Tim Cope: 'Civilisation feels like death to me'

He has ridden 6,000 miles through some of the most remote, rugged places on earth. After three years, Tim Cope's journey in the footsteps of Genghis Khan is about to end... and he is already feeling claustrophobic
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The Independent Online

This is a story so epic in scale and so close to the folk legends of middle Europe that it can only start in one way. Once upon a time... there was a young man who could never stay in one place for very long, because he yearned to keep travelling through the open countryside, under a big sky.

He learned to ride a horse and began to travel from the east to the west on a journey of almost ridiculous ambition: to cross the vast Eurasian Steppe, the plain stretching from the mountains of Mongolia to the pastures of Hungary, in the hoof-steps of the warrior emperor Genghis Khan. Without the rape and pillage though, obviously.

Tim Cope set off three years and three months ago. On Saturday the journey will come to an end at last, when he dismounts at the Opusztaszer National Park on the western edge of Genghis's former empire. Afterwards he will come to London, for a gathering at which some of the world's greatest adventurers will acclaim him as one of their kind.

"I don't know how I'll cope exactly," says the 28-year-old, who was baked by 54C sun in the deserts along the way and frozen by winter temperatures of -52C in the mountains. He appeared out of the heat haze and snow storm to astonish people living in the most remote places during the 10,000km (6,200-mile) ride and was often welcomed (but sometimes robbed). The lean, bearded stranger with the faraway look in his eye shared tiny yurt tents with large families, ate camel's head and goat's hoof, got food poisoning and fell in love, but always kept on moving. "This has become my way of life."

Out on the Steppe with only his three horses, a dog and the horizon for company, Cope would ride for four or five days without seeing anyone else. Under the stars, by the light of a fire, he wrote a blog on his laptop and sent home photographs of what he had seen.

The supporters and high-tech sponsors reading his website expected Cope to finish two years ago, but he was in no hurry. A series of arguments with border officials over the horses held him up for six months; his own tempo slowed too: living among people for whom rushing is "almost a sin", he learned to ride, eat, live and think like a nomad.

"I have changed so much," he says. The calmness in his voice is unsettling, but that comes from the nomads too, apparently. "They live out in the open in the toughest conditions I have ever seen, but they never complain. They just get on with it."

His world changed behind him as he travelled: his girlfriend, who began the journey by his side, left and married someone else. His father, his inspiration, died in a tragic car accident. Meanwhile Cope became famous. Last year he was named Adventurer of the Year in his home country by Australian Geographic magazine. In London, where the reception next week will be hosted by the Australian High Commission and attended by the granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

"I can't imagine what it will be like to stop," Cope says now, riding through southern Hungary. "I feel like I'm slowly losing my way. Everything that gave the journey gravity is becoming irrelevant. I have relied on my navigation, my horses, my knowledge of water and grass, but that's all going now I am in a place where there is an abundance of everything."

He has begun to feel claustrophobic, as he edges closer to what the rest of us call civilisation. "It's hard to find a place where you're out of earshot of some kind of noise. That's a huge change from where I have come from."

Cope began in eastern Mongolia in 2004 and passed through Kazakhstan, southern Russia and the Ukraine on the path taken 800 years ago by the Mongol warriors from whom so many modern Europeans are descended. His horses were stolen twice, but he bought more – one to ride, one to carry grain and one to bear his equipment. But why do it at all?

That is a question every self-appointed adventurer faces. It was asked of Steve Fossett, anotherRGS Fellow, as the search for the missing American billionaire continued last week. "Steve Fossett and I would share a common belief that it is possible and good to challenge yourself to the extreme," says Cope. The Genghis Khan connection gave him the angle he needed to sell the trip to sponsors, in a competitive market that sees crossing the Arctic or climbing Everest as relatively commonplace – but he insists it is all about travelling deeply as well as widely or quickly. "We also both know that while scientists can map the whole globe now there is a very real difference between that and being in the air, in the storm, on the land and experiencing it. That is what adventurers can offer to society: we know what it is like to be there, alive in the wild places."

