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On The Trail of Genghis Khan


lonely in the asian steppes
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: February 23, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : On The Trail of Genghis Khan | Tim Cope | Mongolia | Kazakhstan | Russia | Black Sea Coast |

Westerners lap-up Genghis Khan with almost same fervour as Easterners warm up to Alexander. And it is not too off the mark to say that both of them incite far lesser enthusiasm in their respective spheres of globe. But this continued awe that Alexander and Genghis manage to inspire in the East and the West respectively has meant that the scholarships on both of them continue to find eager patrons. In the last two years itself, over 10 books on Genghis Khan, catering to varied genres, have been published by mainstream big publishing houses. So when the review copy of On The Trail of Genghis Khan came to me, frankly speaking, it did not entice much enthusiasm in me. After all, only last year had I reviewed two books on Genghis Khan and found both of them perfectly readable if not more. Consequently I put this one away.

It was after a week or so that I saw it again and to my surprise saw famous Australian adventurer-author Tim Cope smiling on the cover. I had been a fan of Cope’s writings and immediately realised that I made a mistake. You see, you can sure judge a book by its cover.

On The Trail of Genghis Khan, as it is evident, is a self explanatory name. Tim Cope has tried to trace the almost 10,000 kilometres conquest route taken by Khan and his hordes from the modern day Mongolia to modern day Hungary. Of course when Khan did it in 12th and 13th century, he bound the entire expanse into one nation. The political geography changed dramatically and Cope’s route had to pass through Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Black Sea Coast and Crimea ending on the banks of Danube in Hungary.

But it is easier said than done. Since most of the spectacular victories achieved by Mongols were attributed to them being hardy horsemen, Cope too decided to traverse the landscape on a stud. And since he was no Khan with followers, the loneliness of the Asian steppes and otherwise was shared by first his girlfriend, and then his dog.

What he witnesses through his journey is spectacular. Problems of all kinds, language, bureaucratic, horse thieves, wolves, and temperature that varied from -50 Degrees C to +54 Degrees C; it had everything. But then, it also had hospitality, closeness to nature, overwhelming support and not to forget, extreme loneliness that offers you logistics to find yourself.          

“The climbing heat of mid-morning coincided with a rising symphony of cicadas and the melting of the horizon into a haze … Ahead and around us the steppe spread out in vast sheets of luminescent green,” he writes.

For the casual observers, the region would appear empty. But under the trained eyes of Cope comes several stories that needed to be told and shared. There is this continuous conflict between the ethos of modernization and the past nomadic life. While a substantial section of Kazaks chose the settled life over the uncertainty of nomadic wilderness, a huge section of Mongolia remained attached to its past. Modernization crept in, but it was appropriated. The biggest example, Cope says, was the presence of TV inside the Yurts and huts.

Kazakhstan and parts of Russia also demonstrated the human and environmental cost of Stalin’s experiments, so to speak. The cotton cultivation ruined parts of it and collectivization ruined the rest. Forces migration left deep wounds inside Tartars, Cossacks and other ethnicities. And of course the nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk.

Although one does note anti-Communism bias here and there but overall Cope has remained loyal to facts and their interpretations.

Some crazy stuffs doe come up at times. For example Khan’s attempt towards banning alcohol consumption. “If there is no means to prevent drunkenness, a man may become drunk thrice a month; if he oversteps this limit he makes himself punishable of this offence... What could be better than that he should not drink at all? But where shall we find a man who never drinks? If however such a man is found, he deserves every respect,” Khan is supposed to have maintained.

In fact, it is in the way Cope mingles history with his travel experiences that make this behemoth of a book worth reading. The book is not without flaws though. There is a sense of repetition, in fact, going in cycle. After a point the repetitions of the daily rituals starts to hinder the narrative. But at every such moment, Cope comes with a crackling of an anecdote. 

A few smaller paragraphs also deal with his guilt of abandoning his girlfriend at the time she needed him the most. And death of his father. But such personal touch only makes the narrative more humane.

This book is a must read for history and travel buffs alike. Tim Cope has come up with a winner here.

Author : Tim Cope
Publisher : Bloomsbury
EDITION: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4088-4221-8
PAGES: 530
PRICE: Rs 550

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017