Travellers book launched in Kazakh and Russian editions

My book Travellers in the Great Steppe was launched in both Kazakh and Russian-language editions in Nur-Sultan last week in an event attended by over 100 guests, including deputy foreign minister Roman Vassilenko, who chaired the event, and around 20 ambassadors, including British Ambassador Kathy Leach and Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to the UK, Erlan Idrissov. It was hosted by Qazaq Geography, whose chairman, Orman Nurbayev, also attended.

Launch event at the National Academic Library, Nur-Sultan

The event, held at the National Academic Library in Nur-Sultan, was covered by many national media and TV channels, which can be found here and here. Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the UK, HE Erlan Idrissov, spoke about the importance of the book for young Kazakhs in particular. British ambassador Kathy Leach also spoke warmly of the project. The book was translated by the National Translation Bureau.

Lucy Atkinson talk now available on RGS website

My recent talk at the Royal Geographical Society on Lucy Atkinson is now available for viewing/listening on the RGS website. You can find it here. The talk, Lucy Atkinson: One of the ‘Greats’ in the Pantheon of Travellers, was given on 24th January as part of the ‘Be Inspired’ series. I argued that Lucy’s achievements as a traveller/explorer matched those of almost any of the women travellers who preceded her – and many of the women who followed. She was one of the most adventurous of nineteenth century travellers, reaching places that no other Europeans had ever seen and covering almost 40,000 miles through Siberia and Central Asia. Not to mention that she gave birth to a son, who travelled with her wherever she went. And yet today her name remains almost unknown. Surely it is time she was given the recognition she so richly deserves.

Good turnout for RGS talk on Lucy Atkinson

About 60 people turned out yesterday afternoon at the Royal Geographical Society in London to hear my talk Lucy Atkinson: One of the ‘Greats’ in the Pantheon of Travellers. My aim in this talk was to place Lucy’s achievements as a writer and explorer in the context of other women travellers from the mid-nineteenth century and before. The exploits of such pioneers as Abby Jane Morrell, Mary Boddington, Eliza Fay, Maria Graham, Lady Florentia Sale and Ida Pfeiffer were outlined in some detail.

Most of these names are probably unknown to all but the most erudite readers, but they all made their mark. At present there is no specific place to celebrate their achievements, although the RGS itself is planning to introduce more inclusive space into the building. Undoubtedly it is an anomaly that a portrait of Lord Curzon hangs above the fireplace in the main entrance hall to the building, as during debates within the RGS in the 1890s he strongly opposed women being granted fellowship on the grounds that they were incapably of scientific work!

Myself and Lucy Atkinson’s gg grand-daughter Pippa Smith at the meeting.

A talk on Lucy Atkinson at the RGS

On Monday 24th January I will be speaking at the Royal Geographical Society in London on my recent republication of Lucy Atkinson’s wonderful book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants (Signal, Oxford). If sufficient people register in advance, it will be a live event; otherwise we will revert to an online presentation.

My early afternoon talk (1430-1530) is entitled ‘Lucy Atkinson: One of the Greats in the Pantheon of Travellers’. It will make the case that Lucy was a truly intrepid explorer, whose contribution to the history of travel has been overlooked. Her six-year journey with her husband, the artist and author Thomas Witlam Atkinson, covered almost 40,000 miles through some of the wildest and remote parts of southern Siberia and Central Asia. Nor was she simply a passenger. Despite her lack of experience before setting out, she soon mastered riding horses, shooting for the pot and caring for a baby whilst in the middle of nowhere. It was Lucy, who was a fluent Russian speaker, who ran the Atkinsons’ camps, instructed the guides and Cossack guards and negotiated with nomads they came across during their travels. On at least one occasion she brandished her rifle – at which she was a crack shot – in defence of her husband and child.

Of course, there were many woman travellers before Lucy, but most were simply travelling to a specific place with a husband who was on colonial or military service. Few, if any, took part in expeditions into unknown lands. That is what separates her out from other women. In the new introduction to the book, myself and co-editor Marianne Simpson look into the history of women’s travel writing to see if there are any comparable travellers. There is barely a handful.

Until recent times exploration and travel was regarded as a male domain. The walls of the main lecture hall at the RGS in London is inscribed with their names – Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone, Ross, Baker and the rest. Not a woman amongst them. Isn’t it time the record was corrected? Please join us by booking via the link above for what should be a very interesting talk.

