Recent camera-trap videos from remote parts of Kazakhstan show that in some parts of the country – despite the depradations of illegal hunters in the past – wildlife is flourishing. Check out this video of Siberian Ibex, captured recently in the Altyn Emel National Park:
Or this remarkable piece of film showing a large herd of saiga antelopes crossing a river in Western Kazakhstan:
The saiga is included on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where it has been listed as a critically endangered species since 2002. It has been hunted illegally in the country and a couple of years ago thousands of the animals died from a respiratory disease, but the population is now growing.
According to the Kazakh Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, there are three populations of species in the country: at Betpakdaly in Central Kazakhstan, at Ustyurt in Mangystau, and at Aktobe and Uralsk population in Western Kazakhstan.
“The population of saiga is 1,318,000 individuals by now, which is 56 percent higher than in 2021, when there were 842,000 saigas. This year, there are 801,000 Uralsk saigas, 28,000 Ustyurt saigas and 489,000 Betpakdaly saigas,” eco-activist Saken Dildakhmet wrote in late May.
It is believe that almost 90 percent of the world’s saiga population lives in Kazakhstan, with the remainder in Mongolia and Kalmykia.
The rare Himalayan Brown Bear, listed in Kazakhstan’s Red Book of endangered species has also been sighted recently at Altyn Emel:
I was lucky enough to see both Siberian Ibex and a bear during a visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains in July 2019. Two other large mammals, lynx and snow leopard, also inhabit these mountains. Lynx are seen regularly, as this recent footage from Altyn Emel shows:
Snow leopards are very hard to see in the wild, but have been caught regularly on camera traps. These were filmed in July last year in the Altai Mountains in north-east Kazakhstan:
“Photographic evidence of the presence of the snow leopard in East Kazakhstan is great news. The last traces of the snow leopard’s presence in the Kazakh part of the Altai Mountains were obtained in the winter of 2017 near the Russian-Kazakh border. These were the footprints of a female with a cub. Then there were no tracks of a snow leopard until 2021,” said Alexander Karnaukhov, senior project coordinator for the WWF in the Altay-Sayan ecoregion.
Kolsay Lakes National Park in the Almaty Region also reported photographic evidence of three snow leopards on its territory in July last year. This national park is reported to be home to at least 16 snow leopards. The snow leopard is protected in Kazakhstan, where there are thought to be approximately 120-130 animals, out of a global population of around 7,000.
The WWF project, backed by Kazakh environmental organisations, for the conservation of the snow leopard in East Kazakhstan began in 2015. East Kazakhstan is a place of migration for snow leopards and other rare animal species from Central Asia to the Altai mountains and vice versa. The snow leopard has become a symbol of the Altai and Sayan mountains at the junction of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.
Recent historical research has thrown up some remarkable connections between the spread of the Black Death in Europe and the cultivation of a kind of grain grown in Central Asia for the last 10,000 years – millet. What’s more, the new research shows that this terrible disease arrived on the fringes of Europe and in the Middle East almost 100 years before the accepted date for its spread throughout Europe. Historian Monica H Green, writing in the latest edition of BBC History Magazine, makes the case that it was millet seed grown in Central Asia that was the primary vector for this terrible pandemic disease. But how and why did this influence the spread of this disease?
First, it should be noted that the latest scholarship involves identifying the specific nature of the disease – Yersinia pestis – that arrived from the east. The genome for this disease has now been fully identified and this has allowed its traces to be identified in humans going back thousands of years. Those existing strains of plague that are most closely related to the Black Death are found in the Tien Shan Mountains and the Djungar Basin – areas that correspond today to parts of Western China and also to Eastern Kazakhstan. It is here that burrow-living marmots still harbour strains of the disease.
Once the genome had been identified, it allowed a kind of family tree of the disease to be built. Although traditionally, the Black Death is said to have arrived in Europe in the 1350s, the latest research, based on the examination of original documents in Arabic, now shows there were outbreaks around 100 years earlier, in the middle of the thirteenth century.
How so? We know that the major event taking place in the middle of the thirteenth century was the arrival of the Mongols, who by this time were concentrating their campaigns on parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Mameluk Egypt. Recent scholarship has now identified plague outbreaks in these regions at this time. The explanation appears to be connected to millet. This humble grain, cultivated for thousands of years in the East, was regarded by the Mongols as a ‘superfood’. A Mongol cavalryman could sustain himself for a day on a cupful of millet, which he would turn into porridge. Throughout their devastating campaigns in the Middle East, including the siege of Baghdad, large Mongol caravan trains were bringing millet from the Tien Shan region across Asia to provision their troops. Soon after, recent research shows that there were outbreaks of the Black Death.
