Travellers in the Great Steppe

Pandemic permitting, my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, will be published on 1 July, with a launch event at the Royal Geographical Society in London, but that will depend on government guidance on social distancing.

Steppe cover1

The new book is a history of the exploration of the steppes, a subject which has received little attention. There are plenty of books and articles on the Great Game, but these mostly concentrate on the regions to the south of the Great Steppe, along the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Instead, I have concentrated on the vast Central Asian steppes, south of Russia’s Asiatic border, which until the middle of the nineteenth century were largely unknown to outsiders.

Those who crossed these steppes were usually on their way somewhere else and found these lands too inhospitable for colonisation and too dangerous, due to the wild tribesmen, to stay for long. The book starts by looking at the early travellers sent by popes and kings to the Mongols, whose military might threatened their very existence. Several of them, including Friar Rubruk and Jean de Plano Carpini, passed through this region and left detailed descriptions of both the Kazakh tribes and their institutions. The book  also looks at early British attempts by Anthony Jenkinson and others to divert the Silk Road to the north, through Russia, to take the trade away from merchants in the Levant. The story of the  rather unhinged John Castle, who commissioned himself to try and persuade Abul Khayir, khan of the Junior Horde of the Kazakhs, to accede to Russian rule in the 1730s, is also set out.

Elizabethan explorer Anthony Jenkinson

Several tales relate to travellers who tried to reach the remote city of Khiva, south of the Aral Sea, including Nikolai Muravyev, the American diplomat Eugene Schuyer – surely one of the greatest writers on Central Asia of all time – the brilliant journalist Januarius MacGahan, the dashing cavalry officer Captain Fred Burnaby and the fanatical cyclist Robert L Jefferson. Of particular interest is the story of The Daily Telegraph correspondent David Ker, who in 1874 faked his despatches, sending them from Armenia whilst pretending to be in Khiva itself.

Mr Eugene Schuyler, US Consul-General and Secretary of the US Legation at Constantinople     Macgahan003   jefferson-robert-louis-19

Eugene Schuyler, Januarius MacGahan and cyclist Robert L Jefferson

I have also included chapters on the Atkinsons, who remain the most prominent of the explorers of the Great Steppe. Whilst others passed through, the Atkinsons spent many months living in the region, learning about the culture and, in Thomas Atkinson’s case, producing stunning paintings and drawings that remain an important historical record of life in the steppes in the middle of the nineteeth century.

Others mentioned in the book include the remarkable Henry Lansdell, who wrote three superb books about his efforts to distribute bibles and religious tracts throughout the region, and the many Russian travellers or those working for the Russians who risked their lives in these remote areas. The include Peter Simon Pallas, Semenov-TianShansky, Grigory Potanin, Filipp Efremov, Johann Peter Falck, Johann Sievers, Gregory Karelin and Chokan Walikhanov.

Henry_Lansdell_1841-1919  Shokan Walikhanov-2  Peter_Simon_Pallas._by_A._Tardieu

The Reverend Henry Lansdell, Chokan Walikhanov and Peter Simon Pallas

Then there were those geologists and engineeers who were fascinated by the question of whether or not there had ever been a huge sea in Central Asia. British army officer Herbert Wood wrote a book dedicated to this subject and Xavier Hommaire de Hell and his very accomplished wife Adele, spent years looking into this question. Other French explorers began to arrive towards the end of the nineteenth century, including Gabriel Bonvalot and Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon, who was portrayed in the popular press in Paris wearing her specially-made exploring outfit.

Bonvalot-fur                  Adele Hommaire de Hell                   Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon

Gabriel Bonvalot, Adele Hommaire de Hell and Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon

Scientists and miners also spent time in the Great Steppe, none more so that William Bateson, the Cambridge don who invented the word genetics and rediscovered the work of Gregor Mendel. Bateson spent 18 months in the steppes in the 1880s looking for tiny fossilized snails to try and establish if there had once been a single body of water in Central Asia. By the end of the nineteenth century miners looking for copper and other precious minerals were arriving; even butter merchants made their way to these vast open spaces and organised refrigerated trains to bring the butter to Europe.

The book, to be published by Signal Books, contains all these stories and more.

ISBN 978-1-909930-86-5. Cloth.

