Locating the Tombs of the Genii in Kazakhstan

I have been asked by Baltabay, a reader in Kazakhstan, if I know the location of the six large stones drawn by Thomas Atkinson and published in his book Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor.

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Atkinson’s picture of the stones in the Kora Valley

This is the picture to which Baltabay is referring and it can be found in Chapter 6, which is called ‘The Kora and Traditions’. Many people have been fascinated by this picture as it shows six huge stones precariously perched in the bottom of a steep-sided valley alongside a river. Some have even speculated that they were placed there by aliens or beings with superhuman powers, as they appear to be enormous and unnatural.

Like Baltabay I was fascinated by this picture and very keen to track down the location of the stones. It appears that no-one had previously worked out the precise position. The valley that Atkinson describes is that of the Kora River, which starts at a glacier in the Djungar Alatau Mountains and eventually flows into Lake Balkhash. It lies to the south of Kapal, the small settlement where Thomas and Lucy stayed from October 1848 until May 1849 and where Lucy gave birth to their son, Alatau.

The Kora Valley – still today almost exactly as described by Atkinson

The valley itself is not easy to get into. Its western end, which terminates at the town of Tekeli, is almost impenetrable due to the very steep sides. However, there is a Buddhist stupa located at the valley entrance, suggesting that it was known about in ancient times.

Buddhist stupa at the entrance to the Kora Valley in Tekeli

Three years ago, with the help of local guides, I was able to reach the only track that can be used by vehicles to access the valley. Still today, Atkinson’s description of the valley holds true: “From this point the valley was exceedingly rugged, the granite cliffs on the north being nearly perpendicular and rising nearly 1,000 feet. On the south side, a dense forest commences on the bank of the river, extending up a very steep sloe for about 500 yards, to the base of some huge rocky masses. These rose in three terraces till they reached the snow line; in parts they were wooded, in others the cliffs have fallen, forming a mass of debris that extends from the edge of the forest to the lofty crags that stand bristling out of the snow like watch-towers and battlements.

It is a truly beautiful valley, almost untouched since Atkinson’s day, although there is now a small yurt camp. In the past tigers roamed this area, and although they have long since disappeared there are still bears in the area and remarkable stands of wild flowers. It is a truly beautiful place.

Map showing Tekeli in the west at the mouth of the Kora Valley, which is the main feature, with Kapal to the north and glaciers at the eastern end.

Atkinson describes the five huge stones that he later sketched: “As I approached this spot, I was almost induced to believe that the works of the Giants were before me, for five enormous stones were standing isolated and on end, the first sight of which gave me the idea that their disposition was not accidental, and that a mastermind had superintended the erection – the group being in perfect keeping with the scene around. One of these blocks would have made a tower large enough for a church, its height being 76 feet above the ground and it measured 24 feet on one side and 19 feet on the other. It stood 73 paces from the base of the cliffs, and was about 8 feet out of the perpendicular, inclining towards the river. The remaining blocks varied from 45 to 50 feet in height, one being 15 feet square and the rest somewhat less. Two of these stood upright, the others were leaning in different directions, one of them so far that it had nearly lost its equilibrium.

Atkinson goes on to give an account of local superstitions about the rocks, noting that they were the result of a feud between geniis who inhabited the area and who had been punished by Shaitan and buried beneath the huge rocks. Ever since, locals had been fearful of entering the valley. The world ‘kora’ itself means closed or entombed.

Being such large stones, I assumed that it would not be difficult to find them in the Kora Valley. However, I could find nothing that closely resembled the stones, despite walking almost 15 miles along the bottom of the valley. However, I did find what I think it likely to have been the location for the stones. I also heard an explanation for their absence.

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In the Kora Valley searching for the Tombs of the Genii.

A local climbing guide, now retired, told me that the Kora Valley had been transformed on several occasions by earthquakes. On at least one occasion the valley had been blocked by falling rocks, forming a lake which had later burst and swept downstream large amounts of debris. He thought this could have happened to the stones. This made sense, as close to the spot described by Atkinson there are indeed a number of very large stones standing on their own at the bottom of a cliff. They are not so tall as those Atkinson described, but if the original stones had been knocked over and shattered, the existing stones could easily be the remnants of those he mentioned. Here are my photographs of the existing stones.

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Are these the remains of the Tombs of the Genii?

