Andrey Babenko: a brave man, a great companion

Andrey Gennadyevich Babenko

I have some very sad news to report. Andrey Gennadyevich Babenko, a national parks inspector and one of our official guides for the 2018 Zhetysu Expedition in eastern Kazakhstan, was killed in July when his horse was swept away while crossing the Agynakata River in the Djungar Alatau Mountains. Andrey, 49, was a highly experienced and competent inspector and his death is a tragedy. This river runs through the Solnechnaia Dalina (‘Sunny Valley’), and eventually into Zhassyl Kol, a place I have visited three times in the past. The Agynakata River is fast and strong and when we crossed it in 2018, it required good teamwork and safety ropes. However, we all got across it without trouble. The next day, Andrey – who had arrived that morning to escort us down the mountain to the campsite at Zhassyl Kol – enjoyed a moment of peace on the Suyk Plateau together with his colleagues Sergei and Maksut.

Andrey Babenko, on the right, along with Sergei and Maksut during the 2018 Zhetysu expedition.

We extend our condolences to Andrey’s family and take a moment to remember a real professional. These national park staff spend their lives out in the wild mountain areas of the Djungar Alatau, in every kind of weather. We salute their bravery…

I should add that in 2019 I was also swept off my horse into a fierce mountain river, the Big Bascan, not far from Zhassyl Kol. On that occasion, my life was saved by one of the national park inspectors, Ruslan Nurgozhanov, to whom I will eternally be grateful. You can see film of that event here.

Apples and kurgans in the Djungar Alatau

The Djungar Alatau Mountains never cease to surprise. I had passed through some of the magnificent wild apple forests in the past, but during this trip I was able to form a much better impression of these spectacular areas. According to some estimates, there are hundreds of millions of apple trees in the mountains, with more than 35 separate species. In fact, the ancestor of all domestic apples, Malus sieversii, is found in these forests – a fact established in the early 20th century by biologist Nikolai Vavilov who traced the apple genome back to a grove near Almaty.

It is likely that the Tian Shan apple seeds were first transported out of Kazakhstan by birds and bears long before humans cultivated them. By the time humans began to grow and trade apples, the Malus sieversii had already taken root in Syria, where it was discovered by the Romans, who dispersed the fruit even further around the world.

During my recent trip I was fortunate enough to be taken to see a 300-year-old Sievers apple tree high up in the mountains. Still producing fruit, the tree can only be reached after a long journey in a 4×4 vehicle followed by a 20-minute walk. It is magnificent.

300-year-old Sievers apple tree in the Djungar Alatau Mountains

During the Soviet period, thousands of hectares of apple forest were cleared for agriculture, but now there is a determined effort to protect this important area. Climate change is another challenge, but for now these wonderful forests continue to exist and impress.
Nor was it just the natural beauty of the mountains that impressed me. No-one visiting this part of eastern Kazakhstan can fail to notice the vast number of ancient tombs – known as kurgans – that dot the landscape. Most of these date to a period over 2,500 years ago, when the Scythians (known locally as the Saka) dominated the area. These kurgans can be found from Ukraine in the west to Mongolia in the east, but eastern Kazakhstan is a particular hotspot. In the hills not far from Lepsinsk we visited a huge kurgan at Uygentas. Constructed from massive round stones, it was surrounded by 150 or more subsidiary kurgans.

Part of the huge unexcavated kurgan at Uygentas in the Djungar Alatau

Further south, in the Kugaly Valley, more than 100 massive kurgans dominate the landscape. All over this region there are similar structures, some looted in ancient times, but mostly still intact. Excavations at Eleke Sazy (see my previous articles) in the Tarbagatai Mountains show that the burials often include remarkable artefacts made of pure gold.

Massive kurgan in the Kugaly Valley
Kurgans as far as the eye can see in the Kugaly Valley – known locally as the Valley of the Kings.

Signs of an even older civilisation are not hard to find in these mountains. At Karabulak, not far from the town of Tekeli, hundreds of beautiful petroglyphs dating back 4-5,000 years can be found. Horses, deer, cattle, ibex and humans are all represented in these artistic works.