World premiere for Alatau’s carol in Somerset

A Christmas carol written in Hawaii in 1895 by Alatau Atkinson, the son of explorers Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, received its world premiere in an English country church on Saturday night, accompanied by choirs and – in recognition of his place of birth – a talented Kazakh folk duo. The words to Christmas Bells were set to music by composer Michael Csanyi-Wills, an associate of the Royal Academy of Music and Head of Keyboard and Composition at the World Heart Beat Music Academy in London. He conducted the Mosaica Choir and Choir of Angels, along with the Kazakh duo Qos Arna and a group of ukelele players in a remarkable performance of the new/old work.

The event took place at the beautiful St Bartholomew’s Church in the small Somerset town of Crewkerne, the home of Alatau’s great-great granddaughter Pippa Smith, whose original idea it was to perform the carol. Around 100 people heard a programme of carols, choir music, Kazakh songs and readings before the finale in which all the players came together to perform Alatau’s carol. Members of the audience were presented with Hawai’ian lei flower garlands in recognition of Alatau’s life there, where he became a reknowned educationalist and newspaper editor.

Kazakh folk duo Qos Arna take part in the Crewkerne concert

The event included a display illustrating the life of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, who was born in the then remote settlement of Kapal in the Djungar Alatau Mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan in 1848. His first name came from the nearby mountain chain, whilst his second came from the sacred spring close to the place he was born. He moved to Hawai’i from England in 1869 and never returned to his homeland. Ian Tribe, chairman of Arts @ St Bart’s and the Friends of St Barts, told the audience that everyone in the music scene in south Somerset had got together behind the project to put on the carol concert, funds from which will go towards the upkeep of Grade I listed St Bartholomew’s.

The display illustrating Alatau’s remarkable life

The words to the carol are as follows:

Chime, Christmas bells, in old cathedral tower,

O’er frozen field and snow-wrapped vale,

Chime, Christmas bells, though storms may darkly lower,

Chime out to all, the happy tale

Of Peace on Earth.

Chime, Christmas bells o’er southern sunlit shore,

O’er wave-kissed isle and fern-clad hill,

Chime, Christmas bells, and let your music soar

On high. To man proclaim Christ’s will

For Peace on Earth.

Chime, Chrismas bells, proclaim the end of strife,

Let love prevail, let faction cease,

Chime, Chrismas bells, arouse to higher life

Our better selves. Proclaim sweet Peace

Aye, Peace on Earth!

The last of the Kazakh herders of Xinjiang

Nomadic pastoralism, the primary form of existence in much of Central Asia for the past 5,000 years and one of the most ecological and sustainable ways of living in the world, is now in serious decline. In the ‘Stans’ that were conquered and occupied by the Russians, nomadism was looked down upon and discouraged. In Kazakhstan, for example, more than a million nomads starved to death in the 1920s and 1930s – part of a deliberate policy by their Soviet masters to break the cultural and economic traditions that had sustained them for generations.

Today, transhumance still exists in Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and parts of the Altai and southern Siberia. In the isolated republic of Tuva, for example, there has even been a small increase in the number of herding families living in remote areas. In Mongolia there are still plenty of nomads, but they are decreasing, in part due to climate change, but also because fewer and fewer young people want to spend their lives looking after livestock in the harsh conditions of the steppes. In one Mongolian nomadic family I know personally, seven of the eight children have chosen to move to the city or abroad, leaving the eldest son to carry on breeding horses, for which his family is famous.

Accounts of this form of nomadic lifestyle are few and far between. Most nomadic societies relied more on oral traditions of storytelling, songs and poetry to communicate their history and culture. The Manas Epic, for example, created and passed along the generations by the Kyrgyz people, is one of the greatest works of literature in the world, in some versions running to more than half-a-million lines. It recounts great events that took place more than a thousand years ago and is recited, to this day, by manasji, people who learn a version and then recite it at communal gatherings such as weddings and other celebrations.

Otherwise, it is to outsiders we must turn to find out more about nomadism. Ethnographers, travellers and others, as far back as Herodotus, have helped to fill in the details, describing the lives of nomads, their preoccupations and the beauty of the places through which they travel across the seasons. Thus it was remarkable to come across Li Juan’s fascinating book, Winter Pasture: One woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders*. Although only published in English translation this year, it describes the author’s stay with a small family of herders from the north of Xinjiang, China’s western-most province, in 2010.

