.
It started to get very, very hot after leaving Archmichi [? 36:36]. In fact ahead lay 40 days in a row of above 40 which is very normal in the central part of Kazakhstan and it forced me to totally rethink the routine. I needed to start saddling up after sunset and then riding right through until dawn. It was never possible to sleep entirely on the horse ... oh sorry, to get through without sleeping so I’d sometimes fall asleep on the horse by mistake or wake up on the ground with Tigon in my arms or better yet a great big camel looking down at me. It was the hardest time of the journey for sure but by a long shot in the summer but it was also one of the most beautiful, shift ... the sound of the ... of my animals shifting through the sand in the middle of the night. I’d just pick a start, I’d get a compass bearing and follow it for many, many hours on end but it was crucial to find shelter, food, water before that great big ball of fire came back up over the horizon.
And they say in Kazakh that first time as a friend ... as a guest you’re a friend, second time as a guest you’re part of the family and the third time, well, you can stay for life and that’s really honestly how I think I was treated for most of the journey, like some kind of long lost relative and every time I kind of ... I was really in desperate need of a sense of company it was there for me. And these are some of the 90 or 100 families that I did stay with. They were families of many different kinds but eventually I came to understand or at least have my own interpretation of this other saying, that mountains never meet but people do and I think it’s a nomadic expression of how perhaps our most precious capacity as human beings is to have relationships with one another which might seem pretty obvious and logical but it’s all the more relevant when you’re in such a hostile environment, the feeling of come back into a gir [? 38:34], the sense of family, sense of warmth, koa [? 38:38], shelter, you simply can’t ... you can’t move through a place like this without it leaving a deep imprint on you, at least on me. And I think this saying that I read recently in a fantastic book called The Impulse Society, it’s almost like the modern equivalent that of course happiness is best predicted by the depth ... it should say breadth there as well ... the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.
It took me about 14 months to cross Kazakhstan and then another six months through Russia and I know we’re kind of fast-forwarding through the journey here. By this stage it did feel as if I’d made it somewhere.
“Made it to the Azov Sea. First time on the horse that I’ve seen the sea since I began almost two years ago.”
“Real crispness in the air and the horses are moving a lot faster, lot more easily.”
So for me arriving in the Crimean Peninsula was like landing in horse paradise, there was just this waist-high grass, Tigon was off chasing hares and foxes, the horses were eating with the gusto of kind of hungry lions. Of course the Crimea had been a very important outpost of the Mongol Empire and the Golden Horde for about 300 years and no wonder with all this grass. Of course beyond that as well all ... many of you would be aware, Crimea is also a very strategically important place and it’s no wonder that Russia has gone to the efforts they have to take it back from Ukraine.
By this stage it was a wonderful experience to see the Black Sea, to see all this grass. I knew that ... in my bones that the real hardships of the journey were now over, the winters and the summers, that they were long one, the horses would make it alive and fat hopefully to Hungary. Tigon was no longer just this little tiny shadow that follow along, he was now proudly kind of guiding me. He was so spoilt by all the people we met that he would no longer accept bread from strangers unless they first lathered it thick with cream and jam. He was honoured in every way, he was blessed here by a priest in western Kazakhstan, big holy water and then in a hotel he was offered his own room free of charge and he kind of lay back with this great sense of entitlement.
Tigon became much more the reincarnation of Genghis Khan than I ever could. He ... what I didn’t realise is that among his many rites of passage he’d also become a father. In fact I got a letter one day from the Moscow Academy of Sciences that owned a research farm where I’d left the animals for a month at one stage. They wrote me this polite email suggesting I needed to start sending back child payments because of all the puppies that he’d left behind so his empire was growing and growing like him.
“And the deep forest and treacherous peaks of the Carpathians.”
So if you’d shown me images like these before I set off on the journey I might have turned around, particularly as this kind of green, scared novice horseman but the truth is that the Carpathian Mountains, the last geographical barrier on the road to Hungary, they’d always been there and I’d always known they were there, one of those many places where put one foot wrong and it could all end in disaster. But the reality is that the journey by this stage with all its other unexpected challenges had more than equipped me with the skills to overcome these mountains, in fact it was just a pleasure to pass over those same kind of trails that the Mongols had traversed all those centuries before and it gave me a little bit of insight into just how skilful, hardened and what an incredibly developed mental map of the world these Mongols would have had by the time they reached Europe at time in history when Europeans by contrast were probably goldfish in a bowl, not many of them had probably ventured further than the next parish.
