Wednesday 16 October 2019

Xtremely Queer: Stepping Across the Steppes (Part 2)

Last month I wrote about the first expeditions of the Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky (1838-1888). We left Nikolay and his 1879 expedition about to set off from the Russian frontier post in the Altai Mountains and head for the mysterious city of Lhasa in Tibet.

The expedition encountered blizzards and barren landscapes as they travelled southwards over the mountains to the infamous Takla Makan desert. At one point they came across the horrifying sight of the rotting remains of hundreds of nomads who had starved to death because they couldn’t make it through. Mirages, burning ground and salt-sand storms made life both disorientating and uncomfortable. At last the expedition reached the Humboldt Mountains south of the Takla Makan. These were named after the great gay explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

At the next outpost Nikolay could see the snow-capped Himalayas ahead but the going was slow. Golf ball-sized hailstones and snow blindness became a problem for both the men and animals, not to mention the daytime sun that burned their faces while their backs froze in the shade.

Advance parties found a mountain pass which led to a Buddhist pilgrim route. Further along the expedition entered the territory of a tribe called the Yograi. These were a fiercely independent people who were suspicious of every stranger. As the expedition rested the Yograi mounted an ambush. The expedition fought back and their guns were superior to the tribesmen’s weapons and the ambush was beaten off, leaving several of the Yograi dead and many injured.

Once through Yograi territory the expedition at last entered Tibet. By pure chance Nikolay encountered a Mongol pilgrim he had met some years earlier who warned him that Lhasa had got news of his approach and were preparing to prevent him from entering the city. Sure enough, the expedition met a contingent of Tibetan soldiers.

The expedition was only 160 miles (260 km) away from Lhasa. So near, and yet so far. Nikolay steadfastly refused to turn back unless he received a written order from the local governor. The governor himself came to deliver the order. Soldiers followed the disappointed expedition back as far as the Yograi territory. This time they made it through with no trouble.

By New Year 1880 the expedition was well on its way back to Russia with Nikolay’s dream of reaching Lhasa shattered. But the expedition was not all completely in vain. Nikolay had charted the route and collected thousands of specimens, including many plants and animals previously unknown to science.

Nikolay was feted by the tsar, the scientific community and the public, all clamouring to hear of his exploits. The authorities approved of another expedition, except that reaching Lhasa was to be a secondary aim. Expanding his previous surveys and finding the source of the Huang Ho River were his primary tasks.

The new expedition set off from northern Mongolia in late 1883 and arrived in Ulaan Baatar (now the capital city). The temperate was so cold that mercury froze in the thermometers but by New Year 1884 the temperature rose above zero. Tracking the Huang Ho River the route took the expedition around the eastern edge of the Humboldt Mountains. By May it had followed the river to its source and Nikolay completed his first task.

About 700 miles to the south west lay Lhasa and Nikolay’s long-held quest of reaching the city. Despite the intense cold and illness among the expedition members Nikolay made good progress for 100 miles to the Yangtse River. On the other side was last leg to Lhasa. Alas, the Yangtse was deep and fast-moving and its banks were steep and treacherous. Despite the offer of boats from local tribesmen Nikolay decided the risk to the pack animals was too great. There was no other way across and Nikolay chose to abandon his quest yet again.

The expedition headed back towards the source of the Huang Ho. By February 1885 he had reached Lob Nor, the lake on edge of the Takla Makan that he had visited in 1873. Travelling south-west towards Tibet Nikolay noticed that the Chinese authorities were going ahead of him all the way and doing their best to persuade the local tribes to restrict the amount of supplies he needed. They even blocked some of the ravines Nikolay needed to get through and was he exasperated at the attempts to stop him getting any further.

Finally, Nikolay had to concede defeat and decided to abandon all hope of reaching Lhasa. The expedition headed westwards for a couple of months until it reached the River Hotan. Following the river north Nikolay was able to survey the whole area and collect more animal and plant specimens. There was great jubilation when the expedition reached its official end at Karakol (in modern-day Kyrgyzstan) in November 1885.

Back in St. Petersburg Nikolay was again feted as a hero. Not only had he vastly improved the knowledge of plant and animal species (quite a few of them named after him) his survey provided vital information for the Russian military to help plan imperial expansion into central Asia and campaign against the Chinese. For eighteen months Nikolay’s life was a round of public appearances, lectures and official meetings. Yet he was still eager to get back through the wilderness and finally reach Lhasa, by force of arms if necessary.

In summer 1888 Nikolay’s next expedition set off for Karakol, the finishing point of his previous expedition. Following the Hotan River south would take him straight to Tibet. It would be easier this time because he had surveyed the route himself, of course.

When Nikolay arrived in Karakol he was behaving restlessly and complained of feeling unwell. He was hospitalised and the doctors diagnosed typhoid. Nikolay realised he was dying and his dream of reaching Lhasa would never become a reality. On 1st November 1888 Nikolay Przhevalsky died. He was buried, as he instructed, on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul nearby. In 1957 a museum dedicated to his life and work was opened in Karakol, though little, if anything, is mentioned of his relationships with the young protégés he took with him on each expedition.

Nikolay’s reputation as an explorer, geographer and zoologist cannot be overestimated, but he had personal characteristics common for his era and background which may trouble people today. He was racist, imperialist and mysogynostic, and would not achieve the same celebrity status if he lived today that he enjoyed in his lifetime. Yet, modern political correctness should not be imposed upon historical characters, not until a certain nation stops hero-worshipping the numerous slave owners among their past presidents.

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