Another location identified for an Atkinson painting.

Bouriat temple and Lake Ikeougoun
Atkinson’s painting of a “Buriat Temple, Lake Ikeougoune”

For some time I have been puzzling over the location of the little temple portrayed in the picture above by Thomas Atkinson. It clearly states that it is a painting of a Buriat temple, so the likelihood is that it was painted during the Atkinsons’ journey in the summer of 1851. Now I think I have been able to ascertain the exact location.

According to both Thomas and Lucy, the River Ikeougoune was not far from the Bishop’s house they stayed in, both on their way to the Jombolok Volcano Field and on their way back to Irkutsk. They both describe the hot springs close to the Bishop’s house.

The bishop in question was Bishop Nil Isakovich, bishop of the Irkutsk and Nerchinsk eparchy from 1838 to 1853, who spent many years attempting to convert Buriats to Orthodoxy.  As a Christian missionary, he tried to find out the reasons why lamaism spread so easily amongst the Buriats. He even completed a major work on Tibetan Buddhism – Buddizm, razsmatrivaemyi v otnoshenii k posledovateliam ego, obitaiushchim v Sibiri (Buddhism, examined in relation to its Siberian followers) – which was published in St. Petersburg in 1858. It was a thorough description of Buddhist doctrine, rites, and organizational structures in the Transbaikal. The bishop observed the rapid spread of Buddhism in this area and tried to work out the best ways in which they could be persuaded to convert to Christianity. He was the inspiration for Nikolai Leskov’s character of the Bishop in his novel On the Edge of the World , who learns through example and suffering that in indigenous peoples of all cultures there is dignity that must be recognized and built upon as a foundation for Christian conversion.

I am grateful to my good friend Vladimir Chernikov for pointing out that the Bishop’s house was located in a place now called Nilova Pustyn (named after him), north of Turan, on the road that runs from Lake Baikal to Mondy, on the Mongolian border. Close to the Bishop’s house are mineral springs that have been in use for many years. Some of the Decembrists exiled to Irkutsk used to come here to ‘take the waters’, including the Bestuzhev brothers, Trubetskoi, Rayevsky, and Prince Volkonsky – all of whom were known to the Atkinsons and perhaps recommended this place to them.

The River Ike-Uhgun (Ikeougoune, as Atkinson wrote it) passes through Nilova and we know from Thomas Atkinson’s diary that he reached the bishop’s house on 24th July 1851. Leaving Lucy and Alatau to bathe in the springs, he set off on horseback up the river valley. Vladimir Chernikov points out that some miles upstream from Nilova is an important Buriat holy site called Burhan Baabai, where there are a number of Buddhist temples located in woods above a bend in the river. Here are some photos from Google Earth:

Buddhist temples are Burhan Baabai


And here is the view towards the river:

The River Ike-Uhgun at Burhan Baabai in Buryatia

However, Atkinson’s picture refers to a lake, and although there is a small ox-bow lake close by called Gurokshe-Nur, this is not the one in the picture. To find Lake Ikeougoune, as shown in the picture, one must travel approximately 30kms up the valley of the Ike-Uhgun to Lat/Long 51.785471, 100.9722519, which is to the north of Mondy. On Wikimaps, the lake can be found at:

Incidentally, this painting was bought from Atkinson in a sale at Christies in 1858 by the Duke of Cleveland. In October 1994 it was sold as part of the contents of Raby Castle in Co. Durham, along with 11 other pictures by Thomas Atkinson. Sadly, the dealers who bought the pictures say they can no longer remember to whom they sold them. Seven of the paintings were of scenes Thomas recorded during this trip to Buryatia in the summer of 1851. Very sad that we have lost sight – for the moment at least – of this important collection of paintings.

A film about the tragic history of Kapal in Eastern Kazakhstan

I have come across a wonderful film about Bolat Khan, a resident of Kapal in Eastern Kazakhstan – the town lying in the shadow of the Djungar Alatau mountains in which Thomas and Lucy Atkinson spent almost a year in 1848-9 and where their son, Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson was born.