Before I move on I just wanted to give you a glimpse of these incredible people called the Hutsuls who still live a seminomadic life up in the high pasturelands of the Carpathians. In fact it’s been proven that their horses are the descendants of Mongol horses that were left behind when the Mongols retreated from Europe. I wanted to give you a little window into the life of Vasil [? 43:47] who was a hat-maker living in a small wooden hut up in the mountains that you could only reach by foot or horse.
“It’s a common trait among nomads to cover [? 43:57] their life with art. Vasil who’s now 84 has been making traditional hats from the age of 16. He makes about a hundred every six months and every single one is unique. And when the Hutsul people wear their clothing you get the impression that they’re not just wearing it for display, it carries the very soul of their way of life, of their ancestors. He even decides to show me his coffin that he personally handmade. Everyone does it up here in the Carpathians when they’re about the age of 40. He’s got his best clothes in there because he wants to be well dressed when he goes into the spirit world. They remember here that life is transient.”
About a year and a half ago I got a message from the priest in this town that had taken me under his wing that Vasil had passed away and he’d been given a traditional burial, he’d been taken in the coffin on the back of a horse down to the village cemetery and put next to his wife.
So finally here we were looking down from the mountains to the plains of Hungary, a place that felt like it might never arrive. By this stage there’d been delay after delay but that had become the journey unto itself. Word had spread and now horsemen were waiting for me and horsewomen to guide me the last six weeks to the Danube River. For the Majars my journey had very special meaning because of course their ancestors had made a similar journey from Siberia, northern point is probably northern Kazakhstan today into Europe in ... and creating Hungary as we know it in the end of the 9th century.
“I'm introduced to Koshrolaosh [? 45:50] who’s famous in Hungary for reviving the art of horseback archery. He’s dedicated his life to living by the ideals of the ancient nomad warrior and he’s got thousands of followers worldwide. It’s awe-inspiring. He’s able to shoot off six arrows in 12 seconds at a full gallop and hit the target every time. It was these warriors that demolished the feudal systems of Europe and paved the way for light horse cavalry that was to become the standard for European armies of the future.”
One of these horsemen, a guy called Tamash [? 46:28], he came up to me one day and he said Tim, I’ve been discussing your journey with all my friends and we’ve concluded one thing, we think you’re completely mad. He said it would have made more sense if a Hungarian or a Mongol had done this journey but we can see in your heart and mind that you’ve become like a nomad and a horseman, a bit like us. And that was one of those many very special moments in those last dying days and weeks of the journey.
“By the time Tim arrived on the Danube he’d become a celebrity, welcomed by diplomats and world media. Tim had achieved the first lone crossing of the Steppes in modern times. He had learned from the nomads that the challenge of the future for them like for us is to balance traditional knowledge of the land with the aspirations and needs of a fast changing modern world.”
So finally I had the chance to take those last few steps. It was anything but an anticlimax, my mum had come from Australia, there were ... my brother had come, friends from Australia, all over Europe, diplomats and things and it was just one of those moments where I could reflect on where it had started and it was extraordinary and still is really extraordinary to me that this little tiny idea in my head had not only become my whole life for three-and-a-half years but it had drawn hundreds of other people into it and it would be fraudulent to say that it was my trip, it was by this stage the trip of hundreds of people. I’d started off not knowing a single person and I think that was one of the driving forces of the trip, the very concept that no one knew I was coming, no one knew I existed, the prospect of turning up on someone’s doorstep in a state of disrepair, opening the door, not knowing who’s going to be behind it and yet knowing that possibly within a few minutes you’d be sharing a vodka, a cup of tea, maybe it would turn into three days of feasting and in that short period of time what eventually transpired was that a bond was formed and created that I’ve never been able to experience in any other context. And certainly by the end it was those friendships, those bonds I’d made that were the true measure of the trip. I think with time difficulties and distance, all that kind of things, they become irrelevant, they fade into the past.
I learnt I think to have a great sense of patience from the nomad and I’d never be able to be as uncomplaining as they are but certainly without that sense of perspective and patience I wouldn’t have got through, nor without Tigon, and the journey had in a sense equipped me for those great big things that I thought might bring me down.