Rubbing shoulders with the great Kazakh sultans and khans


One of Thomas Atkinson’s best-known lithographic illustrations (above), which appears as the frontispiece of his book Oriental and Western Siberia, is a portrait of a man he calls Sultan Souk. ‘Sultan Souk and his family’ has always intrigued me. He sits cross-legged in his yourt, surrounded by three women – presumably his wives – and another kinsman who is standing. Across his legs he caresses a Russian military sabre and around his neck hangs a large gold medallion bearing a portrait. Around him are the accoutrements of wealth – a fine-looking cooking pot with animal finials, a samovar for making tea and any number of fine carpets and textiles. All those present are wearing fine striped khalats beneath their cloaks. Both men wear silken kamarbands and small tubeteika round caps.

The portrait was one of many that Atkinson composed during the journey that he and Lucy made to the Zhetysu region of what is now eastern Kazakhstan. They stayed at the isolated Russian military outpost of Kopal – where their son Alatau was born – from September 1848-June 1849, before slowly making their way back to Barnaul in southern Siberia, which they reached in September that year. Atkinson’s portraits of  the prominent Kazakhs he met now represent the only characterisations of a generation of Kazakh leaders whose likenesses would otherwise be unknown.

So who was Sultan Souk? Atkinson does not mince his words: “A greater robber could not be found in the Steppe and though at this time, being eighty years of age, he could not join in the barantas, many were planned by him. On another occasion, when I was staying at his aoul some Kazakhs came from the middle horde to beg of him to give up their wives and children, who had been carried off by his banditti — they formed part of his share of the plunder — but the old scoundrel would not restore one. He received a pension from the Russian emperor, sold his country, and deceived his imperial majesty.[i]

Atkinson adds that the sultan sat for a portrait and insisted on wearing “a scarlet coat, a gold medal and a sabre, sent him by Alexander the First, of which he was wonderfully proud.” He also mentions that he was vain: “In one of his barantas, a battle-axe had cut his nose and rendered it crooked; and when I was sketching him, he desired me not to copy his present nose, but put in a proper one, or the emperor  would discover his plundering habits.”

Lucy Atkinson also wrote about the old sultan in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes. She mentions numerous visits by him to their small house at Kopal in the spring of 1849, when  their child Alatau was just a few months old:
The fine weather is a relief to everybody; it also brings visitors from the Kazakhs. Amongst the most frequent is old Sultan Souk. Many an hour does he pass in our rooms, and one of the great attractions is a small travelling looking-glass. He goes into my bed-room, where it hangs against the wall, and stands for an hour or more, making all kinds of grimaces, and laughing loudly; it is probably the first time he ever saw his own face. He sadly wished to persuade me to present it to him; he coaxed me out of a pair of scissors, and took them to his armourer, who made others from them – the first that were ever manufactured in the steppe. They were given to the Baron, who promised them to me, but, learning that we thought them a curiosity, he retracted, I presume, for I never received them. Another attraction for the old gentleman was the child; indeed, Kazakhs came from far and near to see him; one Sultan sent a follower of his a distance of 200 versts for some smoked mutton for the child to eat when he was six weeks old.”

By 1849, of course, Tsar Alexander was dead, but the atmosphere on the Kazakh steppe was tense and the Russian Tsars were no less interested in what was happening there. Two years before, Russian troops had made their way south from Siberia to establish a series of military posts – including Kopal – along the border with China, to the east. And the reason they timed their arrival for 1847 was that the previous year one of their most serious adversaries, Kenisary Kasymov, regarded by some as khan of all the Kazakhs, had been killed by Kirghiz tribesmen, bringing to an end a two-decade insurgency against the Russians. Kenisary is today seen as a hero in modern-day Kazakhstan, regarded as the last Kazakh tribesman to hold out against the Russians.

Khan Kenesary
Statue of Kenesary in Nursultan.

Kenisary was khan of the Middle Horde, whose members lived in the north-eastern regions of the Great Steppe. He was also distantly related to Chokan Walikhanov, regarded by many as the first Western-trained Kazakh intellectual. He continued a struggle started by his brother in the 1820s to oust Russians from the steppe. Whether he was a modernizer or a traditionalist is hotly debated, but he undoubtedly made it very difficult for the Russians to complete their project of subduing the steppes and settling the regions with agricultural peasant farmers from southern Russia.

