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!

1856_graphite-from-Siberia
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.

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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.

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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.

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