A reindeer for Alatau in the Siberian wilderness

The Atkinsons went to remarkable lengths to make sure they could always travel with their child, Alatau, even in the most remote of places. During their journey to the Eastern Sayan Mountains and the Jombolok Volcano field in the summer of 1851 the two-year-old Alatau had been ill when they started off and after a few weeks travelling had not improved. Eventually they had to get him to a doctor at one of the goldmines scattered across the vast territory. After that he improved.

This week, while transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diary for 1851 in the library of the Royal Geographical Society, I came across his accounts for this journey. The couple spent a total of about 170 roubles, including two roubles for the doctor at the goldmine. Listed separately is “Reindeer for Alatau, including saddle” which cost the couple 21 roubles – by far, the largest single item of expenditure.

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Reindeer photographed in the Oka region

Where did they manage to find reindeer? The answer is intriguing. As they made there way from one Cossack frontier post to another, they began to come across people who were different to the Buriats they had come across regularly ever since leaving Irkutsk. These were Soyots, a reindeer-herding Turkic people closely related to the Tofalars of Irkutsk region, the Tozhu Tuvans in the nearby republic of Tuva and also the Dukha people of Hovsgol Province, just to the south of the Sayan Mountains – all of whom herd reindeer. You can read more about the Soyots here. Today they number about 3,500, many of whom live in the small town of Orlik. Atkinson notes in his diary that he paid one Soyot to guide him and his Cossacks across a particularly remote mountain.

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A Soyot monument in the Eastern Sayan Mountains that I photographed this summer

It must have been from one of these groups of Soyots – soyot means swan in Turkic – that the Atkinsons decided to buy some reindeer. Lucy referred to them as Samoyeds, of which they are a sub-branch. As she noted in her book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863):

We had some difficulty with Alatau over the morass, so resolved to invest a little money in the purchase of a pair of reindeer from a Samoiyede family, the only one said to be existing in these regions. They live in tents like the Tartars, conical and covered with skin; their dress also consists of skins. However, we found it a useless investment. The saddle was continually getting twisted, and I learned from our men that it required great tact for even a grown person to sit comfortably. So after the first day’s riding, we were obliged to abandon the use of them, and seat the boy on a horse, where he rode very comfortably. The delays in arranging his saddle on the reindeer impeded our progress greatly. He was obliged to be strapped on his horse; and it was rather fatiguing for him to be seated so many hours as he sometimes was. When sleep overtook him, we were obliged to carry him, which we did in turns.”

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A Soyot ‘chum‘ made from tree bark that I photographed in the Sayan Mountains this summer.

So despite the large expenditure, the investment was not particularly successful. Worse was to come, as noted by Thomas on 21 July 1851 in his diary: “One of our reindeer fell ill on the road. This delayed us very much and caused us to remain the night at Tabitteiskaia, 36 versts from Koultouck.”

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