The book is remarkable for many reasons. First, it is written by a young Chinese (Han) woman, who was brought up in the Altay prefecture of Xinjiang, where her family ran a small convenience store that sold cheap goods to the ethnic Kazakhs that lived nearby. One Kazakh family who owed money to the shop were prevailed upon to take Li Juan with them as they migrated south for the winter – about 100 miles – to escape the worst of the winter winds. Her aim was to write about what she saw, as part of her efforts to establish herself as a writer. She spoke little Kazakh and knew nothing of nomadic culture, so one can only imagine the shock when she realised that she would be spending the winter living in what she describes as a ‘burrow’ made of blocks of dried sheep crap and wedged between two sand dunes. The 500 or so sheep lived in a similar underground burrow, although the horses, cattle and camels were denied such luxury.

Throughout the book Li Juan gradually reveals the family characters with whom she was living – Cuma, the gruff, but rather tender father figure, ‘Sister-in-law’, his wife and a varying number of children, who were mostly at boarding school in town, but every now and again came out to the burrow to help with herding and to see their parents. Other families were living in similar conditions in the surrounding desert, protecting their animals and taking them to graze each day. Water was scarce, the only source being from collected snow, which was then melted on the fire, which in turn used the ubiquitous sheep crap for fuel. In fact, one entire chapter of the book is solely about the various uses of sheep crap.

Li Juan in the winter pastures

Having spent time with nomads in Mongolia and elsewhere, I can vouch for the accuracy of Li Juan’s narrative. In particular, she describes how the family charged up a car battery for three days by using an old solar panel. This allowed them to watch TV for a couple of hours. The next night, the failing battery only allows an hour or so and by the third night, the picture flickers for less than an hour. Then the battery has to be charged up again for another three days. I well remember a similar procedure when living with nomads in the Altai region of Mongolia, just a short distance away, across the international border.

Of course, it is impossible to read this book without thinking of the present-day plight of the Uighurs, the ethnic group for whom Xinjiang has been home for thousands of years and who are now facing appalling collective punishment from the Chinese in response to a number of Islamist terror attacks in 2013 and 2014, after this book was written. The Uighurs are not nomads but have faced imprisonment on a mass scale in what are known as ‘re-education camps’, whilst their culture and language are under serious threat.

Li Juan was told by her hosts that the annual migration was about to come to an end after China introduced a new policy to the region, tuimu huancao, apparently aimed at preventing over-grazing of the fragile steppelands – although perhaps nomads know more about this kind of thing that Chinese bureaucrats. The Chinese have built fences across the steppe, beyond which nomads and their flocks and herds are unable to travel. The nomads seem resigned to accepting their fate, possibly without comprehending the full implications. Which is sad. These Kazakhs – there are about 1.25 million in Xinjiang, about 6% of the region’s population – are the only ones left who still use Arabic script for writing. They also retain cultural traditions that have been destroyed in Kazakhstan itself. Intricate embroidery remains a prominent activity for both men and women during the long winter nights.

Of course, only a minority of Chinese Kazakhs are still nomads, but they have kept their traditions alive until very recently. The evidence in Li Juan’s book is that the children of nomads are now taught in Mandarin in the boarding schools which they attend, a classic policy for breaking ethnic identity – and one followed by the Russians in Siberia, the Americans with the native American tribes and extensively within the British Empire. They flourish their Mandarin textbooks and show off their proficiency to Li Juan, oblivious to the cultural obliteration that is being foisted on them.

I deeply enjoyed reading this book, despite the fact that it describes the dying days of an important culture. Li Juan is not a cultural imperialist. Nor does she disparage or mock the people who looked after her and shared their lives with her. But these days I don’t think the Chinese would encourage further books like this. Today, China demands the repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs who have fled across the border into Kazakhstan and puts pressure on the central government in Nur-Sultan not to allow anyone to campaign on their behalf. In doing so, they are bringing an end to a way of life that has protected the steppes for thousands of years. Whatever replaces it will not.

Li Juan, Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders, Astra House, New York, 2021, $28.00. ISBN: 978-1-6626-0055-5.

Travellers… book launched in Kazakh version

I am delighted to report that a Kazakh-language edition of my book Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, was launched today at the Palace of Languages in Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan.

The book has been translated into Kazakh under a programme known as 100 New Text Books, under which 100 important foreign language books are being translated by the national translation bureau. Also translated and launched today was Thomas, Lucy and Alatau: the Atkinsons’ Adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh Steppe by John Massey-Stewart, which was published in 2018.

The meeting heard from Deputy Akim of the Almaty Region, Batyrzhan Baizhumanov, who stressed the importance of the books for Kazakhs who wanted to learn about their history. Head of the Department of Internal Politics of the Almaty Region Rakhmet Yesdauletov also spoke and the Kazakh ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, H E Erlan Idrissov sent a pre-recorded message of congratulations.

