Friday, July 31, 2015

On the Trail of Genghis Khan by Tim Cope (Book Review #59 of 2015)

On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads
Australian Tim Cope sets out on a 10,000 km journey on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary across the Asian steppe to retrace the steps of the Mongols. What may sound like a romantic journey turns into a real painful slog. What was intended to take 16 months takes him three years instead. The further West he goes the more he finds the scars left by Soviets who worked hard to erase ethnic memories and connections to previous ways of life. If there is a romantic aspect it is when he finally crosses into Hungary and befriends a professor who did his dissertation on Mongol equine culture and loves to keep the old heritage alive. This isn't a tale filled with humorous happenings of a hapless Western traveler so much as it is a cautionary tale of ever attempting the same feat.

Cope does a good job explaining Mongolian history along his journey, describing the battles that took place and the incredible feats of the Mongols to stretch an empire so vast. He has a somewhat naive goal of finding Mongol roots of the names of places and in the present-day cultures that perhaps have been previously unexamined. He had previously authored a book and documentary traveling through Russia and China, and he picks up some support for this effort along the way as well; while this journey was completed in 2007 the first documentary came out in 2010 and the book was finished in 2013. Had he not carried a satellite phone with a computer this might have ended up a tragic story.

Tim is about my age. I used to live in the mountains of the Caucasus not far from cemeteries where supposedly Mongols and their horses were buried so I have had a similar fascination with them as him. I experienced much of the same post-Soviet nominally-Islamic culture that Cope experiences in Kazakhstan. The endless moonshine and vodka, being asked "hundreds of times" across the region "how much do women cost?" and the idea that visiting a prostitute and drinking are what make you a man. I've also witnessed the same phenomenon of disconnect from the past due to Soviet displacement or development, which I think Cope records very well. He also experiences months of frustration due to the red tape associated with transporting animals from country to country, a mixture of bureaucracy, bribery, and luck. This book is so similar to books written by other adventurers in the 1800s who traveled these areas; I recommend finding those old ones free online and then comparing Cope's journey (I hope he does the same, it would have added much to the book if he'd read other adventurers' travels through Central Asia and Russia).

He finds the greatest help and hospitality in Mongolia, and begins the journey with his European girlfriend who leaves after a few months for Germany. They break up then, and again long-distance. Cope gets some training on horses, acquires some, and sets out from village to village. It helps that he speaks some Mongol and apparently a good bit of Russian; also, he has an Australian veterinarian on speed dial via satellite phone. In Kazakhstan, he finds that Mongol discoveries like the advantages of horsehair clothing are known but the natives have long forgotten how to make them. He begins with a good experience among the Wakhan people  but the further West he gets the less hospitable it gets. He finds an awful lot of Soviet nostalgia mixed with tragic memories of the deportations and mass starvation during Stalin's collectivization phases. He gets essentially stranded in Akberkay, "a place that God forgot" as described by the locals, during a winter. He does a good job making what surely was months of sheer frustration sound like not a big deal in the scheme of things, constantly facing alcoholism and thievery.

He notes the stark contrast between the rural areas and the cities and the recent push toward Kazakh nationalism and native language. There are places his Russian really help him, and others where it doesn't as much as it would have 20 years ago. He forges through deserts and mountains, somehow maintaining the health of his horses and working to get food and shelter for all at every stop and with limited budget.

He crosses from Kazakhstan into southern Russia and spends time among the Kalmyk people near the Caspian Sea. He gets to see the ethnic tensions that exist between the minorities, arriving just after Russian troops have vacated after restoring order after riots. Chechens are hated by the locals and everyone is wary of Russia.  Traveling westward he encounters Cossacks who have long since lost touch with their horseback heritage as Cope has increasing difficulties taking care of his own animals.

From the Caucasus area he crosses (with much legal difficulty) into Crimea, and this bit from 2006-2007 is really helpful in giving context to the Russian annexation of the place in 2014-2015. He witnesses riots between Russians and Crimean Tatars who have been allowed to return since the early 1990s and want to re-establish their heritage. He sees alleged thugs hired by Medvedev to create problems and gets the understanding that Russia considers this to be Russian land for the Russians, not Ukranians or Tatars. As he moves westward through Ukraine he meets more Western-oriented Ukranian nationalists, the kinds that are fighting against Russia today. Durking his time in the Ukraine, his father unexpectedly passes away. Cope had seen him a few months prior when he was flown to Australia to receive a reward, and Cope again returns for the funeral. These interludes are interesting, as Cope always has to leave his horses (and his dog, Tigon) with strangers for a price and unknown amount of time. He is aided along the way by a few wealthy people who have a love of horses and eventually is able to enter Hungary, which seems to be the most fulfilling part of his journey.

He finishes his journey with his brother who comes for the last leg. Eventually he is able to crowdfund the money to bring Tigon to Australia. In the making of the documentary, he falls in love with a Mongol woman. He closes the book with a retrospective on the changing politics of the countries he traveled in, illustrating what changed from 2004-2013.

I give this book four stars out of five. It's a bit long and harrowing, but gives a great picture of Central Asia, Russia, and the Ukraine. I'd like to see the documentary now.

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