It would be an understatement to say Tim Cope is an inspiring person. He has journeyed over 10,000km from Mongolia to Hungary by horse, rowed 4,500km in a leaky wooden boat down the Yenisey River from southern Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, and cycled from Moscow to Beijing by bike - a 10,000km journey that took him 14 months.
Needless to say, he's incredibly adventurous - which is why he's been named the past Australian Adventurer of the Year, Mongolian Tourism Envoy and is the recipient of the Mongolian Tourism Excellency Medal. He's also an author of one of Australia's bestselling books, "On The Trail Of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Lands of the Nomads" which won the 'Best Adventure Travel Book' and the 'Grand Prize' at the Banff International Mountain book and Film Festival 2013.
This month we sat down with Tim to find out what exactly he finds so fascinating about travelling the world, in particular his passion for exploring Mongolia. From finding out his most transformative travel experiences, favourite words of wisdom from the Kazakhs, and how the spirit of adventure became so deeply entwined in his way of life, be prepared to meet an extraordinary human being and find out how you can join him on his next adventure!
- You’ve got a pretty interesting history and have seen a lot of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Siberia. Where was the first place you travelled? Was it off the beaten path or something touristy that inspired you to seek less packaged experiences?
I was fortunate to have a father who was an outdoor educator, so all my early journeys were in my home region of Gippsland. Hiking at Wilsons Promontory, cross-country skiing in the Victorian Alps, and surfing at Waratah Bay are some of my fondest childhood memories. However my first overseas trip, which I think influenced my path greatly, was trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal when I was 16 years old (in 1994). I went to a small school in the town of Warragul, and the concept of travelling to Nepal was first put to students of our year level by my English teacher Rob Devling. Over two years we all had to earn our way to Nepal including raising money for the Fred Hollows Eye Foundation. The trek was actually run by World Expeditions, and the combination of physical challenge, culture and awe-inspiring landscapes that unfolded (for me particularly meeting the Nepalese people was the highlight) have remained the recipe for the kind of journeys that drive me on today.
- In 2004 you took off on a 10,000 km journey from Mongolia to Hungary by horse called “In The Footsteps of Genghis Khan”. That’s a pretty incredible journey – what are the biggest lessons you learned on that trip?
On a journey that ballooned from an 18-month plan to a three-and-a-half-year epic, patience was something that Nomads taught me. The Kazakhs have a saying - "If you must rush in life...rush slowly" - it is an approach to life that I have tried to carry over into my life since the journey. But perhaps the greatest lesson was the need to constantly appeal to the better side of human nature wherever I went. I had to make friends from all walks of life, and as a result both my inner and outer world expanded dramatically and I came to appreciate how important human relationships are.
- On this journey you experienced some significant moments; including receiving your loyal dog Tigon as a gift, being invited to the Khan’s palace in Crimea, and having your horses stolen at 2am, five days into your 10,000km journey. It’s a hard ask, but what’s your most memorable moment on your trip?
Ultimately I think one of the most memorable moments was riding through the high Altai Mountains of Mongolia in 2004. I remember clinging onto the mane of my horse for dear life on the edge of a gorge only for a lady leading a six-camel caravan to come casually riding down from a labyrinth of rock. When she stopped she made the lead camel kneel down, and then revealed a young baby wrapped up in a cane basket high up on the camel's humps.
It left me with the impression that these people live so closely with their animals, in camaraderie with them, that they put more trust in their animals with their precious loved ones than we might do with fellow human beings sometimes in our own society. For me, this symbolises the symbiotic and harmonious relationship that nomads have with their animals and in turn with the land.
- Did you see a contradiction in being deliberately and geographically isolated from civilization yet technologically connected to the outside world via your sat phone and laptop?
