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.

7 thoughts on “Travellers in the Great Steppe

    1. Hi Jen,
      Not yet! It is still being printed, so we still don’t know precisely when it will arrive. Please check back on the blog in July, when we should know more. I am sure you will enjoy it.
      Best wishes,


  1. Dear Nick,

    Congratulation on your new book. I look forward to purchasing a copy in July.

    We met very briefly about 18 months ago in the RGS reading room while you were researching the Atkinsons. You had just made the discovery they travelled with a camera obscura. I noticed you had an excellent rapport with the librarians, sort of a researcher rock star ambience.

    I was researching Andrew Dalgleish, the Central Asian trader, explorer and spy, who is mentioned in one of Henry Lansdell’s books.

    I made a complete fool of my self by being completely unable to use the silly pencil sharpener attached to the librarian’s desk. The more I tried, the more I failed until it became apparent I would never survive in any nursery school classroom. The librarian held a thin veneer of politeness but was clearly frustrated with me.

    Although I later found out pencil sharpeners were banned because some readers use them to cut our sections of books—extraordinary lousy form.

    I’m Australian and had never been to the RGS before. Their dining room with those superb drawings was glorious, and the odd menu amused me. Coronation Chicken was a dish I have not tasted, and although it was not gourmet, it’s strange yellow creaminess suited the room. I found out later it wasn’t a Victorian dish bought home from British India as I suspected but dreamt up for Elizabeths II’s coronation. That also suited the RGS dining room.

    Again congratulations on your book.


    Jennifer Teh


    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Yes, I remember you very well. How did you get on with Dalgleish? His area of travel just fell outside my area of interest. I am sure you will enjoy the book when it eventually arrives from the printers and some of it will perhaps add some context to Dalgleish’s travels. Shaw fell into the same category for me, although I have seen some of the incredible robes he brought back from Central Asia and which are now on exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
      Yes, what can I say about Coronation Chicken? An apology perhaps? It is both strange and strangely popular. I doubt that it is eaten anywhere else in the world. In India at least they would have had the decency to add chili powder.
      Once again thanks for your kind words. Please let me know if you are ever back in England.
      Very best,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Nick,
    Congratulations on your new book, which is indeed fascinating. I pre ordered a few copies from Signal Books via Amazon and they arrived exactly on time on 30 July. Therefore the last few weeks of self isolation have been busily occupied following up various leads from your footnotes and acquiring copies
    (some digital reprints) of writings new to me. Many thanks indeed.
    In particular, I was reminded by Samuel Turner, the butter merchant, of the role played by the town of Biysk, which I have passed through more than once, en route to the Altai mountains. There are several notable Russian art nouveau buildings in the town centre, which was rather run down in 1987 and also in 2013, when our attention was drawn to a huge and disused department store, once elegant, which must have served a very wide area. It overlooks the main square. When Lucy acted as hostess at the ball in Kopal, in 1849, two of the officers wives came from Biysk and ,had more pretensions than others, one of them lamenting that she had not brought her beautiful blue satin polka. Perhaps she had acquired it from a predecessor of the store, as a garment in the latest fashion. (For the craze of Polkamania in the 1840s, see my article in Text vol36 p.4 2008/9 The Textile Society ).
    Samuel Turner also made a refreshing change by seeing Siberia as a land of opportunity, both as an alpine mountaineer and as a businessman, rather than as a place of penal servitude
    I look forward to the hybrid book launch, which should do much to put the Atkinsons in their proper central Asian context. All Best Wishes, HelenBonney


    1. Thanks Helena,
      Re: Samuel Turner: it is fascinating to note that Europe – particularly Danish companies such as Lurpak – imported thousands of tons of butter every year from the Kazakh steppe before the 1WW. It came on refrigerated trains across Russia and into Europe. Who would have thought it?


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