How not to cross a raging whitewater river on horseback

Travelling by horse in the remote parts of Kazakhstan’s Djungar Alatau Mountains is never easy. Steep slopes, the lack of pathways and, most particularly, the many river crossings make these journeys hazardous, even in the most favourable conditions. No more so than in September last year as our small group of eight riders were coming towards the end of a long and arduous descent of the valley of the Big Bascan  River.

The Big Bascan starts high in the mountains in the glaciers of some of the tallest peaks in the magnificent Djungar Alatau range, particularly Peak Tianshansky  and the Shumsky Glacier. Normally by the beginning of September it is beginning to decrease in ferocity as lower temperatures in the mountains lead to a decrease in meltwater. But in September we faced a combination of two factors: first, the weather was warmer than usual and second, we had experienced a huge storm the night before our descent, meaning that the river was higher than usual.

The Big Bascan River has cut its way through a series of narrow canyons in the mountainside meaning that to follow it down we were forced to cross the river six or eight times, making best use of the margins of the river. As you will see in the footage below, some of these crossings were distinctly dangerous. In the clip that follows you will see me follow our guide Ruslan into the river. He makes it across, but as I follow close behind, my horse is swept off its feet and I am tipped head first into the river.

In such crossings it is normal to take your feet out of the stirrups in case you go into the river, thus allowing you to escape from the horse. This is what I did during this crossing, but unfortunately my foot got caught in the reins as the horse stumbled on the rocky bottom of the river. With a large daybag on my back I found myself being dragged under the water and unable to escape. After a terrifying few second I finally got free and began to float off down the river. To my intense relief Ruslan jumped in and grabbed me by the neck as I was floating by him. After a few moments, with his help, I was able to drag myself out and remount. No point in finding dry clothes as it was pouring with rain.

Twenty or so minutes later my horse was swept off its feet again and I had a second ducking. It was a salutory experience and brings home exactly how tough it must have been for the Atkinsons travelling in these mountains with a young baby. Total respect!!!

PS Thanks to Harvey for the clip.

Another American edition of Atkinson’s first book on Siberia

In October last year I wrote about the early American editions of Thomas Atkinson’s books on his travels in Central Asia and Siberia. I mentioned that both Harper and Brothers and also J W Bradley of Philadelphia had published several editions of Atkinson’s two books. I also mentioned the edition of Oriental and Western Siberia published by another Philadelphia company called John E Potter & Co.

Potter edn
The John E Potter edition of Oriental and Western Siberia

Now I have come across yet another version of Oriental and Western Siberia published by Potter & Co. This appears to be a de luxe version of the book, with a fancier spine and cover.

Potter-2                 Potter-1


The date is not mentioned inside the book, but it is thought to have been published in 1870. Could there be any more editions lurking out there?


The Prince of Wales in Hawaii – a few more details

I am grateful to Atkinson descendant Pippa Smith for passing on to me a memoir from her grandmother, Marjorie Whitehead (née Gibbons), who was grand-daughter in turn of Alatau Atkinson. Marjorie’s three-page note sets out all she knew about the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to the home of her uncle Robert Witlam Atkinson in Pearl Harbor in April 1920.

Marjorie recalls that she and her mother were visiting Hawaii from their home in England when the Prince arrived on the islands on his way to Australia. She was at the ball at the Armory mentioned in the previous article, from where she was whisked away to Robert Atkinson’s house. “But what an unexpected scene met our eyes! Beside the big kamani tree near the house a Hawaiian feast had been laid on the ground and near the gate an entrancing smell was coming from the ‘imu‘ (underground oven) where the pig was being roasted whole, by means of hot stones inside. The tables only a few inches off the floor were decorated and covered with leaves, there were bowls of beautiful fruit and places laid for about thirty guests”.

Atkinson House2

Robert Atkinson’s house in Pearl Harbor, built entirely from local materials.

A small grass hut had been built in the garden where a Hawaiian band, singers and hula dancers were waiting for the Prince to arrive. When he did so he was sat at the head of the table with the two princesses from the Hawaiian Royal Family. The entertainment began and soon after Marjorie was presented to Prince Edward: “I had been deputed to show the Prince the swimming pool and offer him a dip, but this he refused, so I took him over to the two princesses and went to see what fate had in store for me, as the pig had been taken out of the oven and the meal about to begin.”

All too soon the evening was over, with the guests singing Aloha Oe to the Prince as he departed. “What an evening it had been, never to be forgotten and a happy memory for all time!” wrote Marjorie, who passed away in November 1986, aged 90.

The Prince of Wales in the Hawaii home of the Atkinsons

Report of the Prince of Wales’ visit to the Atkinson house at Pearl Harbor

Atkinson descendant Paul Dahlquist has sent me a remarkable press cutting about a visit of Edward, Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII – to Hawaii in April 1920. The cutting reports on a visit by the Prince to the Pearl Harbor home of Robert Witlam Atkinson, grandson of Thomas and Lucy, who was a property developer and civil engineer. Robert built a beautiful house close to the golf course at Pearl Harbor, using local materials and stone. It was sold after his death, but is still standing.