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Of course, if you choose not to believe such a rational explanation, they you can join the ranks of sceptics that can be found online speculating about the superhumans who were able to move these massive rocks. Or perhaps you can choose to believe the Kazakhs, for whom this place still holds a sense of mystery.

Thomas Atkinson and Queen Victoria

Thomas Atkinson’s connections with the Russian Tsars are well known. His first book, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858), was dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, whose father, Tsar Nicholas I, had given the traveller an enormously important document – a passport that allowed him to wander across Russia and Siberia, to leave and re-enter the country and to call upon local officials for help and provisions. Later, both Tsars had offered the Atkinsons their personal protection in St Petersburg even as Russia and Great Britain were at war in the Crimea between 1853-55.

However, Atkinson’s connection to Queen Victoria is less well known, even though his second book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (1860), was dedicated “by special permission” to Queen Victoria. What is more, letters and books in the Royal Collection at Windsor provide some background to the relationship between Atkinson and his monarch.

The first time we hear about this is in Queen Victoria’s personal diary, where she records a meeting she held with Atkinson in October 1856, only weeks after he had returned from Russia for the first time to deliver his book manuscript to his publishers. Victoria writes:

A frost, & found it cold, when we walked out with the Children after breakfast. — Service at 11. — After luncheon we saw about 50 very interesting drawings & paintings done by a Mr Atkinson, who has for about 6 years been travelling in Siberia, & Mongolia, which must be most curious. He has seen all the Russian possessions there & all their unknown Forts. He was very kindly treated by the Empr Nicholas, even after the war broke out, being allowed to remain at St. Petersburg, whilst it was going on. He saw the Emperor about 5 or 6 days before he died. — Walked & drove home. — Dining alone.

Entry from Queen Victoria’s diary that mentions Atkinson. All pictures courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

However, that was not the end. It seems quite likely that there was a second meeting, although I cannot find a record. However, details are contained in a letter dated 21 December 1857 from Atkinson to a senior member of the Royal Household, Colonel Sir Charles Beaumont Phipps.

Atkinson’s letter requesting permission to present a copy of his book to the Queen

This letter makes it clear that the Queen had agreed to allow Atkinson to present a copy of his first book in person at Windsor Castle. She writes an instruction (in red ink) to Phipps on the back of a letter: “It may be presented in person – some day after luncheon next week at Windsor.”

Queen Victoria, writing in red, agrees to meet Atkinson at Windsor

Phipps must then have written to Thomas, who replied to query the arrangements: “When Her Majesty’s pleasure has been expressed will you do me the favour to inform me on which day during the week the audience will be granted? You have mentioned three o’clock as the hour but the day is not named,” Thomas writes.

Even if we do not know whether or not the meeting ever took place, we do know that Atkinson presented a special copy of his book, bound in red leather with gilt tooling, to the Queen, as it remains in the Royal Collection at Windsor.

The specially bound copy of Oriental and Western Siberia presented to Queen Vicctoria

Emma Stuart, Senior Curator of Books and Manuscripts at the Royal Collection Trust, tells me that the Royal Collection also holds copies of Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (which was dedicated to Queen Victoria) and Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes. In addition, there is a second copy of Oriental and Western Siberia at in the Royal Collection at Sandringham, which was bought by King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.


Pricing an Atkinson book


Saw this advert today on Ebay for a copy of Thomas Atkinson’s first travel book, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858). It contains a dedication from the author to William Foster White, who at the time was Treasurer of St Bart’s Hospital in London. The seller claims the book is unique in that it contains a signature of the author. In fact, there are at least two other copies of this book that contain a dedication from Atkinson. At £13,000, I can’t help but think that the seller is being a little optimistic on his price.

Rugby School remembers Alatau

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Floreat magazine’s tribute to Alatau Atkinson.

I am delighted to see that Rugby School has published a tribute to Alatau Atkinson, son of Thomas and Lucy, in the 2018 issue of their magazine, Floreat. Alatau attended the school from 1864-66, following the death of his father, after the Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and others raised more than £200 to pay his fees.

The article was written by Marianne Simpson, a descendant of Lucy Atkinson’s brother, William York Finley. She has previously written an extensive article for this blog on Alatau’s background, which you can find here. Other articles about Alatau on this blog include one about the rhyme sung about him at Rugby, which you can find here.

RSAA journal publishes article on the Atkinsons

Asian Affairs, the Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, has just published my article on Thomas and Lucy Atkinson. In this 7,000-word article, Thomas and Lucy Atkinson: Pioneering Explorers of the Steppe, I have made the case for a reassessment of the importance of their travels and their writings.

