Report of 2019 Zhetysu Expedition now available


I am delighted to tell you that the final report on last year’s horseback expedition to the Djungar Alatau Mountains in the Zhetysu region of Eastern Kazakhstan is now available. You can find a copy here – Zhetysu 2019 Report

The report explains the background to last year’s expedition and shows the route we took. This was the second of three journeys following the routes taken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in the spring and summer of 1849. The journey brought home to us the difficulties the couple must have faced, not least because they were carrying with them their nine-month-old baby son, Alatau. We were struck by the beauty of these mountains and the difficulty of the terrain. We were also impressed by the wildlife we came across, including ibex, bears, eagles and antelope.

Talk on the Atkinsons at the RSAA

John Massey Stewart will be giving a lunchtime talk on the Atkinsons for the Royal Society for Asian Affairs at the Royal Observatory in Burlington House, London on 29 January. Entitled ‘The Atkinsons adventures in Siberia and Kazakhstan’, it is based on his recent book. Little of this will be new to keen followers of this blog or readers of my book on the Atkinsons, but anything that draws more attention to the this intrepid couple is to be applauded. Tickets can be obtained here.

How not to cross a raging whitewater river on horseback

Travelling by horse in the remote parts of Kazakhstan’s Djungar Alatau Mountains is never easy. Steep slopes, the lack of pathways and, most particularly, the many river crossings make these journeys hazardous, even in the most favourable conditions. No more so than in September last year as our small group of eight riders were coming towards the end of a long and arduous descent of the valley of the Big Bascan  River.

The Big Bascan starts high in the mountains in the glaciers of some of the tallest peaks in the magnificent Djungar Alatau range, particularly Peak Tianshansky  and the Shumsky Glacier. Normally by the beginning of September it is beginning to decrease in ferocity as lower temperatures in the mountains lead to a decrease in meltwater. But in September we faced a combination of two factors: first, the weather was warmer than usual and second, we had experienced a huge storm the night before our descent, meaning that the river was higher than usual.

The Big Bascan River has cut its way through a series of narrow canyons in the mountainside meaning that to follow it down we were forced to cross the river six or eight times, making best use of the margins of the river. As you will see in the footage below, some of these crossings were distinctly dangerous. In the clip that follows you will see me follow our guide Ruslan into the river. He makes it across, but as I follow close behind, my horse is swept off its feet and I am tipped head first into the river.

In such crossings it is normal to take your feet out of the stirrups in case you go into the river, thus allowing you to escape from the horse. This is what I did during this crossing, but unfortunately my foot got caught in the reins as the horse stumbled on the rocky bottom of the river. With a large daybag on my back I found myself being dragged under the water and unable to escape. After a terrifying few second I finally got free and began to float off down the river. To my intense relief Ruslan jumped in and grabbed me by the neck as I was floating by him. After a few moments, with his help, I was able to drag myself out and remount. No point in finding dry clothes as it was pouring with rain.

Twenty or so minutes later my horse was swept off its feet again and I had a second ducking. It was a salutory experience and brings home exactly how tough it must have been for the Atkinsons travelling in these mountains with a young baby. Total respect!!!

PS Thanks to Harvey for the clip.

Another American edition of Atkinson’s first book on Siberia

In October last year I wrote about the early American editions of Thomas Atkinson’s books on his travels in Central Asia and Siberia. I mentioned that both Harper and Brothers and also J W Bradley of Philadelphia had published several editions of Atkinson’s two books. I also mentioned the edition of Oriental and Western Siberia published by another Philadelphia company called John E Potter & Co.

Potter edn
The John E Potter edition of Oriental and Western Siberia

Now I have come across yet another version of Oriental and Western Siberia published by Potter & Co. This appears to be a de luxe version of the book, with a fancier spine and cover.

Potter-2                 Potter-1


The date is not mentioned inside the book, but it is thought to have been published in 1870. Could there be any more editions lurking out there?


The Prince of Wales in Hawaii – a few more details

I am grateful to Atkinson descendant Pippa Smith for passing on to me a memoir from her grandmother, Marjorie Whitehead (née Gibbons), who was grand-daughter in turn of Alatau Atkinson. Marjorie’s three-page note sets out all she knew about the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to the home of her uncle Robert Witlam Atkinson in Pearl Harbor in April 1920.