Bolat Khan01
Bolat Khan

The film tells the fascinating story of a local farmer and hunter, Bolat Khan, how his parents were killed by Stalin’s secret police during the purges and about his own career as the director of collective farms in the Kapal-Arasan region during the Soviet period. It shows that there is a darker history to this region that only now is beginning to surface. You can find the film here.

The film was written, filmed, edited, programmed and compiled in SMX, PHP, Java and Flash by Mitch Collins and translated and adapted to Russian and Kazakh by Lena Leneshmidt of Almaty, Kazakhstan.

More gems from Thomas Atkinson’s diaries

I have now transcribed most of Thomas Atkinson’s diary that covers the long journey he made with Lucy and their son Alatau in the summer of 1851 into the mountains of Buryatia and Northern Mongolia, including the area around the Jombolok Volcano Field in the Eastern Sayan Mountains – the area I visited in July along with four of Thomas’ and Lucy’s descendants.

The diary contains much that is new and not included in either of his published books. He reveals, for example, that he drew a plan of the volcanoes in the Jombolok Volcano Field. Sadly, like most of the hundreds of sketches he drew, there is now no trace of it. More surprisingly, reading the diaries shows just how much Lucy relied on them in writing her own account of their travels together.

Their journey started on 23 May – as soon as the roads were open following the spring thaw. Almost exactly three months later they arrived back at the Archbishop’s house with its hot springs, near Kultuk on Lake Baikal. They were exhausted, but had seen some amazing sights, including the Jombolok volcanoes, Kara Noor Lake, the twin lakes that are the source of the Oka and Irkout Rivers, Mongu Seran Xardick – the tallest mountain in the region – and even Lake Khovsgul in northern Mongolia, about which Thomas wrote in his diary: “This lake is truly beautiful. I have seen nothing finer in the whole of my travels,” (emphasis in original).

Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia: “This lake is truly beautiful”

They had endured a soaking wet summer that had seen the River Oka rise 31 feet in a night and had often left them drenched to the skin. On other days it had snowed heavily. They had put up with endless bogs, clouds of very unpleasant mosquitoes and a very basic diet that often consisted of what they could shoot and little else. It was, yet again, another epic journey, carried out with a less-than-three-year-old baby in tow.

The extent to which Lucy’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863), relies on Thomas’ diaries is indisputable. It is unlikely that Lucy ever intended to write a book, but was persuaded to do so by the publisher John Murray, who mentored her and suggested she should write it in the form of a series of long letters to a friend. The book provided her with an income following Thomas’s death in 1861, when she had no other source of money.

Examples of the closeness with which Lucy’s book follows Thomas’ diaries abound. Here is one clear example taken from the entry for 13th July in Thomas’ 1851 diary, where he writes about a visit to the yurt of a Buriat family on the Oka River:

Lucy, Alatau and I, with one Cossack as talmash (translator-ed), went to visit the Bouriats. We found a very pretty woman at one of the yourts and were much interested with the picture of their god, very well printed on silk. They have in each yourt an altar on which is placed many brass cups and a brass ornament. The cups are often filled with the articles offered up to the Deity, for instance wine (which they make from milk, a very strong spirit), butter, milk, tea, coffee and sugar. At the bottom of the altar they frequently burn their offerings on little wooden blocks. The master of the yourt gave us a cup of the wine, very little of which we drank, but they old man soon became quite tipsy. They drink a great deal. We paid another visit and was treated in a similar manner. We then bade adieu to them and started on our way.

Here is Lucy’s account of the same event, as published in her book:

We entered their yourts, in one of which we found a very pretty black-eyed young woman, with cheeks like roses, not ruddy like a milkmaid’s, but of a delicate tint; she wore a closely fitting black velvet jacket, which became her amazingly; and her head was adorned with the usual ornaments. Saluting me after the fashion of the country, she asked us to enter.

