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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.