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.

Gold of the Great Steppe in Cambridge

The new exhibition, Gold of the Great Steppe, that has just opened at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is not to be missed. The golden grave goods found in Saka-Scythian burial kurgans in East Kazakhstan within the last few years are remarkable. Dating from the 8th-6th centuries BCE, they come from a number of sites in and around the Tarbagatai Mountains in the east of this vast country, including Eleke Sazy, Shilikti, Urzhar and Berel. They were excavated by Profefssor Zainolla Samashev, a noted expert on Kazakh petroglyphs, and Professor Abdesh Toleubayev, the leading achaeologist in East Kazakhstan and head of the department of Archaeology, Ethnography and Museology of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

A sheet gold plaque of a running deer, adorned with turquoise

The exhibition focuses on one burial in particular, in which were found two bodies, at Eleke Sazy in the northern foothills of the Tarbagatai range. It was excavated in 2018. In this small area there are around 300 kurgans arranged in independent groups and chains. The burial of the young woman, aged around 14, had been disturbed and robbed in antiquity, but alongside her lay another body that had been hidden by a rockfall. That was of a young man aged about 18. His richly adorned body had lain undisturbed and was only the second such complete burial to have been found in this region in the modern era.

The region of East Kazakhstan (right) where the graves were located, close to the border with China.

The Eleke Sazy kurgan is a hemispherical structure, surrounded by a ditch and double ring of stones. The main structure is 33.25m across.

The kurgan at Eleke Sazy.

Amongst the grave goods were dozens of arrow heads, suggesting that the young man was a skilled archer. He also carried a beautiful bronze dagger in a gold shealth adorned with precious stones. The carved stone handle had been ritually broken at the time of the burial.

Gold dagger sheath from Eleke Sazy

Hundreds of other stunning golden objects were found in the tomb, as can be seen below:

This part of east Kazakhstan is quite literally full of kurgans, most of which were looted many years ago. Indeed, Thomas Atkinson also noted the large number of monuments in the area. He and Lucy crossed the Tarbagatai Mountains twice on their journeys to and from the Djungar Alatau Mountains, that lie just to the south, on the other side of Lake Ala Kool. He gives numberous descriptions of the kurgans he came across and painted one particularly large one he found close to the old border checkpoint of Chuguchak – now known as Tacheng. An engraving of that picture was reproduced in his book Oriental and Western Siberia (1858).

Engraving of Atkinson’s painting of a large kurgan in the Tarbagatai Mountains of East Kazakhstan

The exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is free to enter, runs until 30th January. Get along and see it. You won’t regret it.

Lucy Atkinson’s superb book is republished

I am delighted to report that Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, first published in 1863, has now been republished by Signal Books of Oxford. The first edition, published by John Murray, was issued in a small edition of just 900 copies and soon became a rarity. It was republished in 1972 by Cass, but that edition is also scarce.

The new edition includes a new 66-page introduction by myself and Marianne Simpson, who is a direct descendant of Lucy’s brother, Matthew Finley. This is the first attempt at a biography of Lucy and contains many previously unknown details about this remarkable woman. For example, it reveals that her uncle, Joseph Sherrard, after whom she received her middle name, was also a distinguished maritime traveller, having first visited Australia before 1800 and having sailed in the Royal Navy with Captain Bligh and other important explorers of the southern seas.

The new introduction also asserts that Lucy’s book is one of the earliest serious travel books written by a woman. Most travel accounts in the nineteenth century were written by women who were usually travelling in the company of their husband or a family member and on their way to a particular destination. They seldom spent time in the saddle or setting up camp in remote places, as was the case with Lucy. Only a handful of similar accounts exist and Lucy’s book stands up well against the best of them. And certainly few of them travelled 40,000 miles or travelled for five or six years like Lucy.