The launch meeting in Taldykorgan in the Almaty region of Kazakhstan

Taldykorgan was chosen for the launch meeting because it is the closest city to Kapal, the village in the east of the country, where Thomas and Lucy Atkinson spent nine months in 1848-9 and where their son Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson was born in November 1848.

In Kazakh, my book is titled Ұлы дала саяхатшылары: Папа елшілерінен бастап Ресей революциясына дейін, or Ūly dala saiahatşylary: Papa elşılerınen bastap Resei revolüsiasyna deiın in latin script.

Alatau’s Christmas carol to be performed in Somerset

One hundred and twenty-five years after he wrote the words, a beautiful Christmas carol written by Alatau Atkinson in Hawai’i is to be performed in a Somerset church. The world premiere of Christmas Bells will take place at St Bartholomew’s Church in Crewkerne, Somerset on 11th December. It has been set to music by composer Michael Csanyi-Wills and the service will also include a performance by Kazakh folk duo Qos Arna in tribute to Alatau’s place of birth.

Christmas Bells in Crewkerne

Tickets for the event, priced at £14, are available from Eventbrite or from ‘Grand Interiors’ in Crewkerne.

Family life and a Royal in Hawai’i

Paul Dahlquist, gg grandson of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, has recently come across some photographs taken in Hawai’i by his ancestors. As some of you will know, Thomas and Lucy’s son Alatau Atkinson migrated to Hawai’i in 1869, where he was variously a teacher, a newspaper editor and organiser of the territory’s first census.

The first photo, taken in the garden of Alatau’s house in Honolulu around the turn of the century, shows Alatau, together with his wife Annie and children. All seven children are present. ALC ‘Jack’ Atkinson is standing at the left of the picture, together with Zoe, Alatau’s eldest child. He seems to be holding a scroll in his hands, so perhaps this picture was taken shortly after his graduation from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1898.

Alatau Atkinson and family at home in Honolulu

The second and third photos both feature Edward, Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII – during his visit to the islands in April 1920. I have published pictures from this visit before, but these are new pictures. The first shows the Prince sitting in an outrigger canoe and surrounded by a group of admirers:

The second shows the same outrigger canoe, with the prince sitting in the stern as they race towards the beach at Waikiki, with Diamond Head in the background. Fantastic pics!

The origin of the modern domestic horse

How did the domestication of horses spread into Europe? Was it through horse-mounted warriors arriving from the Central Asian steppes about 5,000 years ago, speaking in various Indo-European languages? That has always been the supposition. Now, however, a fascinating paper just published by Nature has redefined the way in which horses and Indo-European languages spread from Asia into Europe.

It is believed that the Indo-European languages were spread in Europe by the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists around 5,000 years ago and that this was aided by their domestication of horses. It was thought that these people spread west from Central Asia, bringing the new languages with them. There was also a strong suggestion that the horses they used were the same as those discovered at sites at Botai in Northern Kazakhstan, which were likely the first horses to be domesticated by humans, also around 5,000 years ago.

However, the new research, based on the study of genomes from more than 270 ancient horses from across Europe has led to a very different conclusion. The paper’s authors argue that modern domesticated breeds of horses do not descend from those at Botai, nor from others known to have existed in Anatolia and Iberia. Instead, they pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, particularly the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. This region lies just to the north of the Caspian Sea and is now known as Kalymkia. The spread of these horses began around 2000 BC, well after Indo-European languages had been introduced into Europe – although in India itself it seems that the Indo-European languages spread at the same time as horses in the early second Millenium. These horses are also associated with the Trans-Ural Sintasha culture, which first developed war chariots. By 1000BC almost all horses in Europe were genetically linked to the horses domesticated in the Lower Volga region.

The implication of this study is that the Indo-Europeans did not spread through Europe as a result of horse-mounted warfare, but as a result of a possible collapse in the original population. It was nearly a thousand years before domestic horses arrived.

A Sintasha chariot

These kinds of genetic studies are transforming the way in which we understand ancient societies and the movement of people and livestock. Was there a later move of Indo-Europeans back east, as possibly shown by the remarkable mummified remains of tall, light-skinned people found in recent years in the Tarim Basin in the Taklamakan Desert in Western China? This and other connected questions will surely be answered before long.

Further information about the genetic make-up of the Tarim Basin mummies can be found in a separate Nature article, which can be found here.