The cutting reports that the Prince was anxious to experience an entertainment in true Hawaiian style and so the Atkinsons threw open their home, to arrange a luau for the Royal visitor. They were assisted by Princesses Kalanianaole and Kawanakoa, who procured all the traditional decorations, such tabu sticks, kahilis, etc.

The Prince arrived at the house following a ball at the Armory and as he stepped out of his car old Hawaiian chants were sung and the prince entered the house under a double arch of kahilis held by the princess’ retainers. Low tables were set under a kamani tree and the prince was introduced to the Atkinsons and Robert’s brother ‘Jack’ Atkinson. Fifty further guests from prominent Hawaiian families made up the party. A massive imu – underground oven – was opened under the light of kukui nut torches and against a background of ancient Hawaiian chants.

Robert Atkinson’s magnificent house

According to the press clipping: “The sacred ground was drawn around the prince as he sat at the luau with old golden tabu posts, and as he ate he watched in a setting of banana and cocoa palms, the Hawaiian dancers as they stepped to the steady beat, beat of the gourd shaker. The seed dance, the bamboo dance, the old royal hulas, all were given for the benefit of this, their royal visitor.”

The prince clearly enjoyed his visit to Hawaii. In April 2012 a signed photo of him emerged surfing on Waikiki Beach in Oahu. British Pathé also has a short film of him surfing in a large canoe at the same place, which you can find here.

Signed photo of Edward, Prince of Wales, surfing at Waikiki

The royal surf picture was taken by a descendant of Duke Kahanamoku, who gave Edward – later to become King Edward VIII before abdicating to marry American Wallis Simpson – a few surf lessons.

Edward in the back of the surf canoe

Edward visited the Hawaiian islands along with Earl Mountbatten, future Admiral of the Fleet, in HMS Renown and the two men enjoyed a three-day surf trip. The photo was purchased by the Musem of British Surfing at Braunton in in Devon as it is considered the earliest known photo of a Briton standing on a wave.

Edward is on the extreme right of this picture

In July 1920 the prince ordered the royal yacht to go back to Hawaii so he could surf for three days. Reports say Edward loved surfing. He spent two hours surfing every morning and three hours every afternoon during their July stay.

At Kapshagai Lake

Back in Kazakhstan this week for a conference, I was able to find some time today for a trip out to the shores of Kapshagai Lake about 100 kms from Almaty to look at horses.

This herd of around 200 horses has spent the summer up in the Ili Alatau mountains on the Assy Plateau, which explains their superb condition. They are kept in the traditional way, with six stallions, each protecting a large groups of mares.

Although Thomas Atkinson never crossed the River Ili from the East, it was fascinating to visit this area with Magzhan and Sasha from Kazgeo. Kapshagai Lake is the result of a dam across the Ili, flooding the original channel at the point it breaks out of the mountains on its course towards Lake Balkhash. The dam was completed in 1970, although it was another 20 years before the lake was completely filled, due to concerns about the amount of water reaching Lake Balkhash.

I couldn’t resist the chance to get into the saddle of one of the herdsman’s horses. This herd will stay here throughout the winter, before returning next spring up into the mountains. The rifle the herdsman is carrying is to protect the horses from wolves and jackals.

Kazakh press coverage of the 2019 Zhetysu Expedition


Great coverage in the Kazakh press of this year’s Zhetysu Expedition! The expedition, which took place between 23 August – 1 August, was the second of three, based on journeys undertaken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in the summer of 1849. Together with their nine-month old son Alatau, the Atkinsons systemmatically explored almost all the rivers valleys that flow northwards from the Djungar Alatau Mountains in the south-east of Kazakhstan, towards Lake Balkhash.

This year’s horseback expedition, organised in conjunction with the Kazakh Geographic Society,  started on the River Sarcan before crossing to the Little Bascan River system and then the Big Bascan River. We also visited the Shumsky Glacier at the base of Peak Tianshansky – the tallest mountain in the Djungar Alatau range.

The aim of these expeditions is to develop an ‘Atkinson Trail’ based on the routes followed by the couple. Next year’s expedition will explore the gorge of the Lepsy River, close to the town of Lepsinsk.

The 2019 Zhetysu Expedition – what a journey!

Peaks in the Djungar Alatau Mountains

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.

Peak Tianshansky and the Shumsky Glacier

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.

Crossing one of many rivers

Ozero Bolshoye Suyrly

A young bear feeding on raspberries

Our guides: Ruslan, Muhit and Nurlan



More pics to follow soon.

Ancient remains on the Steppes Pt2.

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.


Moore-SE Russia1
Title page of Shipp’s book

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.


Moore-SE Russia2
Page from Shipp’s book showing Thomas Atkinson’s drawings of kurgans at Kopal

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.

DPP_0143           Old cosssack grave, Kapal

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.

The 2019 Zhetysu Expedition

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 route of the 2019 Zhetysu Expedition (Lake Ala Kol at the top of the pic)

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.

A rare signed copy of Atkinson’s ‘Gothic Ornaments’

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).

One of the lithographs

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.

Gothic-Title page
Title page showing Atkinson’s name

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.”

TWA dedication
Dedication to Mr John Wallis

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.