A slow ride across the steppe

On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Jour­ney Through the Land of the No­mads

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Joanna Kavenna The Spec­ta­tor

By Tim Cope Blooms­bury, 509pp, $30

ISUSPECT travel writ­ing was once a fairly sim­ple busi­ness: the au­thor trav­elled some­where, the reader did not; the au­thor ex­plained what the place was like and the reader was duly in­formed and even en­ter­tained. Uno von Troil, for ex­am­ple, went to Ice­land in 1772 and served up lurid de­scrip­tions of the devil holes and lairs of Beelzebub (gey­sers). None of his read­ers had been to Ice­land; no one was in­clined to ar­gue with von Troil.

Later, with the ad­vent of mass travel in the 19th cen­tury, von Troil’s for­mer au­di­ence could go by steamer to Ice­land (or Hell) and wit­ness the in­fer­nal pools them­selves. More in­trepid and soli­tary trav­ellers, such as Richard Bur­ton, were then in­spired to write Ice­landic trav­el­ogues in which they com­plained bit­terly about the tourist crowds and pro­nounced the gey­sers far less satanic than billed. Yet there were many other re­mote places for Bur­ton to ex­plore and, un­abashed, he promptly went off to ex­plore them.

Now times are hard for the travel writer. Ev­ery­one can travel al­most ev­ery­where and blurt out their im­pres­sions on Twit­ter. Mean­while pub­lish­ing is busy with the es­cha­ton and ad­vances are dwin­dling by the day. Per­haps we shall soon wit­ness the emer­gence of the Google Earth trav­el­ogue — one lone cy­ber­surfer, aka a travel writer who can’t get an ad­vance, on a unique (or not quite unique) jour­ney of dis­cov­ery (or not re­ally dis­cov­ery) from the cost-cut­ting base camp of their liv­ing room.

For those who still aim to travel, and even hope to get paid, one op­tion is the doughty sub­genre: ‘‘ In the foot­steps of . . .’’ (in­sert celebrity ex­plorer, fam­ily ec­cen­tric or, in the case of Tim Cope’s On the Trail of Genghis Khan, leg­endary war­lord and psy­chopath).

There’s noth­ing re­ally wrong with this sort of for­mal pragmatism: writ­ers get to travel, pub­lish­ers stop si­phon­ing whisky into their morn­ing lat­tes and ev­ery­one is, if not happy, then at least not lan­guish­ing in anomie.

In fact, Cope is not re­motely lan­guish­ing in anomie and is one of the most vi­brant and en­gag­ing nar­ra­tors you may find. He swiftly plays down his ti­tle: ‘‘ I called it the Trail of Genghis Khan, re­fer­ring to the in­spi­ra­tion I found in the no­madic Mon­gols, who un­der Genghis Khan set out to build the largest land em­pire in his­tory.’’

In 2000, at 19, Cope hap­pened to be cy­cling through Mon­go­lia when some lo­cal horse­men ma­te­ri­alised from the hori­zon at a gal­lop, their long cloaks fly­ing, eyes trained for­ward, and sit­ting so com­posed it was as if they were not mov­ing at all. He was struck by their world: ‘‘ Free of fences and pri­vate land own­er­ship, the nat­u­ral lay of the earth was un­hin­dered, de­fined only by moun­tains, rivers, deserts, and the ebb and flow of the sea­sons.’’ He re­alised then that ‘‘ the no­madic peo­ple had a con­nec- tion to the land I had never dreamed ex­isted in mod­ern times’’.

Cope de­cides to em­u­late the no­mads by trav­el­ling on horse­back across the Eurasian steppe — cov­er­ing 9500km through Mon­go­lia, Kaza­khstan, Rus­sia, Crimea and Ukraine to Hun­gary. Be­gin­ning in Ulaan­baatar, he buys three horses and, later, ac­quires a dog. Rid­ing at first with his girl­friend and, af­ter a cou­ple of months, alone, he set­tles into a daily pat­tern: The climb­ing heat of mid-morn­ing co­in­cided with a ris­ing sym­phony of ci­cadas and the melt­ing of the hori­zon into a haze . . . Ahead and around us the steppe spread out in vast sheets of lu­mi­nes­cent green.