So what is it like? The Russians call the Steppe hell. Cope's blog describes days going giddy in a desert furnace, and restless winter nights in a ripped tent lined with frost, or chipping ice out of a horse's hoof with fingers so cold they refuse to work. The horse nearly kicked him in the head – later it bit him in the back. But a local who rode alongside for 11 days, sleeping without a bag in -20C, gave Cope his dog Tigon, whose name means wind, to keep. They are still together.

Families in the most remote place were astonished to see this stranger come out of nowhere. And delighted. "In Khazak culture, historically, if any traveller comes riding from a long way there is an obligation to take him into your home. For the first three days the host doesn't even have the right to ask his name, his destination or his business. Then they can ask questions, or ask you to leave. But they don't, because having a guest is considered a great sign of good luck. When the traveller arrives, at the same time luck slides in through the opening of the yurt, the tent; and in the spring your lambs will give birth to twins."

The former vegetarian had to adapt to a nomad diet. "It was difficult to start with, when you find a horse head on the table for breakfast, or a camel head. Sometimes you suck on the hooves of the goat or eat the ears or eyes. But when you come to a nomad camp after hours riding on the Steppe, especially in winter, it is paradise to have this massive mountain of meat in front of you, steaming hot. You eat it and drink vodka. It's a wonderful celebration."

It was often hard to leave. "When you come out of the storms and sub-zero temperatures into a tiny yurt there's a sense that family love and care is the most important thing in the world. Many times I felt envious and frightened and alone when I knew I would have to pack up and go out into that cold alone. But at the end of the day I'm a traveller."

Handsome, charming strangers fall in love as they go. That's what all the stories say, isn't it?

"Erm. Yes. I had a relationship with a girl in the Ukraine. A painter. Yeah, I guess I was in love with her. We were together for about a year. But I've got to keep on moving, to finish the journey and she's got her painting to do. The ways parted."

That was hard, you can hear it in the way his voice falters. But the hardest moment of all came last year when his father died. Cope was riding through the Ukraine and received a text from his brother. "It's ironic," he says, sadly, "when you're on an adventure that many people consider as highly risky and your father dies in a car accident not far from home. We live in a dangerous world. The nomads know that life is transient: we come, we live, we die, we go."

The news knocked him back. Cope was close to his father, a farmer and lecturer in outdoor recreation who took him, as a child, on his bush treks and skiing trips. After school the teenager came to work in an adventure centre in Shropshire, but bailed out after three months to go cycling with a friend through Scotland and Ireland. "That was when I realised that travelling was what I wanted to do. It made me whole."

After training as a wilderness guide in Finland – "learning to survive on the knowledge of traditions rather than the use of equipment" – Cope rode a bike through Siberia, Mongolia and China, and wrote a book about it. He took part in the first rowing expedition down the Yenisey River to the Arctic Ocean. His sponsors for the Genghis Khan expedition include telecommunications and internet companies; but he has put up more than half the cost himself, going into debt and existing on a budget of $10 a day. "There were times when the dog was eating better than me."

The gamble is that the book and film will pay it back. His outdoorsman father was proud of Tim – and never more than when he broke off the trek to fly back and accept the Australian Geographic award last year. "I hadn't seen him for two and a half years. We had a few days together then. It was an amazing time. I'm so glad we had that."

His mother and brother will be in Hungary at the end, and after London they will holiday in Romania, of all things... horse riding. He won't stop travelling when this is over, or seeking adventure. It's his way of finding the happy ever after. But still, that question remains: why?

"Out on the road I am challenged to learn," says Cope, who has become a rugged mystic. "Feeling the air, in touch with the way the world works, aware of everything around you. In the winter time you even realise when the days shorten by one or two minutes. If I'm in an apartment for a week I totally lose touch with what the moon's doing, where the stars are, what the weather's doing, and I start to lose my strength. 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."

Further reading: Learn more about the great conqueror in 'Genghis Khan' by John Man (Bantam, £8.99)