The ten Atkinson relatives, myself and photographer David O’Neill flew back to London from Almaty on Tuesday after a hugely successful visit to Kazakhstan. None of us could have imagined the reception that we would receive, both in the capital, Astana, and in Almaty region in the south.
It will take a while for the full impact of the trip to sink in, but for now I think we can say that the significance of the journeys undertaken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in the territory of what is now Kazakhstan has been recognised in that country. The most eloquent expression of that came in the speech from Professor Myrzatay Zholdasbekov, at the National Academic Library, who said that South to the Great Steppe should be translated into Kazakh and Russian, so that it can be more widely known.
The prime minister, Mr Karim Massimov, personally met representatives from the family, as did Almaty governor Mr Amadyk Batalov.
Wherever we travelled, people came up to us, having seen coverage of our journey in the newspapers and on television. The government expressed its support for our programme by presenting wonderful plaques to myself and Paul Dahlquist, on behalf of all the descendants.
Thomas and Lucy, through their writings, have left us with a unique picture of life on the steppes 168 years ago. They met many of the leading khans, sultans and bis (judges) during their travels – not to mention humble shepherds and their womenfolk – and as well as writing about them, Thomas also produced numerous landscape paintings and portraits. There are few, if any, other representations of these places and characters from Kazakhstan’s distant past.
The warmth felt by the Kazakhs towards the Atkinsons was most clearly felt in the little town of Kapal in the Djungar Alatau region, where in November 1848 Lucy gave birth to her son, Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson. Kazakhs are deeply touched that they chose this name for him and that even when he had settled far away in Hawaii many years later, he refused to shorten or change it, but stuck to the original. The pageant – known in Kazakh as a shildekhana and held in honour of a newborn child – presented by the residents of Kapal will long live in the memory of all who were there. It was followed by a magnificent feast accompanied by local musicians and singers.
We were also able to visit the foothills and stunning river valleys of the Djungar Alatau region, following closely in the footsteps of Thomas and Lucy. This, more than anything else, brought home to everyone the full extent of the couple’s achievements. We could see for ourselves the distances they travelled, the imposing heights of the mountains they crossed and the open emptiness of the steppes themselves.
Of course, this trip will not be the end of the matter. There will be further events and more connections to make. We want to find the descendants of the people the Atkinsons met on the steppe and to introduce them to each other once again. This is only the beginning….