Marjorie recalls that she and her mother were visiting Hawaii from their home in England when the Prince arrived on the islands on his way to Australia. She was at the ball at the Armory mentioned in the previous article, from where she was whisked away to Robert Atkinson’s house. “But what an unexpected scene met our eyes! Beside the big kamani tree near the house a Hawaiian feast had been laid on the ground and near the gate an entrancing smell was coming from the ‘imu‘ (underground oven) where the pig was being roasted whole, by means of hot stones inside. The tables only a few inches off the floor were decorated and covered with leaves, there were bowls of beautiful fruit and places laid for about thirty guests”.

Atkinson House2

Robert Atkinson’s house in Pearl Harbor, built entirely from local materials.

A small grass hut had been built in the garden where a Hawaiian band, singers and hula dancers were waiting for the Prince to arrive. When he did so he was sat at the head of the table with the two princesses from the Hawaiian Royal Family. The entertainment began and soon after Marjorie was presented to Prince Edward: “I had been deputed to show the Prince the swimming pool and offer him a dip, but this he refused, so I took him over to the two princesses and went to see what fate had in store for me, as the pig had been taken out of the oven and the meal about to begin.”

All too soon the evening was over, with the guests singing Aloha Oe to the Prince as he departed. “What an evening it had been, never to be forgotten and a happy memory for all time!” wrote Marjorie, who passed away in November 1986, aged 90.

The Prince of Wales in the Hawaii home of the Atkinsons

Report of the Prince of Wales’ visit to the Atkinson house at Pearl Harbor

Atkinson descendant Paul Dahlquist has sent me a remarkable press cutting about a visit of Edward, Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII – to Hawaii in April 1920. The cutting reports on a visit by the Prince to the Pearl Harbor home of Robert Witlam Atkinson, grandson of Thomas and Lucy, who was a property developer and civil engineer. Robert built a beautiful house close to the golf course at Pearl Harbor, using local materials and stone. It was sold after his death, but is still standing.

The cutting reports that the Prince was anxious to experience an entertainment in true Hawaiian style and so the Atkinsons threw open their home, to arrange a luau for the Royal visitor. They were assisted by Princesses Kalanianaole and Kawanakoa, who procured all the traditional decorations, such tabu sticks, kahilis, etc.

The Prince arrived at the house following a ball at the Armory and as he stepped out of his car old Hawaiian chants were sung and the prince entered the house under a double arch of kahilis held by the princess’ retainers. Low tables were set under a kamani tree and the prince was introduced to the Atkinsons and Robert’s brother ‘Jack’ Atkinson. Fifty further guests from prominent Hawaiian families made up the party. A massive imu – underground oven – was opened under the light of kukui nut torches and against a background of ancient Hawaiian chants.

Robert Atkinson’s magnificent house

According to the press clipping: “The sacred ground was drawn around the prince as he sat at the luau with old golden tabu posts, and as he ate he watched in a setting of banana and cocoa palms, the Hawaiian dancers as they stepped to the steady beat, beat of the gourd shaker. The seed dance, the bamboo dance, the old royal hulas, all were given for the benefit of this, their royal visitor.”

The prince clearly enjoyed his visit to Hawaii. In April 2012 a signed photo of him emerged surfing on Waikiki Beach in Oahu. British Pathé also has a short film of him surfing in a large canoe at the same place, which you can find here.

Signed photo of Edward, Prince of Wales, surfing at Waikiki

The royal surf picture was taken by a descendant of Duke Kahanamoku, who gave Edward – later to become King Edward VIII before abdicating to marry American Wallis Simpson – a few surf lessons.

Edward in the back of the surf canoe

Edward visited the Hawaiian islands along with Earl Mountbatten, future Admiral of the Fleet, in HMS Renown and the two men enjoyed a three-day surf trip. The photo was purchased by the Musem of British Surfing at Braunton in in Devon as it is considered the earliest known photo of a Briton standing on a wave.

Edward is on the extreme right of this picture

In July 1920 the prince ordered the royal yacht to go back to Hawaii so he could surf for three days. Reports say Edward loved surfing. He spent two hours surfing every morning and three hours every afternoon during their July stay.