“We were much interested with the picture of their Deity, very nicely painted on silk. In each yourt we found an altar, on which is placed a number of brass cups or small basins, filled with the articles offered up to the Deity. For instance, wine (or rather a strong spirit made from milk), butter, tea, coffee, milk, and sugar. At the bottom of the altar they frequently burn their offerings on little wooden blocks. The master of the yourt handed us a cup of the wine, which I declined, and passed it to Mr. Atkinson, who merely tasted it, but the old man soon became quite tipsy. I think he had a little before we entered. They drink it in large quantities. In each dwelling we were treated in a similar manner. Having bid adieu to the good people, we were once more on our way.”

The similarity is clear. Lucy’s reliance on Thomas’ unpublished diaries in no way detracts from her book, which is a remarkable achievement. It is quite possibly the earliest serious travel book written by a woman in the English – or for that matter, any other – language. It is also extremely good, a forgotten classic. The Cambridge academic Anthony Cross, who wrote an introduction to a new edition (1972) of Lucy’s book, says both of Thomas’ books “pale before the fresh and unpretentious work of his wife”, little realising just how much of it was based on Thomas’ words.

Thomas’ diaries are an indispensible guide to understanding his itineraries, timescales and, most importantly, his relationship with his wife and son, which his bigamous marriage prevented him from mentioning in his books. More’s the pity, as the unexpurgated versions of events found in the diaries are often far more dramatic than those contained in his published books.

Untangling Thomas and Lucy’s route towards the Jombolok volcanoes

Thomas Atkinson’s account of his visit to the volcanoes in the Jombolok Valley in Eastern Siberia makes up the final chapter of his first book, Oriental and Western Siberia. It is the only chapter in this book that refers to his travels in Eastern Siberia and seems strangely disconnected from the rest of the narrative. As with the rest of his published writing, it makes no reference to the fact that he was accompanied by Lucy and his son Alatau.

Not only is this chapter disconnected from the rest of the book, it is also very difficult to follow his route, something I found out when trying to trace his journey in preparation for this summer’s expedition to the same region. Even with the help of Lucy’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes, which at least gives some dates, it was not easy. Now, having transcribed the relevant sections of Thomas Atkinson’s diary for 1851, I can understand why; for some strange reason, the order in which he visited places as set out in his book differs from that set out in his diary.

Thomas’ 1851 diary, which like four other diaries is held in the library of the Royal Geographical Society in London, is written in pencil in tiny lettering. As the RGS will not allow the pages to be photographed or copied, the only way to investigate their contents is to copy them by hand. This is a long and laborious process, that requires me to travel up to London and spend the day with a magnifying glass untangling the feint script I find on the pages. I have already spent weeks transcribing other parts of the diaries, but anticipate that it will take more than a year at the present rate to finish this project.

However, it is worth the effort. Unlike Thomas’ books, which contain few dates, are not written in date order and make no mention of Lucy or his son Alatau, the diaries are set out in clear date order. And Thomas regularly refers to Lucy and Alatau and how they are coping with the difficulties of the journey. Describing how he crossed the deep, broad and fast-flowing Oka River on horseback, with the baby Alatau held in front of him, Thomas writes in the diary: “Alatau was delighted at the rushing and foaming of the water around us, as well as with the plunging of our horses.” Later he describes the worsening conditions as they rode during a torrential downpour: “It was almost impossible to get the horses through the deep morass which was made worse by large stones and roots of trees, which our horses stumbled over continuously. This delayed us greatly. I was surprised that Lucy kept her saddle over much of this track.”

So, from the diary we now know that the Atkinsons left Irkutsk on 23rd May 1851. By 28th May they had reached Koultouck on the western shore of Lake Baikal, from where they followed the River Irkout westwards in to Buryatia and towards the Saian Mountains, stopping in at the Cossack guardposts (karaoul) on their way. By 1st June they had reached the point where the White Irkout and Black Irkout merge. Today this point is on the track that leads from Mondy to Orlik and is about 450 kms from Irkutsk.

