A slow ride across the steppe
On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads
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