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South to the Great Steppe: Travels in Eastern Kazakhstan

(By Dr Shahid Qureshi – London Post): –   South to the Great Steppe: travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-52, By Nick Fielding was formally launched at the Royal Geographical Society in London where some of the original paintings and items including diary of Thomas Atkinson were displayed. The launch was hosted by H.E. Erzhan Kazykhanov, Ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Kingdom.  The launch was attended by academics, writers, journalists, diplomats and ambassadors based in London including H.E. Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko, Ambassador of the Russian Federation in London.

 Book Review:

“South to the Great Steppe: Travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-52

By Nick Fielding

Travel writing is the most difficult hobby in the world even today. Travelers and explorers become eyes and ears of the nations as someone said ‘your ignorance is their power’ is probably based on quotation ‘knowledge is power’. British are good at studying cultures, habits and deep psychology of the nations before invading or trading with them. They have experts on every subject that matter to the world.

Thomas and Lucy Atkinson recorded their experiences while travelling in Central Asia in Eastern Kazakhstan for about 5 years between 1847 – 1852. In the month of February, 1848 Thomas Atkinson left Moscow with his new wife Lucy on a journey that would last few years. In this exploring journey they both travelled around 40,000 miles around Siberia and Central Asia mostly now part of Kazakhstan. They were the first Europeans to travel in those remote areas on the horseback as well as other traditional means of transport. It is important to note that their hardships in traveling were always comforted by some local Chief or Khans hospitality with generosity and cultural warmth.

It was in September 1848 when Thomas and Lucy reached the village Kapal in the Djungar Alatau Mountains where two months later in November 1848, Lucy gave birth to a baby boy. They named the boy Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, after a famous spring in the village.

Nick Fielding writer of the book “South to the Great Steppe: travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-52: quoted an incident while talking about his book: ‘due to the long horseback journeys and difficult terrains Lucy Atkinson delivered the baby premature and it was also the time when they had worst snowstorm. The baby survived in cold, wind and snowstorm due to the knowledge of the local women as they put him in ‘dough’ and then in the wood fire oven”.  Hence local knowledge and hospitality saved them and their newborn baby. Even today similar kind of technique of ‘underground heating’ is used in Afghanistan, north of Pakistan and central Asia in which they cook on wood fire on the one end and then keep moving the coals to the other end via underfloor pipeline which will keep the floor warm to sleep.

Following the footsteps of Thomas and Lucy Nick Fielding Prominent British Journalist spent almost a year in Eastern Central Asia (now Kazakhstani) and Russia. He stated: that journey was only made possible with the full support of the high Russian official who issued him an official letter to facilitate his journey. He was able to access transport means, horses as well as could stay in government military forts.

Thomas Atkinson was also a painter and it seems as his time in Siberia passed he become fascinated with the new land and its people and culture. I think the warmth and welcoming nature of the people of central Asia kept him there. Lucy Atkinson has the similar in views about the culture and warmth of the people which she expressed in her own book.

Thomas and Lucy both wrote fascinating books about their journey in Eastern Kazakhstan. Thomas made a large number of unique and vivid paintings and drawings which provide some insight about their lives and experiences with steppe nomads in the mid-19th century. The writer has included some of these paintings including views of the Tamchiboulac Spring, the Ac-Sou River, many kurgans surrounding Kapal, the remarkable Kora Valley, the Bascan River, the Terric -Sou and many other notable places in the region.

Thomas Atkinson made paintings of the Kazakh leaders of that time which are very important as no other contemporary paintings of that period are available in the Kazakh history.

Nick Fielding said about Thomas Atkinson reason to travel to Siberia:

“At first he wanted to paint it, but as the journey progressed and time passed – we’re talking about seven years in Siberia and more than a decade in Russia – it grew to be about more than this. He became fascinated with Siberian culture and the people of Central Asia in particular.

He was very interested in the Decembrists – aristocratic revolutionaries who led a failed uprising in 1825 – and the milieu of the time, which definitely marked him out to the Tsarist police. I’m sure there’s a huge archive of reports on Lucy and Thomas’s movements somewhere in Russia, but I haven’t located it yet.

In her book Lucy says that it wouldn’t have been a punishment for her to be arrested and sent to Siberia: they were not afraid of the climate, the harshness and the isolation. They had a very positive view of Siberia’s people and its culture.