The petroglyphs of Karabulak

These are just some of the wonders I came across on this trip. Food for thought…

Tourist threat to the Relict Gull on Lake Alakol

Just back from my latest visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan, the first since 2019. Not so much as expedition as an exploratory visit, gathering information for future projects. I had originally intended to take horses in the Tarbagatai Mountains, to the north of Lake Alakol, to fill in yet another part of the journey undertaken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson during their return from the Great Steppe in the summer of 1849. However, no horses were available and so we returned south to the Djungar Alatau.

En route, we were able to complete a circuit of Alakol lake itself and to visit Ostrov Kishkene-Araltobe, one of three islands in the central part of the in lake. The islands are protected places, due to the presence there of a very rare species of relict gull, Ichthyaetus relictus, which can be found on just a handful of lakes in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and whose total numbers are estimated at around 10,000. It is classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.

Relict Gull, Ichthyaetus relictus

The Alakol State Sanctuary was created to protect the lake as an important breeding and nesting ground for this and other wetland birds after UNESCO designated the Alakol Biosphere Reserve as part of its Man and Biosphere Programme in 2013. Not far away, on Piski Island, for example, there are flocks of flamingo, and 40 species of other birds.

Sadly – and despite prominent warning signs telling people not to land on the island – there is a constant stream of speedboats bringing visitors from both Kabanbai on the north-east coast of the lake and from the southern shore also. Many of the boats have ‘boom box’ sound systems that blare out pop music during the 30-minute crossing to the island. Signs of human activity on the island, including empty bottles, beer cans, plastic waste, etc, are everywhere. Unless this activity is stopped, the future for the Relict Gull on Alakol Lake looks bleak.

A sign on the island warning visitors not to land
Visitors returning from a party on the island
Speedboats prepare to take visitors to the island
Rubbish on the island

Tourism is increasing around Alakol, with thousands of visitors travelling from Almaty in the south and from Oskemen in the north to spend time on the rapidly developing resorts. Without enforcement action to stop the disturbance caused by the speedboats and visitors, birdlife on the lake will be decimated.

Flourishing wildlife in Kazakh national parks

Recent camera-trap videos from remote parts of Kazakhstan show that in some parts of the country – despite the depradations of illegal hunters in the past – wildlife is flourishing. Check out this video of Siberian Ibex, captured recently in the Altyn Emel National Park:

Siberian Ibex in Altyn Emel National Park in Eastern Kazakhstan

Or this remarkable piece of film showing a large herd of saiga antelopes crossing a river in Western Kazakhstan:

Saiga antelope crossing a river in Western Kazakhstan

The saiga is included on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where it has been listed as a critically endangered species since 2002. It has been hunted illegally in the country and a couple of years ago thousands of the animals died from a respiratory disease, but the population is now growing.

According to the Kazakh Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity, there are three populations of species in the country: at Betpakdaly in Central Kazakhstan, at Ustyurt in Mangystau, and at Aktobe and Uralsk population in Western Kazakhstan.

“The population of saiga is 1,318,000 individuals by now, which is 56 percent higher than in 2021, when there were 842,000 saigas. This year, there are 801,000 Uralsk saigas, 28,000 Ustyurt saigas and 489,000 Betpakdaly saigas,” eco-activist Saken Dildakhmet wrote in late May. 

It is believe that almost 90 percent of the world’s saiga population lives in Kazakhstan, with the remainder in Mongolia and Kalmykia.

The rare Himalayan Brown Bear, listed in Kazakhstan’s Red Book of endangered species has also been sighted recently at Altyn Emel:

Himalayan Brown Bear seen recently in Altyn Emel National Park

I was lucky enough to see both Siberian Ibex and a bear during a visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains in July 2019. Two other large mammals, lynx and snow leopard, also inhabit these mountains. Lynx are seen regularly, as this recent footage from Altyn Emel shows:

A lynx family group of mother and three one-year-old cubs filmed recently at Altyn Emel

Snow leopards are very hard to see in the wild, but have been caught regularly on camera traps. These were filmed in July last year in the Altai Mountains in north-east Kazakhstan:

Snow leopards filmed in north-east Kazakhstan

“Photographic evidence of the presence of the snow leopard in East Kazakhstan is great news. The last traces of the snow leopard’s presence in the Kazakh part of the Altai Mountains were obtained in the winter of 2017 near the Russian-Kazakh border. These were the footprints of a female with a cub. Then there were no tracks of a snow leopard until 2021,” said Alexander Karnaukhov, senior project coordinator for the WWF in the Altay-Sayan ecoregion.