And the explanation? Rodents must have travelled with the millet caravans and it was the fleas on these rodents that spread the disease so efficiently.
After the withdrawal of the Mongol armies from eastern Europe and the Middle East back to their homelands, the disease appears to have died back, with very few cases reported. Only in the 1350s did it return. Again, Dr Green has an explanation. She says that Genoese traders at the city of Kaffa (now Feodosia on the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea) began trading with grain merchants in the 1340s, after a long period of trade embargoes. Rather that the apocryphal story of Mongols flinging the carcasses of dead animals over the city walls to infect the residents, she says in was once again rodents living in the grain consignments that were responsible for this new outbreak of the Black Death. The disease itself had lingered in isolated pockets following the initial infection a century before. The Genoans brought the grain back to Italy, where the disease soon reached pandemic proportions throughout Europe in the comparatively well populated towns, with their already established populations of rodents.
So what do we know about the extent of cultivation of millet in the Tien Shan region at the time? In fact, there is quite a lot of evidence. As early as the fourteenth century we have evidence from the Arab traveller and writer Ibn Batuta (1304-1369), who noted that when halting by their watchfires for the night, he was lulled to sleep by the martial songs of the Mongols who, he observed, ate no bread, nor any other solid food, but lived on a kind of porridge made of millet, in which they boiled pieces of meat; he says this was a mode of preparation which was customary with their predecessors – the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Slavonians.
At this time, the city of Kailac was flourishing in the Zhetysu Region of what is now Kazakhstan, close to the banks of the Lepsou River, which flows from the Djungar Alatau Mountains (the foothills of the Tien Shan) towards Lake Balkhash. Perhaps this was one of the cities from which the grain transports were organised towards Europe and the Middle East? From the writings of Thomas Atkinson we know that millet grows all over this region and that there are the ancient remains of extensive irrigation channels in the area.
In his diary for 1849, for example, Thomas Atkinson describes his and Lucy’s journeys through the Djungar Alatau Mountains as they explored the river valleys of this remote region. The Djungar Alatau chain is part of the Tien Shan massif. While the couple were in the valley of the Lepsou River he came across a grain he had not seen before. His diary for 14th July reads as follows:
“A ride of an hour and a half brought us down into the valley of the Lepsou, a very short distance from the mouth of the gorge in the mountains. At this place it has become a deep and rapid stream and very difficult to cross. Its banks are covered with poplar and birch trees with a great variety of flowering shrubs. The valley is about two versts wide and most of it cultivated by the Kazakhs. Here they grow prasci, a grain used in their cooking instead of rice. It is much like oatmeal, but never used as bread.”
He added that the whole of the Lepsou Valley was irrigated by channels taken from the river at the point where it leaves the mountains. “The Kazakhs are very clever in this branch,” he says. “Some of the channels are carried along the side of the sand hills for probably 60 or 70 versts (40 miles – ed), running up and down the sides of the gullies to keep the proper fall. From these channels hundreds of others are cut and then the whole surface can be kept moist, the only thing required in this climate to ensure a most abundant crop.”
Atkinson mentions at another point in his diary that this grain was widely sown and was watered from many small channels that allowed it to grow luxuriantly. “Another month will make it ripe and then the scene will be changed. There will be many people at work gathering it in with oxen treading out the grain and men throwing it up that the wind may carry away the chaff.”
When I first read this, I was unsure about the identity of ‘prasci’ or ‘prassa’. It turned that prosso is the Russian/Slavic word for a variety of millet – Panicum miliaceum, which is known as Prosso Millet. In Kazakh it is known as tary and is still grown and consumed widely in Kazakhstan, often in the form of a dessert pastry, called zhent, in which it is mixed with butter and honey.
This important grain was first cultivated in northern China 10,000 years ago. It is notable for its very short life cycle – it produces grain only 60 days after planting – and low water requirements. It produces grain more efficiently per unit of moisture than any other grain species and is also very tolerant of high temperatures. Its wild version is common throughout Central Asia and in addition to evidence for its cultivation in north-east China, traces can also be found in Georgia and Germany dating back at least 5,000 years.
Other writers and travellers have also identified millet cultivation in Central Asia. Robert Michell, writing in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1868 about the Syr-Darya River in Kazakhstan states: “Between these elevations on the North side of the river, where they are more numerous, is the little valley of Aigerik, where the Kirghizes (Kazakhs-ed) sow millet and barley.” The inveterate traveller Henry Lansdell noted in the 1880s that the Kazakhs dammed up mountain streams to water their oats and, especially for the nomads, their millet. The nineteenth century German writer Friedrich von Hellwald observed that millet was grown in the Tarym Basin in Xinjiang, whilst the great Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky noted that “For a more substantial meal the Mongol mixes dry roast millet in his cup and, as a final relish, adds a lump of butter or raw sheep-tail fat (kurdiuk).”