What I didn’t mention was the biggest challenge of all on this trip which was also the most unexpected, I was riding through Ukraine only about eight, 900km from the finish line when I got a message on my sat phone to call home and that’s when I discovered that my father, Andrew , had been killed in a car accident that day so I’d ... within a day I’d found a place to leave the animals behind, I flew back to Australia and as the oldest of four kids it was ... for all of us in fact it was just the most difficult thing that we’d ever had to deal with and it had come out of nowhere. Dad had been 56.
After four months of being at home I had to make a decision whether to come and rejoin my family of horses or to stay with my family in Australia. Coming back ultimately I think was by far the better decision. Even though I felt like I’d left home a bit early it was a cathartic experience to ride with the animals through the springtime into summer and see my mum at the end but certainly I was now looking forward to going home to Australia and spending lots of time with friends and family. I’d planned this journey to take 18 months on an Excel spreadsheet and it’s like 20km a day five days a week. I’d get there in 16 months, couple of months of holidays and there was my trip. One winter and I’d be home, I’d write the book in six months and then I’d be onto the next journey.
By this stage it had taken three-and-a-half years and although it felt as if it was a failure to start with and I was constantly behind schedule I realised that in fact being able to be completely flexible and being able to allow the journey to just take its course was what became the real virtue of the trip.
And finally the Danube River was looking back at me as if to say well what took you so long? And everyone knows that in the modern world you don’t have to get on a horse to traverse a continent. I could have flown in six or seven hours, I probably could have walked faster given all the bureaucracy I had to get through taking horses to get across borders. But it’s not the point, I think that even in an era when we could see most of the planet through our smartphones there will never be a substitute for going out and having that sensory experience and certainly for me had I never climbed onto the back of a horse I would never have learnt those human wisdoms that have kind of transformed me and I would never have come to know that entire sense of history, that spirit of generosity as well that in a sense had now become my whole life so thank you very much.
S: Now we do have time for a few questions. We have some microphones so please if you have question raise your hand and do wait for the microphone. For anyone using the hearing loop that’s what the microphones are for and for the recording. There’s one here.
T: Some of you probably already know and have guessed but when I finished the trip it ... I had to make a couple of really big decisions, one was what to do with the horses, they’d become my whole life by this stage but there was no way of bringing them home so I gifted them in the end to a local kind of state care home that had long wanted to set up a riding program and I’ve been back to Hungary three times since and they’ve got this great riding program set up for the children. This is one of Tigon’s many progenies that was also donated to the orphanage. He unfortunate ... his name was Tiggy and he went away one day and never came home unfortunately. But yeah with Tigon it was a much harder process, I came back for a year, I used to get messages about he'd taken horsemen for a ... he’d followed horsemen for a day, they had to send taxis to pick him up but as you guessed here he is. Tigon, Tigon, you’re being very naughty.
TC: He waiting for his moment. Yeah, no, it took a year and this was him in back of a taxi going from Budapest to Vienna and then he was put in a crate through Dubai and landed in Melbourne and he’s since become a fully-fledged Australian citizen, he’s got an EU passport, he’s got a Kazakh passport. I had to raise about $10,000 to get him back and that was largely thanks to people who came along ... at the time I was in Perth ... and I did events like this. The ... one of my sponsors, Mt Nazion’s [? 55:07], rented out the venues and we raised eight or $10,000 or about $8,000 within two weeks of presentation which was just unbelievable. Some of you hopefully will be interested to know that Tigon is a father again in Australia, he’s ... about six weeks ago he became the father of eight puppies that are now resident at my mum’s place and within about three weeks they’ll need homes so there’s still a few which don’t have homes so if many of you are interested you can see me at the end and give me your email address.
SB: Any other questions? One up there [unclear 55:55].
A: Do we know what breed of dog he is?
TC: What breed? His father was what they call a Tazi, a Taz which is a central Asian sight hound that is the descendent of the Saluki that was brought to central Asia by probably silk road traders, Bedouins back in the day. His ... Salukis look identical almost to Tazis but his mother was a Russian shepherd dog so he’s got the features and temperament of the hound but he’s got stick-up ears like a shepherd dog, yeah. I was just in western Mongolia, I came back as I said two days ago and they were telling me there that they have a saying there that when the first Islamic missionaries came to convert the Kazakhs and they are nominally Muslim, they were told that they needed to keep the dogs out of their homes but they said that there’s no way that they would ever kick their Tazis out, that in fact they prefer to have the Tazi in the home and those people out of the home because the Tazis are renowned for feeding them for ... with the meat that they catch ‘cause they’re hunters for catching the hares and the foxes and things. They clothe them because they use the fur pelts from the animals they catch and they keep them warm at night so yeah, the Tazis still have a really important place in nomadic culture in Kazakhstan.
