Retracing the Steps of the Nomads

An adventurer retraces the steps of the nomads with 11 horses.

Oct.1, 2007 — -- Not since 1241, when Genghis Khan and his descendants laid claim to their vast empire, has anyone successfully crossed the 6,200-mile Mongol territory in one single journey.

Until Sept. 22, 2007, that is, when Tim Cope, a writer, filmmaker and adventurer from Gippsland, Victoria in Australia, cruised into Opusztaszer, Hungary, accompanied by his three horses and dog, Tigon.

"Last week, I took the last steps on a journey that's taken me three years and three months, from Mongolia to Hungary, on a horse," said Cope in an interview with ABC News. "It is very difficult to explain what it was like to take those last steps, because this journey became my life."

Originally intended to be an 18-month expedition, the journey, which began in Mongolia in June 2004, took Cope through the harsh conditions of the Eurasian steppe, which stretches from Mongolia to Hungary, and boasts one of the harshest climates in the world.

With the help of his compass and GPS, Cope and his menagerie traversed the ice-capped Altai Mountains, the frozen wilderness of the starvation steppe of Kazakhstan, the blistering Kazakh deserts, the black coast of Crimea, and finally, the more temperate plains of Hungary.

"When I set off, I planned the journey would take round about a year and a half. Three years and three months later, of course, I arrived. From day one, the plan basically evaporated," Cope said. "In the end, I had to deal with much more than I ever imagined."

Already fluent in Russian, Cope picked up the Kazakh and Mongol dialects along the way, ingesting as much of the local culture and countryside as he could. "I wanted to get to know the landscape intimately. The best times of this journey were when I was out alone with the horses, blue sky overhead, with a bit of breeze, just moving toward the horizon."

Once on the road, Cope forced himself to take his time. "The greatest challenge was really having patience, and resisting the urge to panic, and rush and worry.  It took so much patience to travel in these extremes, often with very, very difficult conditions," he said.

Road Trouble

During his three-year voyage, Cope endured many hardships, including a terrifying night surrounded by a pack of hungry, howling wolves, and the loss of his beloved Tigon, whom he later found, and nursed back to health with the help of raw eggs and vodka.

These harrowing tales from the saddle are just a few of the many different experiences Cope encountered on his trek. However, he insists that the motive behind his trip was not just to challenge himself, both physically and mentally, but to educate and open himself up to the nomadic Mongolian lifestyle.

"The real purpose of my trip was to put my feet in the stirrups, so to speak, of the nomads — those nomads, who traveled for thousands of years across the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia to Europe," he said.

At the end of the day, Cope says that traveling, for him, is "a way of life.

"It's about broadening my horizons, and learning through these challenges, and meeting people, by traveling in local and traditional ways," he said.

Now that he has completed his journey, Cope has mixed emotions — while he's glad to be finished, he had to say goodbye to the only things he has called home for the past three years.

However, the completion of this arduous expedition does not spell the end of this experience for Cope — he now hopes to complete a book and a film, chronicling his trip.