In this context, Atkinson’s painting of Sultan Souk, has a greater significance. What I have established is that Sultan Souk was actually Sultan Siuk Ablaikhanov, a sultan of the Great Horde, son of the hero Ablai Khan and actually an uncle of Kenisary – who was Ablai Khan’s grandson – although with a very different political outlook. In 1831, as Kenesary’s brother was leading an insurrection against the Russians, Siuk had asked the Governor-General of Western Siberia to create an okrug – a jointly-administered territory – on his lands and to bring in Cossacks to pacify recalcitrant Kazakhs. This opened up Lake Balkash and large parts of the Djungar Alatau to Russian exploration. Other tribal groups from the Great Horde followed Siuk in accepting Russian rule. And it was precisely because he was regarded as pro-Russian that in 1846 Kenesary had come to Siuk and demanded that he join him in his struggle against the Russians. In doing so he was acting as head of the Middle Horde, seeking support from the Great Horde. But the old man had refused, despite threats by Kenesary to destroy all Siuk’s aouls.

By the time the Atkinsons met the sultan, he was clearly in favour with the Russians, Kopal being on his territory. Thomas describes how the commander of the fort at Kopal, Captain Abakumov, organised a great gathering of tribal leaders there on 1 March 1849 to discuss the boundary between the Great and the Middle hordes. The lack of an agreed boundary meant that there were constant barimtas (raids) by one group against the other.

Defensive ditch around the Russian bastion at Kopal

The chiefs arrived on the appointed day, along with their mullahs and elders – in all over 100 men. There was no building large enough to hold the multitude, so they met in the open. The Russian administrators of the steppes arrived from Ayagus and others came from the tribes of the Middle Horde. Captain Abakumov started off proceedings with a display of artillery fire, which terrified many of the guests, exactly as it had been designed to do so. A Russian official informed all those present that the governor-General of Western Siberia, Prince Gortchakov, had sent a despatch recommending that the sultans and chiefs agree a boundary to stop all the feuds and plundering. He added that the negotiations should be conducted in a polite manner.

Sultan Siuk was the first to talk, saying that he had considered the Prince’s suggestions and was willing to adopt them, but that the boundary line was paramount. Thomas Atkinson reported his speech thus: “The boundary to which I shall consent is the Ac-Sou, including the shores of Lake Balkash. If the Middle Horde agree to this, it is well, if not the chiefs will maintain their right and seize every man and animal found on the pastures.[ii] It was an uncompromising message.

The Russian official tried to get Siuk to modify his claim, suggesting that the border between the two hordes should be the River Bean, with the land to the West belonging to the Great Horde. Siuk studied the map presented by the Russian, but was not impressed: “I cannot understand this paper, nor why you have marked the Bean and call that the boundary. It may remain so on the paper, but I will have the pastures to the Ac-Sou. The Prince has ordered the Lepsou, the Ac-sou and the Bean to be placed where he pleased on this paper. He may have them so, but I order the boundary to be on the Ac-Sou, nor shall it be changed. If the Middle Horde do not consent to this, they shall soon see some of my people on the Lepsou.

A chief from the Middle Horde replied, saying they would not change their position either and threatening to kill anyone from the Great Horde they found on their territory. With that the meeting broke up for the day. Discussions on the following days and weeks did not lead to a breakthrough and by the end of the month the Russian officials were tired and fed up; the tribal leaders, all much embittered, separated more disunited than ever before.

Atkinson, however, had not finished, either with Siuk or with Kenesary. He devotes almost 60 pages of his second book, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, to detailing the adventure-filled story of Siuk’s doomed attempt to marry Ai Khanym, the daughter of Sultan Djanghir Khan, one of the leaders of the Kirghiz tribes in the mountains, with whom Siuk’s father wanted to form a pact, . The story ends in disaster, with Djangir Khan going back on his word and trying to marry off his daughter to the Khan of Badakhshan and Siuk eloping with her, only for her to be killed by a tiger in the mountains.