SB: Time for a couple more questions.
A: Tim, if I can just grab one question while I’ve got the microphone, I’ve just had the pleasure of spending three weeks in Ladark [? 57:53] and I see that nomadic culture is still happening to an extent up in Ladark. Can you explain where else on this earth that nomadic culture is still happening?
TC: Well I mean I think Mongolia is unique in that respect and I couldn’t tell you where the many other places on the earth are but Mongolia’s different in a sense that it is a country almost entirely of nomads. In many other countries you’ll find that nomadic cultures seem to be the fringe, they might be an ethnicity that is in the minority but Mon ... even the people who live in the city in Ulaanbaatar are at best maybe two or three generations removed from life in the saddle and so nomadic culture, nomadic ... the nomadic mindset infiltrates everything in everyday life, even in that urban environment and so they have a kind of unique opportunity as an independent sovereign nature to carry on their traditions, to protect them, to preserve them and ... so that they don’t ... so that nomadic culture doesn’t become marginalised. Like these days about 20% of Mongolians are still authentically nomadic, another 10% are seminomadic, about half the population lives in the capital in Ulaanbaatar and in the time I’ve been going to Mongolia in the remote regions like the west life carries on as it always has in a sense.
And there’s an incredible pride that you see people in that way of life and I always tell people that that narrative that we hear often in the west about kids being attracted like moths to a light, kids moving to the city, abandoning their way of life, it don’t really happen quite that simply in Mongolia. Nomad families will have five or six children sometimes, three to four might end up in villages, towns or the cities but there’ll always be ... almost always will be two or three that stay on. In fact there’s never been more nomads than now in Mongolia in terms of numbers. There’s more livestock than there’s ever been on the Steppes before. In fact there’s probably too many and that’s putting the fragile Steppes ecosystem under threat so there’s really no more room for more nomads in Mongolia and so most kids do go to the city, they get educated. But as some of you might know one of the biggest or the biggest deposit of resources in Mongolia is a place called Oyu Tolgoi which has I think $250b, thereabouts, of copper and gold and that until recently when the resource price kind of crashed had been driving a lot of inflation, it had been driving massive economic growth.
In 2011 Mongolia was the fastest growing economy in the world and that more than anything puts the nomad way of life under threat because it does marginalise their nomad economy if you like, it means that kids might start aspiring to a job in mining rather than ... but in my experience you’ve got nomadic cultures sprawled across Siberia, there is still some strong nomadic communities in Kazakhstan. I’m mostly familiar with the reindeer herders in Siberia and the Steppes horse, the horseback nomads. I think that if the nomad way of life ever does die out in a place like Mongolia it’ll be really sad because they offer us a glimpse into a huge chunk of human history and also I think an alternative way of living with the environment which is really harmonious, with the animals and nature and also has proven to be sustainable. And whilst we all can’t live like them they’ve still got a lot of lessons I think we can learn from and if we lose that we’re going to lose thousands of years of accumulated knowledge.
SB: Just have one last question ‘cause Tigon’s had enough so just here.
A: Tim, absolutely inspiring presentation. There must be some fantastic water in Gippsland ‘cause I happen to know your sister who’s also a remarkable individual. She’s squarely in the business community, she’s leading the drive to build relationships between Australia and China so you’re both remarkable people but you open the newspaper every day and you hear more about the importance of business and our world view seems to be caught up in the idea of business and facilitating trade and I think it’s time that we had more people like yourself come and share this remarkable story of engaging the wider world. And hearing your story and the way you present it reminds me of the philosopher and mythologist, Joseph Campbell, when he says go out and follow your bliss and I think that’s what you’ve done so beautiful.
TC: Thank you.
SB: Well I guess we’re out of time and I can’t sum up better than that so I’ll skip straight to the book is available in the bookshop, unsurprisingly, and because you’ve come along tonight there’ll be a 10% discount so please can you put your hands together for Tim and for Tigon one more time.
[End of Recording]