Courtesy of Personal Library of Former Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States of America H.E. Erzhan Kazykhanov.
As the COVID-19 pandemic changes the way we interact and stay at home orders have been implemented, many have found this to be an extraordinary time to learn and understand new cultures, concepts and phenomena from the comfort of their homes.
And as the international community confronts new risks associated with travel, some might be curious what travel was like in the times well before globalization and modern conveniences. We suggest reading some historic accounts of an incredible journey through Siberia undertaken by the English architect and artist Thomas Atkinson (1799-1861).
The author traveled nearly forty thousand miles, almost a third on horseback. Atkinson provides a vivid account of adventures and misadventures in a frozen and often barren landscape, including numerous close brushes with death from both natural and unnatural causes.
He goes into great detail about the populated regions of Siberia, most never visited by Westerners, including the customs and life of its people. The first edition of his account was published in 1858 in London by Hurst and Blackett. It was called “Oriental and western Siberia: a narrative of seven years’ explorations and adventures in Siberia, Mongolia the Kirghis steppes, Chinese Tartary, and part of Central Asia”.
The contemporary accounts of Thomas Atkinsons’ writings include a fascinating publication entitled “South to the Great Steppe: The Travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan, 1847-1852” by Nick Fielding. It was published in London in 2015. This publication was initiated by the Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the Court of St James Erzhan Kazykhanov and sponsored by the British – Kazakh Society.
This book begins with Thomas’ descriptions of life on what we would now call the Kazakh steppes and onward into remote parts of Xinjiang, Mongolia and Southern Siberia. Although others passed through these lands, few spent any time in these largely unknown territories.
Thomas and his wife Lucy, who also penned a remarkable book describing their travels, spent almost seven years in this vast region. Even more amazingly, Lucy gave birth to a son in Kapal, and gave him a Kazakh name – Alatau Tamchiboulak. Born in the Kazakh steppes to British parents, Alatau moved years later to Hawaii where he became a member of the House of Representatives for the Republic of Hawaii. He served as Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Territory of Hawaii following annexation to the United States and an editor of the Hawaiian Gazette. He was also president of Hawaiian Star Newspaper Association. The Embassy of Kazakhstan in London was able to find the descendants of Atkinsons who now live in Hawaii, United States and New Hampshire, the United Kingdom and recreate Thomas’ and Lucy’s fascinating journey through the Kazakh steppes in the summer of 2016. Through this beautiful story, we were able to connect generations of Kazakh, American and British people to show how our world is indeed interconnected. and we are all a part of significant history. By reading this book, we hope that readers will also be able to embark on a journey that transcends borders, centuries and civilizations and find some new knowledge and understanding in the process.
John Massey Stewart’s 2018 book “Thomas, Atkinson & Alatau: The Atkinsons’ Adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh Steppe” retells the stories and journeys contained in Thomas’ two travel books and diaries and Lucy’s book. It contains seven of Atkinson’s watercolours that have never been published before, as well as details from a number of letters and documents that add to recent biographies.
Nearly all the material in these chapters is extracted from Thomas and Lucy’s travel books and Thomas’ diaries, now held by the Royal Geographical Society in London. Much of it has been published before, although not in quite as much detail. We hope that by reading these accounts inspired by previous two writings, readers will get a more in-depth understanding of Kazakh history and culture depicted by a pair of the greatest travelers of their time – Thomas and Lucy Atkinson.