He passes herds of cat­tle, yaks, sheep and goats. At night, he is wel­comed into no­mad camps, where he is of­fered salty milk tea and aaruul (milk curd). In th­ese places: There was no think­ing back­ward or for­ward, only a feel­ing of com­plete­ness, for this was the no­madic life in­tact, vir­tu­ally un­changed from the days of Genghis Khan.

Yet this feel­ing of com­plete­ness is im­per­illed as Cope trav­els far­ther. The re­gion was dev­as­tated dur­ing the 20th cen­tury by Joseph Stalin’s poli­cies of land con­fis­ca­tion and col­lec­tivi­sa­tion, and by famines and forced mi­gra­tion. In Kaza­khstan, Cope de­scribes the nu­clear tests car­ried out at the Semi­palatinsk test site, af­ter the Soviet Atomic Agency cat­e­gorised the re­gion — home to no­mads — as un­in­hab­ited: ‘‘ The United Na­tions be­lieves that be­tween 1947 and 1989 one mil­lion peo­ple were ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion, lead­ing to high sui­cide and can­cer rates, in­fer­til­ity and de­for­ma­tion.’’

In Ukraine, Cope turns to the Cos­sacks, their mul­ti­ple al­le­giances in the 20th cen­tury and Stalin’s mass ex­e­cu­tions af­ter World War II. In the Crimea, he de­scribes the ‘‘ vil­i­fi­ca­tion of the Tatars’’ — how in 1944 nearly 200,000 Tatars were taken forcibly from their homes and de­ported to Siberia and Cen­tral Asia. ‘‘ The sur­vivors of those chill­ing events ... had waited all their lives to re­turn from ex­ile.’’

In the present day, the steppe is a com­pli­cated, melan­choly place, full of hal­fa­ban­doned towns, des­per­ate al­co­holics and peo­ple strug­gling to sur­vive. For a while, Cope rides with a herder named Aset, who sings ‘‘ sor­row­ful-sound­ing songs in Kazakh ... splut­ter­ing be­tween verses: ‘ Ah, Tim, when you have vodka, you have a voice. No vodka, no voice!’ ’’ Later, Cope’s horses are stolen and he is threat­ened with vi­o­lence: ‘‘ How dare you camp here . . . you for­eigner! If I tell my friends about it, they will come in the night, take your horses to the meat fac­tory, and drown you in the river for the cray­fish to eat!’’

Cope vividly evokes the lim­i­nal zone of the soli­tary trav­eller, where much that hap­pens seems dream­like and im­prob­a­ble, yet the most strik­ing thing is the un­re­mark­able nor­mal­ity of those you en­counter. De­spite the scenes of may­hem, he is saved many times over by the kind­ness of ran­dom strangers.

It is a vast jour­ney, a vast, baggy book, en­joy­ably me­an­der­ing in an age of Twit­ter soundbites. Some­times Cope is repet­i­tive, but then travel is repet­i­tive: the get­ting up, the pack­ing your bags, the process of con­vey­ing your­self some­where else, the gath­er­ing dark­ness and the evening hunt for food, wa­ter, peo­ple who will be friendly, a place to rest.

‘‘ Our jour­ney is . . . imag­i­nary, that is its strength,’’ wrote Louis-Fer­di­nand Ce­line, and he meant the murky soup of as­so­ci­a­tions, echoes, per­sonal in­flec­tions that writ­ers la­dle on to the places they de­scribe. Cope’s jour­ney be­comes a mon­u­men­tal quest as he is buf­feted by vi­cis­si­tudes and trans­formed. He seems to have spent sev­eral years en route and many more writ­ing his book. The re­sult is by turns in­for­ma­tive, grip­ping and very mov­ing: a ma­jor en­deav­our that flings off the strait­jacket of its sub­genre and stands (or rides) alone.

Tim Cope above Khokh Nuur (the Blue Lake) in the moun­tains of Mon­go­lia

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