Kolsay Lakes National Park in the Almaty Region also reported photographic evidence of three snow leopards on its territory in July last year. This national park is reported to be home to at least 16 snow leopards. The snow leopard is protected in Kazakhstan, where there are thought to be approximately 120-130 animals, out of a global population of around 7,000. 

The WWF project, backed by Kazakh environmental organisations, for the conservation of the snow leopard in East Kazakhstan began in 2015. East Kazakhstan is a place of migration for snow leopards and other rare animal species from Central Asia to the Altai mountains and vice versa. The snow leopard has become a symbol of the Altai and Sayan mountains at the junction of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.

The curious case of Millet and the Black Death –

Recent historical research has thrown up some remarkable connections between the spread of the Black Death in Europe and the cultivation of a kind of grain grown in Central Asia for the last 10,000 years – millet. What’s more, the new research shows that this terrible disease arrived on the fringes of Europe and in the Middle East almost 100 years before the accepted date for its spread throughout Europe. Historian Monica H Green, writing in the latest edition of BBC History Magazine, makes the case that it was millet seed grown in Central Asia that was the primary vector for this terrible pandemic disease. But how and why did this influence the spread of this disease?

Monica H Green

First, it should be noted that the latest scholarship involves identifying the specific nature of the disease – Yersinia pestis – that arrived from the east. The genome for this disease has now been fully identified and this has allowed its traces to be identified in humans going back thousands of years. Those existing strains of plague that are most closely related to the Black Death are found in the Tien Shan Mountains and the Djungar Basin – areas that correspond today to parts of Western China and also to Eastern Kazakhstan. It is here that burrow-living marmots still harbour strains of the disease.

Once the genome had been identified, it allowed a kind of family tree of the disease to be built. Although traditionally, the Black Death is said to have arrived in Europe in the 1350s, the latest research, based on the examination of original documents in Arabic, now shows there were outbreaks around 100 years earlier, in the middle of the thirteenth century.

How so? We know that the major event taking place in the middle of the thirteenth century was the arrival of the Mongols, who by this time were concentrating their campaigns on parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Mameluk Egypt. Recent scholarship has now identified plague outbreaks in these regions at this time. The explanation appears to be connected to millet. This humble grain, cultivated for thousands of years in the East, was regarded by the Mongols as a ‘superfood’. A Mongol cavalryman could sustain himself for a day on a cupful of millet, which he would turn into porridge. Throughout their devastating campaigns in the Middle East, including the siege of Baghdad, large Mongol caravan trains were bringing millet from the Tien Shan region across Asia to provision their troops. Soon after, recent research shows that there were outbreaks of the Black Death.

Prosso Millet

And the explanation? Rodents must have travelled with the millet caravans and it was the fleas on these rodents that spread the disease so efficiently.

After the withdrawal of the Mongol armies from eastern Europe and the Middle East back to their homelands, the disease appears to have died back, with very few cases reported. Only in the 1350s did it return. Again, Dr Green has an explanation. She says that Genoese traders at the city of Kaffa (now Feodosia on the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea) began trading with grain merchants in the 1340s, after a long period of trade embargoes. Rather that the apocryphal story of Mongols flinging the carcasses of dead animals over the city walls to infect the residents, she says in was once again rodents living in the grain consignments that were responsible for this new outbreak of the Black Death. The disease itself had lingered in isolated pockets following the initial infection a century before. The Genoans brought the grain back to Italy, where the disease soon reached pandemic proportions throughout Europe in the comparatively well populated towns, with their already established populations of rodents.