Today millet is regarded as a superfood, rich in both protein and dietary fibre, gluten-free and full of micronutrients such as calcium, iron and phosphorus. But, as we have seen, these qualities were recognised over 800 years ago, when millet helped fuel the expansion of the largest empire in world history – and also brought pandemic calamity to Europe and the Middle East.
My book Travellers in the Great Steppe was launched in both Kazakh and Russian-language editions in Nur-Sultan last week in an event attended by over 100 guests, including deputy foreign minister Roman Vassilenko, who chaired the event, and around 20 ambassadors, including British Ambassador Kathy Leach and Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to the UK, Erlan Idrissov. It was hosted by Qazaq Geography, whose chairman, Orman Nurbayev, also attended.
The event, held at the National Academic Library in Nur-Sultan, was covered by many national media and TV channels, which can be found here and here. Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the UK, HE Erlan Idrissov, spoke about the importance of the book for young Kazakhs in particular. British ambassador Kathy Leach also spoke warmly of the project. The book was translated by the National Translation Bureau.
My recent talk at the Royal Geographical Society on Lucy Atkinson is now available for viewing/listening on the RGS website. You can find it here. The talk, Lucy Atkinson: One of the ‘Greats’ in the Pantheon of Travellers, was given on 24th January as part of the ‘Be Inspired’ series. I argued that Lucy’s achievements as a traveller/explorer matched those of almost any of the women travellers who preceded her – and many of the women who followed. She was one of the most adventurous of nineteenth century travellers, reaching places that no other Europeans had ever seen and covering almost 40,000 miles through Siberia and Central Asia. Not to mention that she gave birth to a son, who travelled with her wherever she went. And yet today her name remains almost unknown. Surely it is time she was given the recognition she so richly deserves.
About 60 people turned out yesterday afternoon at the Royal Geographical Society in London to hear my talk Lucy Atkinson: One of the ‘Greats’ in the Pantheon of Travellers. My aim in this talk was to place Lucy’s achievements as a writer and explorer in the context of other women travellers from the mid-nineteenth century and before. The exploits of such pioneers as Abby Jane Morrell, Mary Boddington, Eliza Fay, Maria Graham, Lady Florentia Sale and Ida Pfeiffer were outlined in some detail.
Most of these names are probably unknown to all but the most erudite readers, but they all made their mark. At present there is no specific place to celebrate their achievements, although the RGS itself is planning to introduce more inclusive space into the building. Undoubtedly it is an anomaly that a portrait of Lord Curzon hangs above the fireplace in the main entrance hall to the building, as during debates within the RGS in the 1890s he strongly opposed women being granted fellowship on the grounds that they were incapably of scientific work!
My early afternoon talk (1430-1530) is entitled ‘Lucy Atkinson: One of the Greats in the Pantheon of Travellers’. It will make the case that Lucy was a truly intrepid explorer, whose contribution to the history of travel has been overlooked. Her six-year journey with her husband, the artist and author Thomas Witlam Atkinson, covered almost 40,000 miles through some of the wildest and remote parts of southern Siberia and Central Asia. Nor was she simply a passenger. Despite her lack of experience before setting out, she soon mastered riding horses, shooting for the pot and caring for a baby whilst in the middle of nowhere. It was Lucy, who was a fluent Russian speaker, who ran the Atkinsons’ camps, instructed the guides and Cossack guards and negotiated with nomads they came across during their travels. On at least one occasion she brandished her rifle – at which she was a crack shot – in defence of her husband and child.
Of course, there were many woman travellers before Lucy, but most were simply travelling to a specific place with a husband who was on colonial or military service. Few, if any, took part in expeditions into unknown lands. That is what separates her out from other women. In the new introduction to the book, myself and co-editor Marianne Simpson look into the history of women’s travel writing to see if there are any comparable travellers. There is barely a handful.
Until recent times exploration and travel was regarded as a male domain. The walls of the main lecture hall at the RGS in London is inscribed with their names – Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone, Ross, Baker and the rest. Not a woman amongst them. Isn’t it time the record was corrected? Please join us by booking via the link above for what should be a very interesting talk.