As for Kenesary, during the Atkinsons’ departure from the Djungar Alatau region in the summer of 1849 they took on an old guide who knew the mountains well. The old man said he had once belonged to what Atkinson called “a band of robbers,” commanded by the great ‘Kinsara’ i.e. Kenisary. In this characterisation, Atkinson is following the opinion of the Russians – and possibly the Kazakhs of the Great Horde. He goes on to say that the Kazakhs “quailed as he led on his wild bands; even the Russians, on the frontiers, dreaded his marauding expeditions. He had been the scourge of all the tribes, whom he often plundered, carrying off their camels, hordes, men, women and children.

High up in the Djungar Alatau Mountains, amongst the headwaters of the Bascan River, the guide even located one of Kenisary’s old camping grounds: “This was the place on which Kinsara had lived and held his daring associates in subjection. My guide told me that no one of the band ever dared to disobey his orders, as doing so would have been certain death. He had acquired unbounded power over the minds of his followers, by his indomitable courage. If a desperate attack had to be made against fearful odds, he led the van, and was ever first in the fight, shouting his war-cry with uplifted battle-axe and plunging his fiery steed into the thickest of the battle. This gave confidence to his men, and was the secret of his success; but the Kazakhs thought he was in league with Shaitan and that no steel could touch him.[iii]

The guide told Atkinson that Kenisary had 300 men with him, including escaped Chinese convicts from the Ili Valley. He led him to the very spot where Kenesary had lived: “This was sacred ground to him, and his eye moistened as we turned away from the spot. We visited several other places which he examined with intense interest and then came to the spot where his yourt had stood. There were black ashes of his own hearth; he looked at these for a few minutes and then led the way to the eastward. As he strode along he often looked back, evidently lingering affectionately over a locality that had called up many pleasant recollections.

We can see from these events that Thomas and Lucy Atkinson were in the Great Steppe at a time of turmoil, as the last resistance to the Russian incursions crumbled. The Atkinsons’ many meetings with Sultan Siuk, a prominent leader of the Great Horde, Thomas’ presence at the great gathering of tribal leaders in March 1849 and the visit to the mountains with a former companion of Kenisary, leader of the Middle Horde and the last great resistance hero of the Kazakhs, shows that they were in the thick of great historical events.

[i] T. W Atkinson, Oriental and Western Siberia, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1858, p568,

[ii] T. W. Atkinson, Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1860, p176.

[iii] Ibid., p223

The Atkinsons and Andrew White, the founder of Cornell University

It has been known for some time that the great American educator Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University in America, met the Atkinsons during a six-month stay in St Petersburg that began at the end of October 1854. As a young man White obtained what we would probably call an ‘internship’ at the US Embassy there, helping with translations, as none of the permanent staff could speak or read Russian or French. The Atkinsons had been in the town since December the previous year, having spent six years travelling in Siberia and Central Asia.

Recalling those days in St Petersburg, White wrote in his autobiography:

“As to Russian matters, it was my good fortune to become intimately acquainted with Atkinson, the British traveler in Siberia. He had brought back many portfolios of sketches, and his charming wife had treasured up a great fund of anecdotes of people and adventure, so that I seemed for a time to know Siberia as if I had lived there. Then it was that I learned of the beauties and capabilities of its southern provinces. The Atkinsons had also brought back their only child, a son born on the Siberian steppe, a wonderfully bright youngster, whom they destined for the British navy. He bore a name which I fear may at times have proved a burden to him, for his father and mother were so delighted with the place in which he was born that they called him, after it, Alatow-Tam Chiboulak.”[i]

A photograph of Andrew Dickson White in 1885

Now I have been able to find further comments by White about the Atkinsons, published in his diaries and letters.[ii] Although there are only a handful of comments that mention Thomas Atkinson, they add several important points to our knowledge of the explorer and artist. In a letter to his mother, written on 7 December 1854, White was clearly referring to Atkinson when he wrote:
There are some very fine English people here and to meet them freely is no small pleasure. We have quite often at dinner a finely educated English gentleman who has devoted the best part of his life to travelling in Asia especially in Siberia and Tartary. He is now employed on a great work on Siberia under patronage of government. It was his conversation last Sunday evening which caused me to be so unfilial as to put off writing.[iii]

What he meant by “under patronage of government” is unclear. White had already noted Atkinson’s presence in his diary. On 1st November, the day after he arrived in St Petersburg, he went to the US legation to meet the staff, including the ambassador, Governor Seymour, who showed him around. “While asking me a thousand questions, he showed me all over his house, pointed out my room, etc, etc. Everything was capitally arranged for my reception. Afterward rode out with him and called upon Mr Atkinson, author of work on Siberia, and Mr _____, the artist.

