I was 16 when I first travelled overseas, from rural Victoria to Nepal. I was struck by the people and the land they lived in that seemed to cascade with sights that I didn't have the vocabulary to describe. The generosity of spirit and the happiness of the people came to life through the lens of a physical experience. It set up the recipe for the rest of my life – adventure as a vehicle for coming to know people and their lands.
I first travelled to Russia as a 19-year-old, guiding a wilderness trek through Taiga forest in the north-west. At the time Russia was in financial meltdown and many people had not received salaries for up to a year. I was beguiled by the resilience of the people, particularly in the villages where they had a very positive and practical approach to life. Two years later, I would travel across Russia and Siberia to China by bicycle and learn Russian. The following year I rowed a wooden boat more than 4000 kilometres down the Yenisey River in Siberia to the Arctic Ocean.
In late 2000 I arrived in Mongolia by bicycle with my friend Chris, expecting to pass through in a just a week to our next destination, Beijing. In reality, the experience of being bogged down in the Gobi Sands with horsemen and women riding by set my path for the next 18 years. I was astounded that a country still existed largely without boundaries, where people lived close to the seasons, and only owned as many possessions as would fit onto the back of their animals. I returned two years later on my 10,000-kilometre, three-year journey by horse from Mongolia across the great Eurasian Steppe.
As a 19-year-old I got a scholarship to study as a wilderness guide in Finland for a year. I soon realised it was distinct from other European countries with a culture bound to a long history in the forests and lakes between the Baltic Sea and northern Russia. I will never forget sleeping out on the fresh, freezing ice of a lake, listening to it crack and bellow, and gazing upwards to the northern lights. In Finland I learnt that wilderness is a place where humans have always belonged.
Riding horses, and accompanied by my dog, Tigon, through the "starving steppe" of Kazakhstan was one of the most difficult yet inspiring chapters on my three-year journey by horse from Mongolia to Hungary. As the temperature plummeted and we broke out through fresh snow on unending plains, I was able to experience connection and freedom, yet also incredible, life-saving hospitality. This country changed me and made me more tolerant, open and patient.
Tim Cope returns to West Mongolia guiding treks for World Expeditions, such as the August 2018, 24-day Mongolia Five Gods River & Trek itinerary and, in September 2018 and 2019, an 18-day Mongolia Nomad Explorer and Eagle Hunters Festival journey. Phone 1300 720 000. See worldexpeditions.com timcopejourneys.com