So what do we know about the extent of cultivation of millet in the Tien Shan region at the time? In fact, there is quite a lot of evidence. As early as the fourteenth century we have evidence from the Arab traveller and writer Ibn Batuta (1304-1369), who noted that when halting by their watchfires for the night, he was lulled to sleep by the martial songs of the Mongols who, he observed, ate no bread, nor any other solid food, but lived on a kind of porridge made of millet, in which they boiled pieces of meat; he says this was a mode of preparation which was customary with their predecessors – the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Slavonians.

At this time, the city of Kailac was flourishing in the Zhetysu Region of what is now Kazakhstan, close to the banks of the Lepsou River, which flows from the Djungar Alatau Mountains (the foothills of the Tien Shan) towards Lake Balkhash. Perhaps this was one of the cities from which the grain transports were organised towards Europe and the Middle East? From the writings of Thomas Atkinson we know that millet grows all over this region and that there are the ancient remains of extensive irrigation channels in the area.

In his diary for 1849, for example, Thomas Atkinson describes his and Lucy’s journeys through the Djungar Alatau Mountains as they explored the river valleys of this remote region. The Djungar Alatau chain is part of the Tien Shan massif. While the couple were in the valley of the Lepsou River he came across a grain he had not seen before. His diary for 14th July reads as follows:

A ride of an hour and a half brought us down into the valley of the Lepsou, a very short distance from the mouth of the gorge in the mountains. At this place it has become a deep and rapid stream and very difficult to cross. Its banks are covered with poplar and birch trees with a great variety of flowering shrubs. The valley is about two versts wide and most of it cultivated by the Kazakhs. Here they grow prasci, a grain used in their cooking instead of rice. It is much like oatmeal, but never used as bread.

He added that the whole of the Lepsou Valley was irrigated by channels taken from the river at the point where it leaves the mountains. “The Kazakhs are very clever in this branch,” he says. “Some of the channels are carried along the side of the sand hills for probably 60 or 70 versts (40 miles – ed), running up and down the sides of the gullies to keep the proper fall. From these channels hundreds of others are cut and then the whole surface can be kept moist, the only thing required in this climate to ensure a most abundant crop.”

Atkinson mentions at another point in his diary that this grain was widely sown and was watered from many small channels that allowed it to grow luxuriantly. “Another month will make it ripe and then the scene will be changed. There will be many people at work gathering it in with oxen treading out the grain and men throwing it up that the wind may carry away the chaff.

When I first read this, I was unsure about the identity of ‘prasci’ or ‘prassa’. It turned that prosso is the Russian/Slavic word for a variety of millet – Panicum miliaceum, which is known as Prosso Millet. In Kazakh it is known as tary and is still grown and consumed widely in Kazakhstan, often in the form of a dessert pastry, called zhent, in which it is mixed with butter and honey.

This important grain was first cultivated in northern China 10,000 years ago. It is notable for its very short life cycle – it produces grain only 60 days after planting – and low water requirements. It produces grain more efficiently per unit of moisture than any other grain species and is also very tolerant of high temperatures. Its wild version is common throughout Central Asia and in addition to evidence for its cultivation in north-east China, traces can also be found in Georgia and Germany dating back at least 5,000 years.

Other writers and travellers have also identified millet cultivation in Central Asia. Robert Michell, writing in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1868 about the Syr-Darya River in Kazakhstan states: “Between these elevations on the North side of the river, where they are more numerous, is the little valley of Aigerik, where the Kirghizes (Kazakhs-ed) sow millet and barley.” The inveterate traveller Henry Lansdell noted in the 1880s that the Kazakhs dammed up mountain streams to water their oats and, especially for the nomads, their millet. The nineteenth century German writer Friedrich von Hellwald observed that millet was grown in the Tarym Basin in Xinjiang, whilst the great Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky noted that “For a more substantial meal the Mongol mixes dry roast millet in his cup and, as a final relish, adds a lump of butter or raw sheep-tail fat (kurdiuk).”

Today millet is regarded as a superfood, rich in both protein and dietary fibre, gluten-free and full of micronutrients such as calcium, iron and phosphorus. But, as we have seen, these qualities were recognised over 800 years ago, when millet helped fuel the expansion of the largest empire in world history – and also brought pandemic calamity to Europe and the Middle East.

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!