A few weeks later, on Sunday 12th November, White noted he had the company of Mr Evans and Mr Atkinson at his home, with Thomas staying for tea and dinner: “He gave very curious accounts of his travels in Siberia and China. Prisoners, political, in the former country not treated in some cases with great severity—offenders, ‘princes’ of 1827 thereabouts—though in the mines for the first two years, now live in grand style. Chinese better people than we generally think…”.

Atkinson was clearly referring to Prince Sergei Troubetskoi and Prince Sergei Volkonsky, both of whom had been exiled to eastern Siberia for their parts in the Decembrist uprising and both of whom he had met and become friends with in Irkutsk.

On New Year’s eve 1854 White had Atkinson to dinner before heading off to a concert in aid of the wounded of Sebastopol – presumably Thomas did not attend that event.

Six week later, on 16th February 1855 White made his first mention of Lucy and Alatau, the Atkinsons’ son: “In the morning to Mrs Atkinson’s to coffee. Thence with young Tartar Alaton Tamchibolak to the booths of the Isak plain.[iv] The battle between the Turks and Russians, in which, of course, the Moslems came out second best. Thence we strolled through the menageries, whirling railway sledges, etc, etc. The most interesting thin by far being the crowd of mujiks in their glee at the dancing and juggling and stirring up of the animals…”.[v]

White discusses in detail the death and burial of Tsar Nicholas I and the accession of his son, Alexander II, giving detailed descriptions of the ceremonies and events in the Russian capital.

On 26th March 1855 White went in state to foreign minister Karl Nesselrode’s villa, garden and greenhouses a mile or two outside the town, where he was struck by the beauty and variety of plants on display, including rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas. Nearby was the tomb of Nicholas I. Afterwards he went to Cluzels, a bookshop, to pick up some books. He notes the following: “Curious reply of our driver. A, who talks Russian, asked him if he was hurt when the horse kicked very near him. ‘God saved me’, was the reply. So goes faith among the mujiks.” ‘A’, as explained in a footnote, was Thomas Atkinson. There has been much speculation about whether or not Thomas spoke Russian. It is clear from this comment that by 1855, after nine years in the country, he could.

On 22nd April White went to inspect the headquarters of the prestigious Cadet Corps, where he was joined by Thomas Atkinson “and we commenced our tour about the immense institution in which are educated for the army boys of all ages.” They saw the rooms of Peter the Great, the collection of antiquities and medals, the dormitories and the classrooms. “Afterward to lunch at Mr Atkinson’s and received present of malachite Easter eggs…”. Presumably Thomas had picked these up during his travels in the Urals, where the malachite was mined. On Sunday 6th May White walked into town and went afterwards to the Atkinson’s home on Vasily Ostrov.

After a quick journey to Moscow, White was ready to leave Russia, which he did by the end of the month. Clearly he had enjoyed his encounter with the Atkinson, particularly with Alatau. According to an article in The Hawaiian Star, White had tried in later life to get in touch with Alatau: “For about fifty years Dr White had tried to find [Alatau] but without result…The rumour was that the young fellow had gone into the navy in after years and so Dr White often but vainly enquired after him at British naval depots…”.[vi] In fact the two men did finally get in touch with each other, probably sometime after 1900.[vii]


i] Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography, Vol 1, Dodo Press, p374.

[ii] Robert Morris Ogden (ed.), The Diaries of Andrew D White, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, 1958.

[iii] See Cornell University archives,

[iv] Appears to be a reference to some kind of funfair.

[v] Ogden, op. cit., pp53-4.

[vi] The Hawaiian Star, 9 December 1911.

[vii] As explained in a footnote in White’s autobiography: “Since writing the above, I have had the pleasure of receiving a letter from this gentleman, who has for some time held the responsible and interesting position of superintendent of public instruction in the Hawaiian Islands, his son, a graduate of the University of Michigan, having been Secretary of the Territory.” White, op. cit. The reference to Alatau’ son, is to ALC Atkinson, known as Jack, his eldest son.