Day 7 – Lake Alakol and the return to Taldykorgan

We arrived at Lake Alakol late on Saturday evening. The following morning, as the bad weather set in, with constant rain and cloud, we headed for the beach.

On the beach at Lake Alakol (all images: David O’Neill)

Alakol was an important place for Thomas and Lucy. They arrived there after spending around three months exploring the valleys of the seven rivers of the Semirechye region in the summer of 1849. It was the last point at which they would have been able to see the Djungar Alatau mountains before they made their way north towards Barnaul in the Altai region. The German nineteenth century geologist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt had always believed that an island in the middle of the 1,020 square-mile lake, Ul’kun-Aral-Tyube, suggested the lake’s origins had been volcanic. Thomas was able to show that this was not the case.

Pippa Smith on the beach at Lake Alakol
Steve Brown takes to the water at Lake Alakol

With little prospect of the weather lifting, the decision was taken to return south to Taldykorgan that evening. The Atkinson descendants had now seen most of the range visited by Thomas and Lucy, and although they had not been able to get high into the mountains, they had at least got a flavour of the terrain and the beauty of this remarkable area.

Day 6 in Kazakhstan – visiting the rivers and mountains of the Djungar Alatau

After the exhilaration of yesterday’s events in Kapal, the 10-strong group of descendants of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson moved on to Sarcand, just outside the Djungar Alatau National Park. The route took them over unmade roads across the Hasford Pass from Arasan to Zhansugarov – a spectacular journey from which they could see the vast extent of the Djungar Alatau chain of mountains. It was exactly the route taken by Thomas and Lucy, along with their six-month-old baby Alatau in the late spring of 1849.

Looking back from the Hasford Pass towards Arasan and the Djungar Alatau

In Sarcand, officials from the national park led the party into the foothills of the mountains, and after crossing the Great and Little Bascan Rivers, they divided into a horseriding group and another group of non-riders who travelled over the rough tracks in vehicles. Their starting point was a section of the Terekte River – known in Thomas and Lucy’s day as the Terric Sou. A picture of this river, painted by Thomas, now hangs in the dining room at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Source of the Terric Sou, Actou Mountains, Chinese Tartary (2)
Thomas Atkinson’s painting of the source of the Terric Sou (courtesy of RGS)

For those on horseback, a two-hour ride brought them to a cabin high in the apple forests that cover this part of the Djungar Alatau, including the famous wild Sivers apple (Malus siversii), from which all apples are believed to have descended.

On horseback in the Djungar Alatau (images below by David O’Neill)


In a cabin amongst the apple forests of the Djungar Alatau

Having returned to their starting point, the Atkinson descendants were taken first to an exhibition of local natural products from the park and then on to a celebratory meal. They then left Sarcand for the four-hour drive to Lake Alakool to the north.

The Big Day – Kapal and the memorial to Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson

This very special day started with a meeting in Taldykorgan with the governor of Almaty region, Mr Amandyk Batalov, who presented the delegation with gifts including a dombra, Kazakhstan’s national musical instrument. Mr Batalov was remarkably well informed about Thomas and Lucy Atkinson and emphasised their importance to the history of Kazakhstan. He told the family members that Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had taken a personal interest in the story and asked rhetorically if it could be the case that the Atkinson family members were in fact Kazakh citizens, as their ancestor had been born in the country.

Almaty governor Amandyk Batalov presents the Atkinsons with a dombra (all images David O’Neill)

After another press conference, the delegation left for Kapal, the town where Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson was born on 4 November 1848. This was the culmination of this very special visit to Kazakhstan and it did not disappoint. The family members were greeted by musicians and singers dressed in national costume, before a magnificent 2-metre granite memorial was unveiled to much applause from the large crowd. After a visit to the Tamchiboulac Spring itself, a pageant recreating the events leading up to Alatau’s birth was enacted by a large number of actors, musicians and dancers. The pictures speak for themselves.

An orchestra of dombra players in Kapal
The Kazakh hosts for the memorial unveiling
Steve Brown dressed as Thomas Atkinson and Pippa Smith as Lucy Atkinson, together with the baby Alatau
Paul Dahlquist unveils the memorial to the birth of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson

The memorial states: “Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, the son of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, who were the first British explorers to come to Kazakhstan in the 19th century, was born here on 4th November 1848.”

The people of Kapal celebrate the new memorial stone
The Atkinson descendants at the Tamchiboulac Spring
The residents of Kapal presented an extravaganza portraying the events leading to Alatau’s birth in their town, including this superb display of horsemanship


A great khan holds the baby Alatau and begs Thomas and Lucy to let him stay on the steppes
A real baby played the part of Alatau

After the pageant, we were all invited to a special meal to celebrate the ‘birth’ of Alatau. It was exactly the kind of meal that Kazakh’s prepare for such a festive occasion.