During our visit to these regions this summer we were remarkably lucky with the weather, experiencing only a couple of days of rain and the occasional morning frost. However, the Atkinsons appear to have travelled during one of the wettest summers on record. Day after day Thomas records in his diary that they faced torrential downpours and even snow: “A soaking day obliged us to sit all day in the tent and watch our cooking operations”; and “Our path was now over a dreary waste without either tree or shrub, but plenty of snow, both old and fresh, which had fallen on the previous day and night”; and “On turning out this morning I found the ground was covered with snow and the rain pouring down in torrents. What a night for our men! On waking up they found themselves covered with snow and thoroughly soaked. It was even difficult to make a fire”, and so on, day after day.

It was still raining hard when the Atkinson’s reached Monsieur Alibert’s graphite mine at Batagol (see blog entry for 12th August) on 17th June. Thomas and Lucy spent at least four days here, examining the mine and the surrounding area. Thomas comments on how well M. Alibert treated his workers and also on the quality of the graphite: “The road which Mr A has made to descend to the river and his farmhouse has been a work of great labour and expense, which proves he is no mean engineer. All the works which he has executed are far superior to anything I have seen in Siberia….Should this lead prove of a good quality, what an immense property Mr A will have. He may supply the pencils for the whole world for ages to come.” Which is, of course, exactly what happened!

Monsieur Alibert’s graphite mine at Batagol in 1856

Thomas and Lucy arrived at the Oka Guardpost on Friday 29th June at 2pm, to find the Cossacks celebrating an Orthodox festival. They left early in the morning of Monday 2nd July and by Thursday 5th July Thomas had come across – and been intrigued by – the massive lava trail in the valley of the Jombolok River – which he called the Djem-a-Louk. Having set up camp and left Lucy and Alatau in the care of two Cossacks, he tried to follow the trail of lava from this valley into the main Khi-Gol volcanic crater on horseback, but the lava was too sharp. He decided to continue on foot, although his men were not happy at first. But he was determined: “I soon convinced them to the contrary by taking off my coat, strapping it up and fixing it on my shoulders. Having slung on my rifle, I ordered a Bouriat to take the horses to the tent and then started to cross the lava, which is not more than a verst and a half wide.”

Their leather boots were cut at every step by the sharp lava and very soon their feet were aching, but before long they reached the volcano valley: “On turning a point of some high rocks, I saw to my infinite delight a cone formed in the crater and at 10 minutes past six o’clock we stood on its apex and looked down into its deep abyss.” This must have been the Peretolchin Volcano.

This is the first view that Thomas Atkinson would have had of the Peretolchin cone as he entered the volcano valley

They next day he crossed the main crater to visit the cone of what is now called the Kropotkin Volcano. There can be no doubt that Thomas Atkinson was the first outsider ever to visit this valley and climb the volcanic cones. He says he made many sketches and even a series of plans of the crater itself. Sadly, their present location is unknown.

The view from the Peretolchin cone towards the Kropotkin cone, with a lava field in between.

On Saturday 7th July Thomas and his Cossack and Bouriat companions returned to the camp where he had left Lucy and Alatau in the company of two Cossacks, only to find that they had already left camp and retreated down the valley. They found them a few miles down the valley and the next day made it back to the Oka Guardpost, where once again the rain began to fall. Thomas says that he and his men had to move his tent twice, as the River Oka rose 31 feet during the night: “When we got up in the morning the water had again risen and to add to our happiness, we were told that the other boat had been carried away, along with the tree to which it had been tied. The watchman had seen it and called the Cossacks, who followed it along the bank for some distance, but without being able to get near it.”

From here the Atkinsons travelled south to Lake Kovsgol in present-day Mongolia, which will be the subject of a future posting.

All of this story is told in reverse order in Atkinson’s book, with his visit to M Alibert’s mine occurring after he had visited the Jombolok Volcano Valley, as well as many other incidents. Just why this was the case I cannot fathom, but thankfully the diaries have helped sort out what was a very confusing narrative.