Just back from the 2019 Zhetysu Expedition in Eastern Kazakhstan. I will be publishing a full report in due course, but for now I am posting a few pictures of what was a truly incredible experience. Many thanks to Kazgeo for all their help in organising this brilliant journey.
Our original intention this year had been to retrace the journey taken by the Atkinsons in the summer of 1849 from Zhassyl Kol lake to Ala Kol lake, but events conspired to prevent this from happening. The Djungar Alatau National Park officials told us that they were on high fire alert and that they would not be able to spare horses for that specific journey.
Instead, they suggested we might like to complete a journey we had not been able to make last year, due to high water levels in the rivers. This journey started at the Sarcan River, crossed high ridges to the Little Bascan River – including a horse-trek to the base of the Shumsky Glacier at the base of Peak Tianshansky – then another ridge-crossing to the Big Bascan River. In all it made a total of over 120kms. At 4622m, Peak Tianshansky is the highest in the Djungar Alatau range and the Shumsky glacier is the biggest in Kazakhstan.
We decided to take this route, which had also been followed by the Atkinsons in 1849. It turned out to be a tough route, with numerous crossings of whitewater rivers, but well worth it in terms of the views and sights. We saw ibex, antelope, a wild bear, eagles, marmots and many other remarkable sights. Check below for a small selection of pictures.
I have written before about the fact that Thomas Atkinson often described the ancient archaeological remains, especially the kurgans (tumuli), he came across during his travels. Both of his books are full of descriptions of remarkable examples, particularly those he came across in the Zhetysu region, although he also noted similar examples along the Yenissei River in what is now Khakassia in southern Siberia and elsewhere. He even wrote a paper for the Geological Society of London about some ancient remains he had found buried in Siberia.
He also describes visiting the ancient site of Koilyk on the Lepsy River and mentions a copper knife given to him by Cossacks in what is now northern Kazakhstan.
Until now I had always thought that these writings had had little impact. Thus is was a pleasant surprise to find recently that they have not been entirely ignored. In 1897 the American author Barnard Shipp published Indian and Antiquities of America (Sherman & Co, Philadelphia, 1897). Shipp, who studied at Yale and was an authority on the early Spanish explorations of America, travelled widely in Europe and became interested in the ancient buildings of antiquity.
Although mostly about America, his fascinating book contains eight pages of direct quotes from Thomas Atkinson’s books and also includes two of Thomas’ woodcuts showing kurgans located outside the town of Kopal where the Atkinsons lives for nine months in 1848-9.
Many of the kurgans drawn by Atkinson are still standing just outside the town of Kapal (as it is now called), although the standing stones that once adorned them have long since disappeared, many of them used as gravestones in the local cemetery. I found some of these on a previous trip to the area.
As you can see, the stones are unusual as far as Russian Orthodox grave markers are concerned. The Cossacks used them because no other cut stone was available in the nineteenth century when these two were first erected.
In just over a month I will be setting out on horseback through Eastern Kazakhstan on the second of three journeys tracing the route taken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in the spring of 1849 as they headed from the small Cossack outpost of Kapal back north to the southern Siberian city of Barnaul.
The 2019 Zhetysu Expedition, organised in collaboration with the Kazakh Geographic Society, will follow a route that starts at Lake Zhassyl Kol, close to the small town of Sarcand and ends up at Lake Ala Kol, about 100 miles away. This year’s expedition is the second in a series of three.
The first took place last year, when we organised a horseback expedition through the Djungar Alatau Mountains, following almost exactly the same route taken by the Atkinsons on their return journey north to the Altai Mountains in the summer of 1849. You can read about that expedition here. Atkinson’s intention was to visit the valleys of all the rivers that flow from the Djungar Alatau mountains towards Lake Balkhash. In 2018 we visited the valleys of the AcSou, the Bean, the Sarcand and the Lepsu. We also made a separate visit to the archaeological site of the ancient city of Koilyk. This journey ended at Lake Zhassyl Kol.