Irkutsk and Barnaul were two intellectual cities that were quite radical at the time because of their high number of exiled anti-tsarist political figures. Barnaul was noted for its beautiful museums and very free conversations in salon meetings. This was in stark contrast to St. Petersburg, for example, where the tsar’s spy network was very active and people were continually looking over their shoulder.”

What motivated British journalist Nick Fielding to follow footsteps of another British writer Thomas Atkinson after a century is also interesting and fascinating.

He (Nick Fielding) said: “I first came to Central Asia more than 20 years ago, and since then I’ve been back many times to Siberia, Tyva, Kamchatka, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. I’ve always enjoyed traveling in the region and have hiked thousands of miles there. I was also interested Central Asian textiles, and I was curious where the designs came from: they were being made by Muslims but without Islamic designs. The answer was that they came from Siberia.

“It wouldn’t have been a punishment for her to be arrested and sent to Siberia.”

I discovered that Siberia itself is a wonderful place, and I began researching who else had been here and what they’d written about it. I read everything I could – I’ve got an enormous collection of books about Siberia going back hundreds of years to the earliest travelers. I came across the Atkinsons and wondered why they have been largely forgotten by history. They’re an extraordinary couple – two of the greatest travelers of all time.

The writer of the book Nick Fielding believes that presence of Lucy was very important and played a role in the success of Thomas’s trip. He said:

“I think Thomas wanted to travel with Lucy partly because she spoke Russian and he didn’t. She had already been living in St. Petersburg for eight years and was a governess in a Russian family, so she also knew how Russian society worked. 19th-century Russia was very stratified: everybody had their place, and you had to know who you could speak to and how you could speak to them. Lucy knew that very well.

She was a woman of action who wasn’t frightened – or perhaps she was frightened but was still brave – and she actually saved his life on one occasion. She would carry guns, and when two men grabbed him from behind she pulled a weapon, pointed it at them and demanded they let him go. He picked a very good traveling companion, in my view. Particularly when you consider the general difficulties of the trip.”

All in all ‘South to the Great Steppe’ provides important insights and background to the Kazakhstan’s cultural, historical, and geographical identity. It also demonstrates the longstanding links, and shared history, between Kazakhstan and the Great Britain.

After spending almost nine months in Kapal, both Thomas and Lucy with their baby son returned north to the Barnaul in the Altai region of Siberia. On their way back they visited all the seven rivers that flow from the Djungar Alatau in the direction of Lake Balkash. The journey took them up to the snow line in the mountains at an altitude of more than 3000 meters. They also went to Lake Ala-Kol and Lake Zaisan. They were the first Europeans who visited these places.

The author Nick Fielding has visited many of these places described by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson the Tamchilboulac Spring, the Ac-Sou River, the Bascan River, the Kora valley and the Lepsu River.

Mr. fielding is planning to return to Kazakhstan to continue tracing the routes followed by Thomas Atkinson. He says:

“This book describes an almost forgotten period in the history of the Great Steppe, thanks to Thomas and Lucy Atkinson we have a detailed description of the traditional ways of life from the people who were eye-witness. Hopefully this book will help to bring their achievements to a wider public, both in Kazakhstan and Great Britain”.

About the author:

Nick Fielding is a former senior reporter on The Sunday Times and was chief investigative reporter on the Mail on Sunday. He now works as a reporter for the investigative news website Exaro. He was launch editor for the online magazine, China Outlook, and he writes the Circling the Lions Den blog about Afghanistan. (The publication of this book proposed and put forward by the embassy of Kazakhstan in London. It was sponsored by the Kazakh National Welfare Fund ‘Samruk-Kazyna’. )

Book is published by FIRST

Victory House,

99 Regent Street

London, W1B 4EZ

ISBN: 978-0-9546 409-9-6

Price: £35

(Dr Shahid Qureshi is senior analyst with BBC and editor of The London Post. He writes on security, terrorism and foreign policy. He also appears as analyst on Al-Jazeera, Press TV, MBC, Kazak TV (Kazakhstan), LBC Radio London. He was also international election observer for Kazakhstan 2015 and Pakistan 2002. He has written a famous book “War on Terror and Siege of Pakistan” published in 2009. He is a PhD and also studied Law at a British University)



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