In ancient times the steppes of Eurasia were a cross-continental trade route long before the Silk Road from China was developed. When the Silk Road became dominant the steppes route faded away. Apart from a few nomads and settlers not many people ventured that way. It was over 600 years before a Russian explorer, Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-1888), ventured into these forgotten lands.
Today Nikolay Przhevalsky is best known
for having a species of small horse named after him. But, although not a
naturalist, Nikolay is also commemorated with many other animals and plants
being named after him. His exploration into the East Asian deserts and
mountains provided much new scientific information and revealed the Europe the
sheer natural diversity of this remote region. Nikolay made five full
expeditions, and today I’ll tell you about the first few.
Nikolay followed family tradition by
going into the army. However, he found military life tedious and he read books
on travel and exploration which fired his imagination. He became particularly
interested in exploring the wilderness beyond the Eurasian steppes. His
military training taught him all aspects of reconnaissance and surveying that all
army officers learnt to help them to plan military campaigns. This would help
Nikolay to plan his expeditions.
At the military academy Nikolay wrote a
dissertation on all that was then known about Amur, the remote East Asian
territory annexed by Russia in 1858. The dissertation was so comprehensive that
the St. Petersburg Geographical Society made him a member.
In 1867 the authorities funded his first
expedition to the Amur region. Nikolay persuaded them to pay for a “personal
assistant”. He would have one of these on all his expeditions, always a young
man or teenager who would act as his protégé. These young men were the focus of
Nikolay’s sexual urges, as evidenced in his letters, and were all probably
In summer 1867 he set off on his first
expedition. It took him across tundra and lakes and down rivers through remote
villages and Cossack settlements. The summer frosts thawed and melting mountain
snow swelled the rivers. The whole ground was wet and boggy and was a breeding
ground for gnats and mosquitos. Camping out in this environment was certainly
not very pleasant. The almost constant July rain also made it virtually impossible
to dry the plants and animal skins that were collected. Despite these
difficulties the expedition was a huge success and Nikolay wrote up his
journals into a book. This was to make him famous, allowing more expeditions to
In 1870 Nikolay’s second expedition went
across the Gobi Desert to Beijing through some of the least explored parts of
the Mongolian region. More plant and animal specimens were collected and the
route was thoroughly mapped. This expedition also instilled in Nikolay a hatred
of all things Chinese. He hated the food, he hated the culture. He was
blatantly racist and hated anything that wasn’t European. He wrote that “…only
the rifles and cannons of the Europeans can do any good here”. In truth, China
was in a state of decline and Nikolay never saw the splendour of its heyday.
Nikolay’s third expedition began in
1876. He had ambitious plans including a visit to Lhasa, the remote capital of
Tibet, a city no European had ever seen. The route across Siberia took the
expedition through scorching heat to the Altai mountains. Several pack animals
died and local guides proved unreliable. The most ambitious section was to
cross the Takla Makan, a desert so inhospitable that its name means “you go in,
but you don’t come out”. But come out of the desert they did, following a chain
Eventually Nikolay arrived at the
near-mythical lake of Lop Nor, whose existence was only previously recorded by
Marco Polo and which had recently been rediscovered. Then the expedition moved
west to explore the mountains that separated Takla Makan from Tibet. Nikolay
caught an infection and his young protégé developed a fever. Despite this
Nikolay carried on. The heat was unbearable. A lot of wells had virtually dried
up and scorpions scuttled into their tents at night. Nikolay’s infection
worsened and soon riding a horse was too painful because of the itching sores
and an abscess on his back-side. The colder autumn eased the itching but
Nikolay was so weak by now that a makeshift cart was made to transport him.
Even though physically incapacitated he was still very much in charge.
Several other members of the expedition
caught the same infection, and then Nikolay learnt of the death of his other
during the summer. He and the expedition became depressed and despondent and
Nikolay decided to abandon the venture and return home, if for no other reason
than to recover fully from his infection.
It wasn’t long before Nikolay organised
his next expedition that would take him into Tibet. He set off at the beginning
of 1879 and with 23 camels carrying food, provisions, equipment, guns and
home-made strawberry jam (a gift for the Dalai Lama), the expedition made its
way to the frontier post of Zaysan in the Altai Mountains.
It was there that Nikolay was presented
with an animal skin by a local chief. It was the skin of a small horse. Nikolay
sent it back to St. Petersburg where it was examined and confirmed as a new
species. It was later named after Nikolay – Przhevalsky’s horse. Nikolay
finally got to see a living specimen for himself in May 1879.
After resting at Zaysan for a while
Nikolay and his expedition began to move towards Tibet and the fabled city of
Lhasa. Did he make it? Sorry to keep you in suspense, but I’ll tell you next