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Ancient Land of the Steppe Nomads

Ancient Land of the Steppe Nomads: Whilst Ghengis Khan was perhaps the most famous of all nomads, the steppe region stretching from Mongolia to Hungary has been home to mounted nomads for much longer. The frigid climate and lack of vegetation meant that it was only through domestic animals that life on the steppe became possible. It was therefore ‘survival’ that forced a certain way of life on the people; a nomadic lifestyle. This in turn meant that they were naturally superior warriors- physically hardened and masterful on horseback. Historians suggest that the first true nomads were the Scythians who emerged from the Altai Mountains and learned to ride horses a millennia BC. They were famous for their use of golden jewellery and extravagant burials of leaders- they would often bury hundreds of horses and people alongside the dead in what was known as a ‘Kurgan.’ These can still be seen on the Steppe today as large grassy mounds. The legacy of the Scythians and their descendants meant that the fierce reputation of mounted warriors from the east had haunted Europeans long before Ghengis. The Huns were one such group of mounted nomads that devastated Europe and eventually led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. In fact Attilla the Hun struck so much fear into the hearts of Europeans that ‘Hun’ remained as a derogatory term until WW2 when it was used to insult the Germans. The term ‘Hungary’ was eventually formed from this term, although the present day Hungarians are in fact ‘Magyars.’ The reality is that over several millennia many waves of different nomads have washed over the steppe region from every direction forming a huge melting pot. When Ghengis conquered much of central Asia and the Slavs of Eastern Europe he was conquering the descendants of his own ancestors. Essentially all groups of people from the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongolians, Tatars, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Russians are related. Napoleon went as far as to say: ‘If you scratch a Russian you find a Tartar.’ That saying is still true today and can be applied to the whole region. Ask anyone in Hungary about their origins and they will refer to their distant relatives the ‘Huns,’ ask the Russians and they will tell you of the ‘Tartars,’ and throughout the rest of central Asia there are hints of pride in being related to the ‘great Mongols’ and the ancient horse-riding ‘Scythians.’ To try and define exactly ‘who’ the people are that live on the steppe and where their origins lie is a perplexing and almost impossible task. So perhaps it is better to stick with Ghengis Khan’s solution when he proclaimed himself ‘the great leader of all those people who live in felt tents.” This ‘solution’ also provides the parameters for Tim’s journey. Like Ghengis, Tim will be tracing the original land of the nomad –from one edge of the Steppe to the other- to distant Hungary where felt tents were traditionally the norm. He will travel among the ancestors of Ghengis, passing the kurgans- Scythian tombs- and meeting people of ancient nomad blood. Through this he will endeavor to understand what it was and is to be a steppe nomad. It is after all the nomadic lifestyle that is the underlying thread still connecting the many varied cultures and people of Central Asia today.