A Christmas carol written in Hawaii in 1895 by Alatau Atkinson, the son of explorers Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, received its world premiere in an English country church on Saturday night, accompanied by choirs and – in recognition of his place of birth – a talented Kazakh folk duo. The words to Christmas Bells were set to music by composer Michael Csanyi-Wills, an associate of the Royal Academy of Music and Head of Keyboard and Composition at the World Heart Beat Music Academy in London. He conducted the Mosaica Choir and Choir of Angels, along with the Kazakh duo Qos Arna and a group of ukelele players in a remarkable performance of the new/old work.
The event took place at the beautiful St Bartholomew’s Church in the small Somerset town of Crewkerne, the home of Alatau’s great-great granddaughter Pippa Smith, whose original idea it was to perform the carol. Around 100 people heard a programme of carols, choir music, Kazakh songs and readings before the finale in which all the players came together to perform Alatau’s carol. Members of the audience were presented with Hawai’ian lei flower garlands in recognition of Alatau’s life there, where he became a reknowned educationalist and newspaper editor.
The event included a display illustrating the life of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, who was born in the then remote settlement of Kapal in the Djungar Alatau Mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan in 1848. His first name came from the nearby mountain chain, whilst his second came from the sacred spring close to the place he was born. He moved to Hawai’i from England in 1869 and never returned to his homeland. Ian Tribe, chairman of Arts @ St Bart’s and the Friends of St Barts, told the audience that everyone in the music scene in south Somerset had got together behind the project to put on the carol concert, funds from which will go towards the upkeep of Grade I listed St Bartholomew’s.
The words to the carol are as follows:
Chime, Christmas bells, in old cathedral tower,
O’er frozen field and snow-wrapped vale,
Chime, Christmas bells, though storms may darkly lower,
Nomadic pastoralism, the primary form of existence in much of Central Asia for the past 5,000 years and one of the most ecological and sustainable ways of living in the world, is now in serious decline. In the ‘Stans’ that were conquered and occupied by the Russians, nomadism was looked down upon and discouraged. In Kazakhstan, for example, more than a million nomads starved to death in the 1920s and 1930s – part of a deliberate policy by their Soviet masters to break the cultural and economic traditions that had sustained them for generations.
Today, transhumance still exists in Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and parts of the Altai and southern Siberia. In the isolated republic of Tuva, for example, there has even been a small increase in the number of herding families living in remote areas. In Mongolia there are still plenty of nomads, but they are decreasing, in part due to climate change, but also because fewer and fewer young people want to spend their lives looking after livestock in the harsh conditions of the steppes. In one Mongolian nomadic family I know personally, seven of the eight children have chosen to move to the city or abroad, leaving the eldest son to carry on breeding horses, for which his family is famous.
Accounts of this form of nomadic lifestyle are few and far between. Most nomadic societies relied more on oral traditions of storytelling, songs and poetry to communicate their history and culture. The Manas Epic, for example, created and passed along the generations by the Kyrgyz people, is one of the greatest works of literature in the world, in some versions running to more than half-a-million lines. It recounts great events that took place more than a thousand years ago and is recited, to this day, by manasji, people who learn a version and then recite it at communal gatherings such as weddings and other celebrations.
Otherwise, it is to outsiders we must turn to find out more about nomadism. Ethnographers, travellers and others, as far back as Herodotus, have helped to fill in the details, describing the lives of nomads, their preoccupations and the beauty of the places through which they travel across the seasons. Thus it was remarkable to come across Li Juan’s fascinating book, Winter Pasture: One woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders*. Although only published in English translation this year, it describes the author’s stay with a small family of herders from the north of Xinjiang, China’s western-most province, in 2010.
The book is remarkable for many reasons. First, it is written by a young Chinese (Han) woman, who was brought up in the Altay prefecture of Xinjiang, where her family ran a small convenience store that sold cheap goods to the ethnic Kazakhs that lived nearby. One Kazakh family who owed money to the shop were prevailed upon to take Li Juan with them as they migrated south for the winter – about 100 miles – to escape the worst of the winter winds. Her aim was to write about what she saw, as part of her efforts to establish herself as a writer. She spoke little Kazakh and knew nothing of nomadic culture, so one can only imagine the shock when she realised that she would be spending the winter living in what she describes as a ‘burrow’ made of blocks of dried sheep crap and wedged between two sand dunes. The 500 or so sheep lived in a similar underground burrow, although the horses, cattle and camels were denied such luxury.
Throughout the book Li Juan gradually reveals the family characters with whom she was living – Cuma, the gruff, but rather tender father figure, ‘Sister-in-law’, his wife and a varying number of children, who were mostly at boarding school in town, but every now and again came out to the burrow to help with herding and to see their parents. Other families were living in similar conditions in the surrounding desert, protecting their animals and taking them to graze each day. Water was scarce, the only source being from collected snow, which was then melted on the fire, which in turn used the ubiquitous sheep crap for fuel. In fact, one entire chapter of the book is solely about the various uses of sheep crap.
