A rare account of remote travel in Siberia

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The cover of Jefferson’s book

Written accounts by British travellers to remote parts of Siberia are not common. Many of those who wrote about their journeys across Asia kept closely to the well-travelled Great Post Road and, later, the Trans-Siberian railway and were seldom far away from safety. That is partly why Thomas and Lucy Atkinson’s accounts of their travels are so interesting. They certainly travelled more than any other foreigners in the remotest parts of the Russian Empire, but otherwise the wanderers are few and far between.

Thus it was a pleasure to read recently Robert Louis Jefferson’s book Roughing it in Siberia (Sampson, Low, Marston & Co, 1897) in which the author describes a winter journey in 1897 to remote mountains in what is now northern Tuva. Tuva lies to the south-east of Krasnoyarsk in southern Siberia and is best known today for its extraordinary throat-singers and nomadic reindeer herders. It is still a remote place, as I found out some years ago on a trek through its Western Sayan Mountains, where there are still nomads living amidst the glorious taiga.

Jefferson – a journalist by training and a pioneering cyclist who had previously cycled to Moscow and back from England and then across Siberia and had written two books about his exploits – travelled on this occasion with three companions from London, but without bicycles, preferring instead the vicissitudes of rail travel. At the time they travelled they were able to reach as far as Chelyabinsk in the southern Urals before having to leave the European rail system. The Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been opened, although work was well underway, and Jefferson describes the breakneck pace at which it was proceeding.

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Robert Jefferson

He is pretty vague about the purpose of his journey, other than to inspect some goldmines – presumably on behalf of British investors. His companions included John Scawell, an Englishman who had just returned from goldmines in Australia, India and the Transvaal, and Evan Asprey, who had spent five years in Siberia and could speak Russian. The third was Thomas Gaskell, an American citizen of English origin, only 28 but well-travelled throughout Asia. All were aware that once completed, the new railway would create many potential business opportunities in Siberia, if only they could defeat the notorious Russian bureaucracy.

Jefferson writes well and tells many good stories. He notes the large numbers of emigrants from southern Russia making their way, freely, to southern Siberia, having been offered assisted passage by the Imperial government. “The principle underlying Russia’s colonisation scheme is similar to England’s policy with regards to Canada, only that the means are easier and influence energetic and widespread,” he notes. He calculates that a Russian peasant could travel 2000 miles for the grand sum of six roubles – equivalent to 13s.3d. at the time the book was written, although the accommodation was little better than cattle trucks.

As Jefferson and his colleagues endured the extremely slow (8mph sometimes) local trains to Kurgan, Omsk, Tomsk and then the end of the railway at Krasnoyarsk, they could hardly have known the hardship that they would soon face travelling through the taiga in the bitter cold of winter. He doesn’t explain why he chose a winter journey, but presumably it was because the route they took would have been impossible during the summer, when the ground turns to bog and the air is full of billions of biting mosquitoes.

From Krasnoyarsk they faced an eight-day, 800-mile, journey south in two horse-drawn sledges, part of it down the frozen Yenissei River. “I can only say that as it turned out it was a hundred per cent dearer, two days slower and a hundred times more uncomfortable than if we had taken the regular post-road through Atchinsk,” writes Jefferson with feeling.

The journey was mostly sleepless as a succession of semi-drunk yemshiks drove their troikas at high speed and with little care for obstacles en route. At one point Jefferson and Gaskell found their sledge at a standstill with one of the three horses dead in a deep snowdrift. The yemshik was nowhere to be seen and had presumably fallen off the sledge some time before. The two men had to find their own way to the post house, using a bicycle lamp to light the way. What became of the yemshik they never found out.

Eventually all four men made it to Minusinsk, where they left the river Yenissei to travel into the Sayan Mountains and the settlement of Karatuzski, which they reached after three days. Jefferson describes the village as “the headquarters of the goldmasters during the summer operations”. At this time China still controlled most of the land to the south of here, including what is now Tuva. Here it was necessary to hire some labourers and despite what he had been told previously, most of those who presented themselves were criminal exiles. “Out of over 200 men who presented themselves to us not one per cent bore the passport of a free man; but had, instead, the police certificate which detailed the crime and the sentence of the holder.”

They hired six men, all of whom had been banished to Siberia for violent murder. They also met some of the local goldminers, many of them rich men, who spent their time drinking and gambling. After a couple of days they set off again, this time in a caravan of 15 single-horse sledges, along the river Armeul, a tributary of the Yenissei.

This was a very hard journey, with horses and sledges constantly slipping from the improvised track. Gaskell’s sledge was smashed to pieces in one fall, and all of them were thrown into the snow on more than one occasion. After four days they finally saw the Sayan Mountain peaks, which marked the boundary between Russia and China. Further travel down the Isinsoul River (I have not been able to identify it), led them to the goldmine they had been searching for, consisting of a small collection of huts and a sluice-house.

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Jefferson’s camp in the Sayan Mountains

Jefferson describes in detail the alluvial gold workings, which were so crudely constructed that anywhere up to 50 per cent of the fine gold was lost during the washing process. The miners worked in gangs of three or four, selling their gold to the mine owners who in turn were required to sell to government inspectors. The spoil heaps often covered up virgin territory, forcing the miner to move constantly, leaving behind large unworked areas.

Their main tool was a ‘Long Tom’ box, which had a pierced iron plate at one end through which the gold dropped into another, slower stream of water. Even the bigger box sluices were crude and lost around 20 per cent of the gold. Most produced around an ounce of gold for every ton of alluvial, low by world standards, but with such cheap labour and provisions, the mines could still make a lot of money.

Overall, however, Jefferson cautioned against investing in goldmining in the Sayan Mountains, although he thought large profits could be made if one company was to buy up most of the goldmines and introduce modern extraction techniques.

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Using the Long Tom to sluice for gold

Before leaving the mine, he decided to make a trip over the mountains to the southern slopes of the Sayan Mountains in what was then Chinese territory. No-one seemed to know where the border was and there was no sign of Chinese troops or border police. Everyone accepted that it must all soon become part of Russia.

Jefferson, Scawell and a Russian guide set off on sledges to cross the peaks and were surprised to see much less snow on the southern slopes and little ice on the streams. They soon spotted some people who turned out to be reindeer-herding Soyots – the same ethnic group that the Atkinsons had come across on their trip to the Eastern Sayan Mountains in 1851 – and whom we met during our visit to a nearby region last year. The nomadic Soyots offered sable skins in exchange for tea, tobacco and gunpowder.

Two weeks later Jefferson and his friends left the Sayan goldfields to return to Europe, believing that they had been the only Englishmen, besides Captain Wiggins, “to enter Siberia in order to inquire into the commercial resources of that vast country.” He was wrong on that, as the Atkinsons had been in almost exactly the same area 50 years before him.

Nor was this the last of Jefferson’s adventures. In 1899 he published A New Ride to Khiva, detailing his bicycle ride to the remote desert city now in Uzbekistan, first made famous by Captain Fred Burnaby. Sadly, by 1914, at the age of only 47, Jefferson was dead. Today, like many of our Siberian explorers, his name is almost forgotten. You can find out more about him in an interview with his grandson, John Jefferson, which is published here.

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