The meal included sheep’s head and horse meat, along with quails, koumiss, laghman, caviar and dozens of specially prepared dishes. It was accompanied by songs and tunes from local musicians. This extraordinary day will long live in the memory of everyone who was there.

At the end of the day, as the Atkinson descendants prepared to make their way across the steppe to the town of Sarcand, there was a moment or two for them to reflect on a truly amazing experience.


Day 4 in Kazakhstan – Almaty

No official engagements on the fourth day of this incredible visit by the relatives of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson to Kazakhstan. It started with a visit to the Kasteyev Museum in the morning, where the delegation was shown Kazakh jewellery, textiles and paintings.

Looking at jewellery in the Kasteyev Museum, Almaty (all pics David O’Neill)

That was followed by a visit to the very rateable Arba winery about 75 kms outside Almaty, where they have resurrected vines that were thought destroyed during the Soviet era as part of an anti-drink campaign. Very good wines – red, white and Rose – that are now making an international name for themselves.

Later, we enjoyed a great outdoor meal in the countryside, alongside a fast-running stream, before an arduous six-hour drive to Taldykorgan in the Zhetiysu region.


From Great Britain to the Great Steppe


Day three of the Atkinson descendants’ trip to Kazakhstan was every bit as exciting as the two previous days. Imagine our surprise today when we arrived at Almaty airport from Astana to be greeted by members of the Kazakh Geographical Society – KazGeo – all kitted out in specially made T-shirts and driving a van with this wonderful slogan on the side. It was the beginning of yet again another amazing day.

T-shirt designed by KazGeo to commemorate the Atkinson descendants’ visit to Almaty region

From the airport we were taken to Shymbulak, an alpine resort (alt.2,300m) above Almaty, where we were given a wonderful lunch.

At Shymbulak (pic: David O’Neill)


That was followed by a drive to downtown Almaty to the offices of the British Council, where I delivered a speech to launch the book South to the Great Steppe to an enthusiastic meeting of around 60 people. Most of those who attended had heard about the event on social media.

At the British Council (pic: David O’Neill)

Then it was on to Kok Tobe, on the mountainside above the city, for dinner – and the most incredible thunderstorm many of us had ever witnessed. Trees came down around us and we were forced to take shelter inside whilst the storm raged.

Storm at Kok Tobe (pic: David O’Neill)

However, it did not stop the celebrations. KazGeo Presidium member Nuridin Tudakhanov presented members of the delegation with wonderful gifts – scarfs for the ladies and chapans and hats for the men.

Chapans and hats for the men… (pic: David O’Neill)
Scarves for the ladies…(pic: David O’Neill)

Atkinson descendants in Kazakhstan – day 2

What an incredible time was had by the delegation of Atkinson relatives in Astana on the second day of their visit to Kazakhstan! A meeting with the mayor of Astana was followed by the launch of South to the Great Steppe at the National Library. Later, there was a visit to the site of Expo 2017, after which the American members of the delegation were hosted at their embassy in the city. Below are a few memorable images from a truly fantastic day:

Pippa Smith and Steve Brown arrive at the mayor’s office dressed as Thomas and Lucy Atkinson (all pics: David O’Neill)
Nick Fielding presents a copy of his book to Astana mayor Asset Issekeshev
The mayor greets Atkinson descendant Paul Dahlquist
The reception party at the National Library
Press conference at the National Library
Paul Dahlquist received a plaque on behalf of the descendants from the deputy minister of culture.
Outside the National Library

Atkinson descendants arrive in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Arrival at Astana airport (all pics: David O’Neill)

Amid great excitement, ten descendants of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson arrived in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan this morning, courtesy of Air Astana, on the first stage of their visit to the birthplace of their ancestor, Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson.

The relatives – who live in Hawaii, Florida, New Zealand and England – were greeted by traditional Kazakh musicians and gifts of sweetmeats, local tubeteika hats and felt bags. Mrs Umutkhan Daurenbekovna Munalbayeva, director of the National Academic Library, was present to personally welcome the Atkinson relatives to her country. Pictured above are Mrs Belinda Kapiolani Brown from England and Mrs Molly Kinau Fay from Florida, as they made their way through the terminal at Astana airport.

The Atkinson descendants, Mrs Munalbaeva and others at Astana airport.

Later, the group was taken to visit the Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan and also the National Museum. Several members of the group were also taken to a meeting with Kazakh prime minister Mr Karim Massimov. He told them how delighted he was that the Atkinson family delegation had arrived in Astana and wished them well for the rest of their journey. As the meeting got underway, one of the relatives, Paul Dahlquist, gave a traditional Hawaiian greeting which was highly appreciated by the gathering. He is a direct descendant of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, who settled in Hawaii in 1869.

In a few days the family members will make their way south to Almaty and from there will visit the exact spot where Lucy Atkinson gave birth to her son, Alatau. It promises to be an amazing trip.