On Wednesday July 29, 2009, Tim Cope gave a presentation at Cafe Amsterdam in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on his horseback trekking adventure across the steppes and grasslands of Mongolia to Hungary. Tim spoke of the challenges and issues he faced while traveling during zud (extreme cold winter) and deserts (up to 50C high) from Mongolia through Kazakhtsan, Russia, and Ukraine on the way to Hungary following in the footsteps of Chinggis Khaan, the correct spelling of Genghis Khan.
Here are some highlights of interesting notes and things of which he spoke.
Tim Cope’s Journey Across Steppes of Central Asia
The first question that seems to come to everyone’s mind… Why did you decide to travel this route? As you may know, Tim actually traveled trough Mongolia with a friend back in 2000 on a bicycle. He traveled from South to North (i.e. China to Russia through Mongolia). Apparently, he even was arrested for not using public transportation in China.
But something about Mongolia really left a mark on Tim: it was the first time in his life that he had been in “a very big place with no fences”. Long story short, he “ran into some horsemen that inspired him” and got the idea that he should travel through Mongolia on a horse.
A fun fact about Tim Cope’s travel through the steppes
- The most number of days without a shower: 24
“A man with friends is as wide as the steppe”
During his journey, Tim realized the truth behind the Mongolian saying “a man on the steppe without friends is as narrow as a finger. A man with friends is as wide as the steppe.” Getting through the countryside safe from the harsh weather, wolves, and possible thieves couldn’t be done easily without the help of friends and making connections with the people on the steppe.
Note: I have referred to the Nomads as people of the steppe. Both terms and definitions can be used interchangeably in this context. For whatever reasons, I have used the steppe or people of the steppe more so than nomads. However, this post could probably be used to gain some insights into nomads and nomadic ways of life.
“Never enough days for planning”
Tim found that there was not a single day that he did not face issues and challenges. There were days he wanted to pack up and call it quits. The thing is that there really is not enough days for planning. And, there actually is no way to plan for the entire trip. As he said, there will be challenges and issues that we just cannot plan for.
The most important thing is weight
Tim said this in reference to traveling on a horse. He mentioned that “a horse can travel 300km in a day, but you could kill a horse in 50km” to highlight the point that keeping light and taking care of the horses is of utmost importance. He said that keeping the horses fed and watered was the biggest challenge.
Zud, a freezing severe winter weather in Mongolia
Tim ran into zud in Mongolia. During zud, a Mongolian term describing freezing severe cold weather, literally everything in the area is frozen and covered in centimeters thick ice sheets. Plants, grasses, and gers would all be covered in by this freezing winds and weather. This makes it very difficult to survive, let alone find food for the horses. Tim Cope mentioned that he met a family in Bayan-Ulgii, the western-most province of Mongolia, that had one horse survive out of 300!
During zud years in middle of 2000’s, Mongolia lost millions of herds to zud. You can just imagine seeing the tragedy of so many animals frozen to death in blistering cold weather with temperatures easily dipping much lower than 40C.
My own addition into the story–>Interestingly, goats have a way of surviving cold weathers. When sheeps freeze, often goats are found standing on top to survive”
“Time in the steppe is measured by the seasons”
Tim Cope’s trip was originally planned to be completed within 18 months. The actual trip took 3 1/2 years.
The lesson learned: in the steppe, one cannot put a deadline because as soon as you put a deadline on time, you are set to fail or not reach it. Three times Tim picked a time for his mother and his family; and, all three dates were not met. “Time in the steppe is measured by time.” And, you cannot rush time nor weather conditions. He learned this quote in Kazakhstan. He tried leaving one small village in the winter 9 times (I believe this is what he said), but he failed all nine times due to a variety of reasons.
“If you ever have to rush in life, rush slowly”
This is a famous saying in Kazakhstan and what Tim really learned from being stuck during the harsh winter weather there. After failed attempts to leave, Tim forgot his plans and started again in spring. And, this was really the beginning of becoming a nomad for Tim.
Tim also made a very interesting point to all the travelers, visitors, and even the nationals of Mongolia: “You can’t really appreciate the summer in Mongolia if you weren’t here for the winter.”
In the steppe, hospitality is obligatory not a choice
During his travels, Tim recalls meeting a nomadic family with 17 or 18 extra mats for traveling passerby’s. It’s very difficult to survive in this harsh weather without being hospitable to others and also being hospitable as well. In Kazakhstan, there is a saying that when you are supposed to host guests and doing so brings good karma and chases bad karma or spirits out through the top opening of gers or yurts. And, visiting is not just an hour long chat. Each one is a three day feast. After a while, it was very difficult to travel without being invited in, so Tim started traveling in a very wide circle around the homes of people in Kazakhstan.
There is another quote that helps describe the hospitality of the steppe people. The quote goes something like this: the first time a person is a guest, the second time he/she is friend, and third time he/she is family for life. (Please correct me if I’ve misspoken on the first or second meeting/visit).
There is also another great quote: “mountains never meet… but people do”
By the way, it should be noted that Tim spent 14 months in Kazakhstan and really learned the majority of his knowledge about being a nomad and understanding the ways of nomadic life there.
Summer heats in deserts
One of Tim’s major challenges were the extreme hot days during summertime in deserts. The highs reached 40 or 50 degrees Celsius, and it became very challenging for him or the horses to travel. As such, his major challenge was to find a shelter before the sweltering heat and sleeping during the day to travel at night.
There were so much more…
There were so much more that he spoke and talked about in his hour and a half long presentation that I simply have ran out of time.
There were things like:
- Tim’s experience with wolves in Mongolia
- Thieves stealing horses and finding them back – on two different occasions in two different countries
During the Q&A session, he covered things like…
- He had a great dog travel with him from Kazakhstan, but he couldn’t bring the dog to Australia because of the costs involved until just recently. It was something like $10K to bring back the dog. It was a very happy reunion after maybe two years of separation.
- Had Kazakh horses and they were donated to children’s riding organization in Hungary
- Kalmitia – jungars or uigars
- black sea
- Tartar people
- Hungars – people from central Asia
- Finding sponsors which funded maybe for half his trip. The planned costs were about $10/day excluding horses and equipment.
I believe he is working on a book
So, if you are interested in learning more and reading in depth about his horse trekking adventure across central Asia and Europe from Mongolia to Hungary, where the steppe ends, you might have to wait for the book to come out.
Judging from his presentation skills, Tim’s new book could be a best-seller. During the presentation, Tim had a way of truly conveying the thoughts and feelings as if we, the audience, were traveling ourselves… but he did so in an interesting, informative, but also very fun manner. He had lots of great jokes, which I cannot duplicate here. You just have to wait for the book to come out just like the rest of us. 😉
When the book comes out, I will make sure to notify everybody who leaves a comment with interest here on this blog. Maybe Tim will give us discount. 😀
Photos of Tim Cope at Cafe Amsterdam