Horses allowed me to transcend the modern era and slip back into a timeless age, free of mechanical transport and roads. The world is still a very big and enchanting place from the back of a horse, and the needs of a horse haven't changed since they were first domesticated on the Eurasian steppe about 6000 years ago. At the same time, I did what any nomad does today - I took with me the technologies that could help me (and in my case help share my journey) but which don't compromise that horseback, free-roaming way of life. It was a contradiction in some ways, but I would probably argue that I wasnt trying to isolate myself from civilisation - I was trying to immerse myself in a different kind of ancient civilisation, that of nomadic society.
- You’ve won a number of awards which commend you for your spirit of adventure. Can you tell us a bit about your passion for embarking on journeys and why they are so important to you?
Journeys allow me to pursue my curiosity, expand my horizons, and ultimately bring me a greater sense of understanding on return home. Even in the information age of the internet there is no substitute for that very sensory experience of adventure.
- Most recently, you’ve received the Mongolian Tourism Excellency Medal and have been inaugurated as tourism envoy for Mongolia. What is it about Mongolia that resonates so deeply with you?
It is the only nation on the Eurasian steppe, and perhaps the world, where nomad culture still dominates. Out on the steppe time is measured more by the seasons, the availability of grass, and water, and less by hours, days and weeks. I believe that the sense of harmony and sustainability with which the nomads live with the land holds valuable lessons for us all.
- You’ve been quoted as saying that “To live in the city, in a world of abundance and disconnection where everything is controlled at the touch of a button, for me that feels like... death." What do you think we could learn from the nomadic cultures of Mongolia?
There is a Mongolian saying that certainly transformed my own understanding of the world and rescued me time and time again out on the Eurasian steppe. When, on the fifth day of my trip my horses were stolen, and then recovered, a nomad said to me "A man on the steppe without friends is as narrow as a finger... a man on the steppe with friends is as wide as the steppe." Nomads after all embrace the reality that only by being part of a community and getting along with others from all walks of life, is life survivable let alone enjoyable.
That is one of many lessons that I have learnt and have tried to convey in my book, film, and the ongoing series of talks that I give. Beyond that, as I mentioned in my last answer, I believe that the way in which nomads acknowledge they are part of a much greater web of life, and live in harmony with their environment, is something that is deeply moving and which I hope resonates with the participants of my treks.
- Your new Mongolia Five Gods River and Trek Expedition trek sounds exciting. Where are you going and what can travellers on these trips expect?
I'm really excited about this unique multi-discipline journey that I have long dreamt of putting together. We will be trekking through some of the highest peaks in the Altai of Bayan Olgiy province along migratory nomad trails (assisted by camels and horses) before meandering our way along the Khovd River by canoe down from 4000 metre peaks to the desert floor. This type of journey will enable us to experience the drama of glacier capped peaks, high alpine lakes, forests and expansive steppe landscapes that define Western Mongolia. Additionally, it will allow us to immerse ourselves in the diverse cultures of the Khovd river basin (the Khovd river is the largest and longest watercourse of Western Mongolia) including those of the Tuvans, Kazakhs, and Mongolians. Along the way we will be witnessing ancient heritage of nomads including a variety of petroglyphs and grave sites. The canoeing is open to beginners, and is an intimate and unique way to experience the region.
- As an inspirational speaker you show people that individuals are capable of great things. Is that part of why you take on these journeys and adventures?
Writing was my first passion even before travel - when I was 14 I was determined to become an author. I've always loved digesting things for myself in words and then sharing it with others and over time this has expanded to documentary films, photography and speaking. I like the way in which storytelling can engage people and allow them to step out of the frame of their normal lives even if it is just temporarily.
- Can you tell us who inspired you challenge yourself, test your limits and travel so extensively across some of the more remote countries in the world?
Apart from my father, who I think sewed the seeds of adventure in me as a young child, I would have to say that listening to Tim Macartney-Snape speak when I was 16 years old and then later watching his film and reading his book had a big impact on me. Authors such as Wilfred Thesiger and Joe Simpson also inspired me in different ways - the former for his fascination and admiration of nomad culture, and the latter for having the courage to pursue an unconventional path in life.