Asian Affairs, Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs

I argue that their extensive travels over the course of seven years – around 40,000 miles by horse, carriage, raft and sometimes on foot – shone a light on many areas of Central Asia and Siberia that had never been seen by Westerners before. The fact that they travelled as a family group, including their son Alatau, is probably unique in the annals of Western exploration. Thomas’ paintings of the landscapes through which they travelled, together with the portraits he made of nomadic Kazakhs, are a remarkable legacy, rightly treasured in the many museums in which they are held. And Lucy’s wonderful book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes, is one of the earliest genuine travel books every written by a woman.

For those of you who have a subscription to Asian Affairs, you can access the article here. Otherwise, you can read my unedited manuscript as submitted here: Article for Asian Affairs Journal: I would be delighted to hear any comments.

The original title for Atkinson’s second book

I have commented before on the fact that the title of Thomas Atkinson’s second travel book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor, published in 1860, seems odd in the light of its content, which is mostly about Central Asia, with only a small part about the Amoor – or Amur, as it is now known – most of which was taken from Richard Maak’s book on the River.

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The cover of Atkinson’s book on the Amur

We know that Atkinson was prevented by the Russian authorities from travelling on the Amur River, probably due to concerns that he may pass on information that might be of use to the British Admiralty in the event of a war between the two countries. At that time, in the early 1850s, the Russians were in the process of seizing large chunks of Chinese territory along the Amur and had no wish for nosey British subjects to witness their activities. Atkinson had intended to travel from Irkutsk to the Pacific coast along the river, but this plan was blocked, despite his urgent appeals. In the end, he was only able to travel to the river’s headwaters in the Khingan Mountains in what is now northern Mongolia.

I have always thought that the title of this second book was decided upon by Atkinsons publishers, because the Amur was in the public consciousness at that time and they wanted to capitalise on this fact. This theory may be borne out by one of the documents in the Dahlquist Collection, held by Atkinson descendant Paul Dahlquist in Hawaii. One of the original documents is a draft outline for the title of the book. Clearly written in Atkinson’s own hand, it reads as follows:

         Travels In the Great Deserts of Gobi and the Northern Regions Of China              With adventures in the Chinese Penal Settlements; among the Escaped convicts And Mongols.

Also an account of Russia’s progress towards Pekin, Her Harbours in the Sea of Japan And Their influence on The Tea Trade,

At the top of the document, is the following inscription, written by Alatau Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy’s son: “My father’s first draft of the title to his book”.

This would appear to confirm that the decision on what to call the book was more than likely made by Hurst & Blackett, his publishers. Unfortunately, we are never likely to know for sure, as the company’s archives were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.

The wrong Emma Atkinson…

In its issue of 17 September 1881, the Barnsley Chronicle published the latest in its series of articles about prominent citizens of the Yorkshire town, setting out a detailed biography of Thomas Atkinson, who was born in the nearby village of Cawthorne. The article quotes extensively from correspondence sent by Thomas’ wife Lucy, and includes many fascinating details about the great explorer’s humble beginnings.

Generally, the article, which is unsigned, is very accurate and informative. But there is one section which is mistaken and perhaps here is the place to lay it to rest. It states:

“In addition to the son referred to above, who is now in Honolulu, Mr Atkinson left two daughters by a previous wife; one of whom we have been told, was many years ago engaged as a teacher of languages at Wentworth Castle. Miss Emma Wilsher Atkinson, one of these daughters, is not unknown in the literary world, having written ‘The Lives of the Queens of Prussia’ and ‘Extremes’, a novel in two volumes. The materials for the former work, which was published in 1858, she collected during her residence in Prussia; and it is dedicated to ‘a much-beloved invalid sister’. ‘Extremes’ is a novel written with a sober purpose and wound up with a moral…”

In fact, having looked into this in some detail, I can confirm that Emma Wilsher Atkinson was not related in any way to Thomas Witlam Atkinson. It is true that the latter had a son and two daughters through his first marriage to Rebecca (nee Mercer). The eldest daughter, born in 1819, was Martha, who went on to marry the very successful railway solicitor James Wheeler and eventually ended up living in a very grand house in Hyde Park Gardens in Central London.

His second daughter, Emma, was born in Pimlico in 1829. She appears never to have married and lived with her sister’s family until at least 1871. After that I have not been able to trace her. But she was never a writer and had no connection with the other Emma Atkinson.