Having spent time with nomads in Mongolia and elsewhere, I can vouch for the accuracy of Li Juan’s narrative. In particular, she describes how the family charged up a car battery for three days by using an old solar panel. This allowed them to watch TV for a couple of hours. The next night, the failing battery only allows an hour or so and by the third night, the picture flickers for less than an hour. Then the battery has to be charged up again for another three days. I well remember a similar procedure when living with nomads in the Altai region of Mongolia, just a short distance away, across the international border.
Of course, it is impossible to read this book without thinking of the present-day plight of the Uighurs, the ethnic group for whom Xinjiang has been home for thousands of years and who are now facing appalling collective punishment from the Chinese in response to a number of Islamist terror attacks in 2013 and 2014, after this book was written. The Uighurs are not nomads but have faced imprisonment on a mass scale in what are known as ‘re-education camps’, whilst their culture and language are under serious threat.
Li Juan was told by her hosts that the annual migration was about to come to an end after China introduced a new policy to the region, tuimu huancao, apparently aimed at preventing over-grazing of the fragile steppelands – although perhaps nomads know more about this kind of thing that Chinese bureaucrats. The Chinese have built fences across the steppe, beyond which nomads and their flocks and herds are unable to travel. The nomads seem resigned to accepting their fate, possibly without comprehending the full implications. Which is sad. These Kazakhs – there are about 1.25 million in Xinjiang, about 6% of the region’s population – are the only ones left who still use Arabic script for writing. They also retain cultural traditions that have been destroyed in Kazakhstan itself. Intricate embroidery remains a prominent activity for both men and women during the long winter nights.
Of course, only a minority of Chinese Kazakhs are still nomads, but they have kept their traditions alive until very recently. The evidence in Li Juan’s book is that the children of nomads are now taught in Mandarin in the boarding schools which they attend, a classic policy for breaking ethnic identity – and one followed by the Russians in Siberia, the Americans with the native American tribes and extensively within the British Empire. They flourish their Mandarin textbooks and show off their proficiency to Li Juan, oblivious to the cultural obliteration that is being foisted on them.
I deeply enjoyed reading this book, despite the fact that it describes the dying days of an important culture. Li Juan is not a cultural imperialist. Nor does she disparage or mock the people who looked after her and shared their lives with her. But these days I don’t think the Chinese would encourage further books like this. Today, China demands the repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs who have fled across the border into Kazakhstan and puts pressure on the central government in Nur-Sultan not to allow anyone to campaign on their behalf. In doing so, they are bringing an end to a way of life that has protected the steppes for thousands of years. Whatever replaces it will not.
Li Juan, Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders, Astra House, New York, 2021, $28.00. ISBN: 978-1-6626-0055-5.
I am delighted to report that a Kazakh-language edition of my book Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, was launched today at the Palace of Languages in Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan.
The book has been translated into Kazakh under a programme known as 100 New Text Books, under which 100 important foreign language books are being translated by the national translation bureau. Also translated and launched today was Thomas, Lucy and Alatau: the Atkinsons’ Adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh Steppe by John Massey-Stewart, which was published in 2018.
The meeting heard from Deputy Akim of the Almaty Region, Batyrzhan Baizhumanov, who stressed the importance of the books for Kazakhs who wanted to learn about their history. Head of the Department of Internal Politics of the Almaty Region Rakhmet Yesdauletov also spoke and the Kazakh ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, H E Erlan Idrissov sent a pre-recorded message of congratulations.
Taldykorgan was chosen for the launch meeting because it is the closest city to Kapal, the village in the east of the country, where Thomas and Lucy Atkinson spent nine months in 1848-9 and where their son Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson was born in November 1848.
In Kazakh, my book is titled Ұлы дала саяхатшылары: Папа елшілерінен бастап Ресей революциясына дейін, or Ūly dala saiahatşylary: Papa elşılerınen bastap Resei revolüsiasyna deiın in latin script.
One hundred and twenty-five years after he wrote the words, a beautiful Christmas carol written by Alatau Atkinson in Hawai’i is to be performed in a Somerset church. The world premiere of Christmas Bells will take place at St Bartholomew’s Church in Crewkerne, Somerset on 11th December. It has been set to music by composer Michael Csanyi-Wills and the service will also include a performance by Kazakh folk duo Qos Arna in tribute to Alatau’s place of birth.
Tickets for the event, priced at £14, are available from Eventbrite or from ‘Grand Interiors’ in Crewkerne.