The introduction also explains, for the first time, the background to Thomas Atkinson’s bigamous marriage to Lucy. It seems very likely she knew about his previous marriage and certainly never held it against him, signing her book, published two years after his death, as ‘Mrs Atkinson’. Divorce at the time was impossible except by a private Act of Parliament. However, the existence of the first marriage is probably the reason that his two books of travel, in which Lucy and their child Alatau are not mentioned, were so disjointed. There is evidence that Thomas was required to remove all references to Lucy and Alatau in order not to humiliate Rebecca, his first wife.

Lucy’s achievements as an explorer place her amongst the best. There are many men celebrated as explorers who didn’t go through half of what she experienced over the course of six years and 40,000 miles of travel. Her book is a classic, full of warmth and wonderful descriptions of the people she met and amongst whom she always left a wonderful impression.

The only known picture of Lucy, from an drawing by Thomas Atkinson.

Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, by Lucy Atkinson, with a new introduction by Nick Fielding and Marianne Simpson.

ISBN: 978-1-909930-97-1; 332pp;

£12.99 from Signal Books

A new edition of Lucy Atkinson’s superb book

Cover for new edition of Lucy Atkinson’s book.

A new edition of Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, first published in 1863, will be published by Signal Books of Oxford in September. With a new introduction written by myself and Marianne Simpson, the book will bring Lucy’s wonderful writings to a new generation of readers. Written in the form of a series of letters to an unnamed friend, Lucy’s open style makes this a fresh and very accessible account of the six years she spent travelling on horseback throughout Siberia and Central Asia.

In the introduction we put the book into context in terms of women’s travel writing and argue that it is one of the earliest and best examples of the genre. The extensive research by Marianne Simpson into Lucy’s family and its maritime connections perhaps also helps to explain her willingness to travel in remote and dangerous areas. The book also provides extensive biographical details of Lucy, particularly for the period after she returned from Russia. More details to follow closer to publication.

Mining for copper in Kazakhstan

My recent book, Travellers in the Great Steppe, includes a chapter on those pioneering metallurgists and engineers who travelled from Britain and its colonies to set up businesses in the Kazakh steppe around the turn of the 19th-20 centuries. Amongst them was Edward Nelson Fell, who set up and ran the Spassky mine near Karaganda, to the south-east of Nursultan, now the capital of the country. Fell was director of operations at the mine from 1903-1908. Frank Vans Agnew, who eventually married one of Fell’s daughters, also came to work at the mine.

It was thus a great pleasure to receive an email recently from Jamie Vans, Edward’s great-grandson, who told me that two years ago he had travelled to the Spassky mine to see the places where his ancestors had worked. Jamie also has a large archive of material relating to the time they spent in this remote part of what was then the Russian empire. And most importantly, he has written up much of this material into a pamphlet, which you can find here:

Fell and his son-in-law Frank Vans Agnew had an eventful time at the mine. As well as dealing with Bolshevik agitators and striking miners, they found time to interact with the local nomadic Kazakhs and brought back numerous items, some of which are now in the British Museum. Jamie’s pamphlet is very detailed and full of fascinating material. It never ceases to amaze me that such important archives continue to turn up and to shed light on past events that have long since passed from view.

Peter Brown – 1927-2021

Peter Brown, husband of Atkinson descendant Belinda and a man who always took an interest in the story of her exploring ancestors Thomas and Lucy, has passed away at the grand age of 94. Despite his advanced years, he and Belinda both travelled to Kazakhstan in 2016 as guests of the government, visiting the place where Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson was born and putting up with the considerable discomforts of rough travel in the Zhetysu region.

As the oldest Atkinson family member, Peter was given particular honours in Kazakhstan, being introduced first to various dignatories, and always being offered the cooked sheep’s head to portion out to his sometimes less than enthusiastic relatives. He often attended meetings and was always good company. He also had a good hand and produced a delightful portrait of Thomas Atkinson – later emblazoned onto T-shirts. He will be long remembered by his family and friends.

Peter Brown on the shores of Lake Ala Kol in Eastern Kazakhstan
Thomas Atkinson portrait by Peter Brown.