Horses and History

My final literary journey of the year has been a bit of an epic.  The reading took a while, for various reasons, but the journey took an age.  In fact it was close on a decade of Tim Cope’s life.  I read of the young Australian’s first travels only a few months ago, a trip by recumbent from Moscow to Beijing.

A few years later he was off again, On the Trail of Genghis Khan.  From planning, and researching to publication took close on ten years.  The physical journey accounted for nearly four years, harsh years, winters in a tent on the open steppe, temperatures plummeting.  Then came the recovery, the adjustment back into ‘normal’ life, and eventually the writing.


The book is rich in the lore of the Mongol Empire, the Golden Horde, and a quest to discover the nomadic life.  Tim takes us from Karakorum to the Danube, mostly in the company of three horses and a dog.  Eventually the dog, Tigon, joined Tim back in Australia, with the love of his life met on later guiding tours in Mongolia.  The horses found a retiral home in Hungary, and a teaching role for children

The inner journey too was huge; setting out with his then girlfriend and little experience of matters equine.  Indeed he first sat astride a horse six months before departure, but came to know the wild ways of nomad mounts, even though the post-Soviet Cossacks had largely lost their ancestral skills.

The journey was interrupted and delayed several times.  Visas and travel permits, for man and beasts were not easy – Kazakhstan and Crimean Russia sandwiched between Mongolia and Hungary.  And there were trips for awards; to London to be inducted as a Fellow of the RGS; and Sydney as Geographic Australia’s Adventure Traveller of the Year.

And each interruption brought more problems, mainly with a safe home for the animals in Tim’s absence.  But he relied heavily on the goodwill of people he met on the way; and amongst the horse thieves and alcoholics there was huge goodwill, and lifelong friendships.  Tragedy was a burden to take along the way.  He coped with the very tragic death of his father, and more beyond.  The loss of several journals of notes, stolen from a car back home in Melbourne, was a huge loss, but he still brings us his tale.

The book is filled with photos of those we meet, of the lands of the khanates, and of course of the travelling companions.

Travel writing has two very distinct spheres.  We are blessed with writers who travel, and I am thinking here of the prose of, say, Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Colin Thubron and many others who produce phrases that linger, possessed with magic.  And we have travellers who write.  Tim Cope is undoubtedly a traveller first – the Fellowship of the RGS is not given lightly.  But as well as making films from his journeys, he can write too, and he can write well.

I tend to differentiate between reading the writing, and reading the story.  This is in the latter category, but suffers not for that.

This latest work shows how his writing has developed since that early cycle trip, the tale of which was written jointly with the chum on the other bike, alternate chapters.  But the writing here is all his own, as was the journey.  It is all the better for that.  And it’s a fine way to bring a year of literary travel to a close.



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