This year our party will consist of around 10 people, including guides from the Djungar Alatau National Park. The areas we will be traversing are very remote and seldom visited by anyone. Part of the time we will be travelling along river valleys, before ascending the mountains and riding along the ridges. Our endpoint is on the shores of Lake Ala Kol. It promises to be a very exciting trip.
Next year, if all goes to plan, we will ride the third part of this amazing journey, travelling through the Tarbagatai Mountains north of Lake Ala Kol to the former Cossack town of Ayaguz. What this space for further details.
I have recently obtained a copy of Gothic Ornaments, the book Thomas Atkinson published in 1829 when he was working as an architect in London. This book contains no text, just very well executed lithographs of drawings of stonework from churches and Cathedrals across England. (In July 2016 I wrote about another copy of the book I had found that contained about half the original illustrations. You can find that article here).
Many of the lithographs were published in collaboration with another architect, Charles Atkinson (no relation) and both their names were on the original title page. However, Thomas and Charles appear to have parted company, as this version of the book, dated 1829, has a different title page and only bears the name of Thomas Atkinson, as the sole author. It contains 45 of the 48 plates that made up the original. The plates were issued on a monthly basis, two at a time, so that buyers could stagger the cost of purchase.
What is also interesting is that this edition of the book contains a dedication written in Atkinson’s clearly identifiable handwriting. It says “To Mr John Wallis with the author’s sincere respects, 2nd May 1834.”
I am not yet certain about the identify of John Wallis, but there is a possible candidate. There was a London publisher, bookseller and printmaker of this name, whose Royal Marine Library and reading room in Sidmouth, Devon, is commemmorated with a blue plaque. He was an associate of R Ackerman of The Strand and very active in the 1820s. He was also famous for publishing views of Sidmouth and the buildings in the area, some of which were in the neo-Gothic style championed by Atkinson. Any further information would be gratefully received.
If you would like to listen to a recording of the talk I gave recently at the Royal Geographical Society in London about the diaries of Thomas Atkinson, you can do so here.
My purpose in this talk was to highlight some of the findings I have made in the last few years as I have transcribed Atkinson’s diaries. These diaries cover the years 1847 until 1853. Unlike either of Atkinson’s two books, the diaries make extensive reference to both Lucy Atkinson and also to his son Alatau, born in what is now south-eastern Kazakhstan in November 1848.
They also contain descriptions of many incidents not mentioned in the books, including one occasion when Lucy was almost swept away in a fast torrent in the Altai Mountains. I have not been able to add the slides I used to illustrate the talk, but you should be able to understand most of the narrative. I hope to be able to publish the diary transcripts before long.
Many thanks to RGS Librarian Eugene Rae for organising this talk and also for taking the pictures of the diaries used to illustrate it. The pictures are under the copyright of the RGS.
Amongst the many less well-known explorers of the Central Asian steppelands, few were quite so intrepid as William Bateson, a Cambridge scientist who spent months alone in the late 1880s searching for fossilised snails in the many large lakes that can be found scattered across what is today northern Kazakhstan.
I recently took the opportunity to read through Bateson’s diaries, held by Cambridge University Library, and was delighted to find that Bateson was an inveterate note-taker – and photographer. The University Library has now published a short article I have written about Bateson and his importance to the history of Central Asian exploration. You can find the article here.
On Monday 13th May I will be giving a talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London on my work transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diaries. “Be Inspired – Transcribing the Atkinson Diaries” will take place at RGS headquarters at 1 Kensington Gore, SW7 2AR and starts at 14.30. Having spent the last couple of years travelling regularly to the RGS to work on these remarkable diaries, I will have a lot of fascinating information to share. Atkinson’s diaries cast new light on his relationship with his wife Lucy and provide details of their travels that cannot be found in their books. Click on the link above to book a ticket.