The Atkinsons’ original route south across the Great Steppe

The exact route of the Atkinsons’ original journey south from the Altai Mountains towards the Djungar Alatau Mountains and Kapal – now in eastern Kazakhstan – during the summer and autumn of 1848 has always been something of a mystery to me. We know from Thomas’ diary that this was a very difficult journey in which Lucy almost died from exhaustion after their party became lost in the salt desert to the east of Lake Balkhash. However, thanks to some detective work by Almaty-based author Dennis Keen we now have a much clearer idea of where they went.

The Atkinsons had left Moscow together in January 1848 and set off for Siberia and Central Asia in a horse-drawn sleigh. After visiting the Siberian mining town of Barnaul and travelling south through the Altai Mountains they set off for the military encampment of Ayaguz – then known as Sergiopol. It was their intention to follow the military trail south, via a dozen or so piquet posts, to Kapal in the foothills of the Djungar Alatau Mountains.

It was a bad road and for Lucy, who was around seven months pregnant by this time, it must have been particularly difficult, not least because before this journey she had never ridden before. Having crossed the Irtysh River, their route took them directly south into the steppe, then across the outliers of the Ghenghistau Mountains, part of the Tarbagatai range. Although it was mostly flat terrain at this point, not long before reaching Ayaguz on 8th September their cart had become stuck in the very soft and marshy ground, from which they escaped only with the aid of men from the nearby piquet, who were able to pull them out.

The next day they left their carriage at Ayaguz in the care of a Cossack officer and prepared their horses for the long journey south. The season was turning and now there was a sharp frost early in the mornings. They stayed in the yurts of local Kazakhs, but the going was hard. “Having ridden three hours we came to some high ground affording a most extensive view all around us. A more desolate scene cannot be found,” wrote Thomas in his diary. “There was neither tree nor bush or any signs of vegetable life – all was dark and waste.”

Thomas says that soon after this they came to a small, isolated hill on which there were many tombs, “some of considerable size, built of stone in a conical form, with a large chamber containing graves…The tombs are extremely curious and of a very ancient date.” The likelihood is that Thomas is describing the Mausoleum of Kozy Korpesh and Bayan Sulu, located 7 kms southwest from Tarlauly village, on the right bank of the Ayaguz river, 11 kms to the west of Tansyk station. This ancient mazar (mausoleum) commemorates the love between the beautiful Bayan-Sulu and her lover Kozy Korpesh, a kind of Kazakh Romeo and Juliet. It was built in the tenth century and is now a protected monument.

The mausoleum of Kozy Korpesh and Bayan Sulu

Conditions became worse, with salt flats and no fresh water. They saw mirages and for a time were lost, with Lucy becoming more and more distressed. By Sunday 13th September, they could see the Djungar Alatau Mountains far in the distance, but they were still facing a long journey of some 80kms to the next piquet. In fact, this turned into a marathon journey, which they did not complete until 9am the next morning, by which time Lucy had fallen from her saddle and found it very difficult to get back on. As Thomas wrote in his diary: “I can’t speak too highly of Lucy’s courage and endurance during 22 hours on horseback, frequently riding very fast in the day and then riding through the nights across such a desert. Here we might have been plundered and overpowered had some of the bands of Baranta (robbers-ed) known of our march. Our arms were all kept in readiness and several would have bit the dust ere we had been taken.”

Thomas adds that during the night they had ridden past “thousands of the conical mounds.” I have not been able to establish the precise location of this place, but as Thomas wrote at the time, “I should like much to see this place in the daylight”. They rode on, their party at this time consisting of Thomas and Lucy, their Cossack guide Peter and five Kazakh horsemen. The sand was deep. Again, on the 16th September, they came across large numbers of kurgans. “There was a great number about 20 versts to the west, one of great magnitude and high. I regretted being unable to visit them as they appeared like a large town in the distance”, wrote Thomas.

Further on Thomas mentions more great barrows, “one of them at least 150 feet diameter and not less than 60 feet high. I ascended this, winding round by a path made by the sheep in the hope of getting a view of the Lepsou (River-ed).” Later that evening they finally made their way to the Lepsou. Atkinson’s diary account stops at this point, but we know the couple eventually made it to the Cossack fortification at Kapal a few days later and in early November Lucy gave birth to her son, Alatau.

Dennis Keen has been able to track most of the Atkinsons’ journey by identifying the piquets on the old Cossack road south from Ayaguz to Kapal and transferring them onto Google maps. Their names are as follows:

  1. Ayaguz (Sergiopol) 2. Ayagauz (Srednye-Ayaguz) 3. Taldy-Kuduk 4. Kyzyl-Kiya 5. Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu mausoleum 6. Akshi 7. Malo-Ayaguz 8. Aktogay 9. Dzhus-Agach 10. Karakum 11. Ukunyn-Kach 12. Arganaty 13. Ashchi-Bulak 14. Kondzhiga-Bulak 15. Lepsinskoe 16. Kökterek 17. Baskan 18. Sovkhoz Baskan 19. Aksu (Ak-suisky) 20. Zhansugurov (Abakumovsky) 21. Arasan 22. Kopal

Here is the route as mapped by Dennis. This is the first time this route has been properly marked.

If you look closely at Google Earth, you can actually see this old road still exists, although I have no idea if it is still used or is passable by wheeled vehicles. The route can also be seen on this old Russian map, which marks all the piquets.

The old Russian military road through Eastern Kazakhstan

Although I have now followed much of the travels of the Atkinsons through the Djungar Alatau Mountains, I have not so far attempted this long, dismal journey through the salt marshes and steppes for more than 400 miles. It must wait for another day.