Every once in a while, a unique work of nonfiction appears with little pretension that nevertheless delivers unexpected superlatives in every quarter. Such a surprising and extraordinary book is On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope. Ostensibly an installment to the travel and adventure genre, Cope’s book offers so much more, including studies in history, geopolitics, culture, geography and lifestyle, all tightly integrated into a narrative that never loses pace with the journey itself.
In 2004, when he was just twenty-five years old, a young Australian adventurer named Tim Cope began an epic three year mostly solo expedition on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary – some 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles) – roughly retracing the routes followed by the steppe nomads of the great conqueror Genghis Khan (1162-1227 CE). Remarkably, his only previous attempt at riding a horse left him with a broken arm as a child, but even as a young man Cope had a résumé of sorts as an adventurer, having ridden a recumbent bicycle more than 6000 miles from Moscow to Beijing just a few years previous to this far more ambitious excursion through long stretches of often isolated, largely primitive and a somewhat punishing environment with only three horses and a dog as his companions. Yet, it turns out that far more dangerous than the extreme cold and prowling wolves were the uncertain human encounters with the occasional alcoholic predatory rogue who looked at Cope’s horses and saw only dollar (or ruble) signs!
Still, much of the author’s experiences with people along the way were overwhelmingly positive. There is a long tradition of hospitality along the vast multi-national steppe highway that welcomes travelers with widely open arms, and Cope recounts the warm embrace of numerous yurts whose inhabitants had few possessions but did not hesitate to shelter the author and his animals. This hospitality would often also extend to more populated areas such as villages, although small camps and lone outposts were far more typical of Cope’s journey, which encompassed a wide swath of mostly remote territory, typically skirting cities and towns, in a part of the world that is little known to most of us. Cope’s route includes portions of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea (then part of Ukraine, recently annexed by Russia), Ukraine and Hungary.
Steppe nomads are perhaps the most consequential element of global history that are typically overlooked. Yet, the historical narrative has been writ large by their numerous collisions with settled agrarian civilizations over several thousand years. The root word for horse in Indo-European – the language family that includes English, Hindi, French and some forty percent of the other tongues spoken in the world today – can be traced back to the Proto Indo-European (PIE) spoken by the steppe nomads that according to David Anthony’s magnificent The Horse, the Wheel and Language first domesticated the horse six thousand years ago and later in conquest introduced the animal and its unique war machine, the chariot, to Europe. The Huns that brought Attila to the gates of Rome were steppe nomads. So too originally were the Turks that until a century ago controlled all of the Middle East and significant portions of Eastern Europe. And so too were the Mongols, who created a global empire and even conquered China. These are only the most famous nomads; there were scores of others. Horses were the key to their dominance in the frosty northern Eurasian steppe corridor of vast grasslands that stretched for thousands of miles, where the techniques of equestrian warfare were perfected that made them virtually invincible in battle against the settled civilizations they targeted until the advent of effective artillery in the late middle ages. The steppes also served as a highway of trade, most notably the famous Silk Road.
I came to On the Trail of Genghis Khan in a rather circuitous manner, because I wanted to learn more about steppe nomads. I am such a nerd that instead of blasting Led Zeppelin in the car I typically listen to audio college courses on CD, and this time around I was deeply invested in The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes, by noted historian and Tulane University Professor Kenneth Harl. I like to supplement these courses with suitable books that match the theme. I happened to see Cope’s unlikely title in a bookstore display and picked it up on impulse. In the realm of history, there is the romance of history (how a
people or a culture want to remember the past) and there is actual history (what the past was really like). To Cope’s great credit, both of these are inherent components of his fine book. The romantic notion is intrinsic in the title, but the author is surprised to discover that the romance of the freedom of a steppe nomad on horseback is still remembered a millennium afterwards by the fierce atrocities and hundreds of thousands of dead that were left in the wake of their conquest. But the Mongols were, as noted, only one set of steppe nomads. There were many others, and their disparate descendants on the Eurasian steppes have variously abandoned or clung to remnants of their respective heritages, with many compromises and trade-offs in between. There are some great stories. Cope frequently traveled solo with his three horses and his dog, but carried a laptop and a satellite phone. This incongruity was trumped by his encounter with a remote modern nomad camp which was an echo of centuries past yet nevertheless included a generator, satellite dish and tiny television set. His hosts somewhat regretted their hospitality when the author unintentionally drained their battery charging his own equipment and their little TV went dark.
The best part of Cope’s book is that it never devolves into the introspective heartfelt diary of the author’s inner journey characteristic of many books like this. Not that it lacks of the personal: we feel Tim’s pain as he struggles with whether to abandon his animals to fly to Europe to be at his girlfriend’s side when she needs surgery (and he lets the reader decide whether he made the right choice), and many chapters later when his father’s unexpected death sends him home to Australia in a spiral of grief for several months. But Cope makes sure that this book is not about him, but about the country he traverses, about the animals that are his closest companions, about the cultures he encounters, about the families that embrace him and those who do not. His greatest asset can be said to be his ability to act as an observer who is not so detached that he cannot empathize, yet not so invested that he loses perspective. His other great strength is his craft as a writer as he describes both the natural and the human landscape with an eye for detail and an outstanding narrative skill. The book also benefits from truly terrific maps that always places the reader on the author’s path in spots on the geography most of us have never heard of, plus a glossary of words and phrases in currency in the various languages and cultures, and even a biographical listing of historic figures cited in the course of the work. On the Trail of Genghis Khan is one of the finest books I have read in any genre, and I would urge everyone to take the time to read it.