Przhevalsky Explores Central Asia

Russian explorer Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky completed four arduous journeys to Chinese Turkestan, Mongolia, and Tibet, surveying previously unexplored regions and discovering flora and fauna new to Western science. The secondary aim of his expeditions, facilitating Russian political expansion into disputed territories, was not realized.

Summary of Event

In 1870, three European powers—Great Britain, France, and Russia—stood poised on the margins of the crumbling Chinese empire, eager to acquire new territory and establish commercial hegemony. The British sent forays northward from their base in India. Meanwhile, over the course of the preceding two decades, the Russians had occupied formerly Persia;and Russia[Russia]
Russia;and Persia[Persia] Persian territory in Central Asia, from the Caspian Sea westward and southward to the crest of the Tian Shan Mountains. Between the Russian border and the British outposts in the southern reaches of the Himalayas lay a vast expanse of unexplored territory, impenetrable from the south because of Tibetan isolationism and inaccessible to the Russians because of the sheer distances and physical barriers involved. Central Asia;exploration of
Exploration;Central Asia
Przhevalsky, Nikolay Mikhaylovich
[kw]Przhevalsky Explores Central Asia (1871-1885)
[kw]Explores Central Asia, Przhevalsky (1871-1885)
[kw]Central Asia, Przhevalsky Explores (1871-1885)
[kw]Asia, Przhevalsky Explores Central (1871-1885)
Central Asia;exploration of
Exploration;Central Asia
Przhevalsky, Nikolay Mikhaylovich
[g]Central Asia;1871-1885: Przhevalsky Explores Central Asia[4510]
[g]Russia;1871-1885: Przhevalsky Explores Central Asia[4510]
[g]China;1871-1885: Przhevalsky Explores Central Asia[4510]
[c]Exploration and discovery;1871-1885: Przhevalsky Explores Central Asia[4510]
Kozlov, Pyotr
Miliutin, Dmitrii Alekseevich
Semenov-Tianshansky, Pyotr

The old caravan routes, running east-west from Kashgar across the Tarim Depression and from Lake Baikal south across the Gobi Desert to Beijing, had fallen into disuse when oceanic transport from China to Europe burgeoned. For Russia, reopening and controlling one of these routes for rail or river transport represented a plausible strategy in the economic development of eastern Siberia Siberia;development of . In order to do so, the Russians needed an accurate geographical survey of the territory, and they needed someone who could conduct such a survey in the face not only of incredible physical hardships but also against the backdrop of a bloody civil war. In 1864, the Tungans, a group of Chinese-speaking Muslims Islam;in China[China] settled in western China, China;Islam rebelled against a corrupt Chinese administration. Allying themselves with the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs, they established a short-lived independent state under the ruthless Zaman Beg. The Tungans destroyed the Chinese infrastructure, and the Chinese massacred the Tungans.

The Russian War Department, headed by the expansionist Dmitrii Alekseevich Miliutin, Miliutin, Dmitrii Alekseevich saw the troubles in Chinese Turkestan as an opportunity for territorial acquisition. Pyotr Semenov-Tianshansky, Pyotr Semenov-Tianshansky, who headed the quasi-governmental Russian Geographical Society, was eager to build upon his own earlier researches in the Tian Shan Mountains. A progressive who was instrumental in the liberation of Russia’s serfs in 1863, Semenov-Tianshansky believed that accurate knowledge of physical geography and a comprehensive census were keys to the development of a modern state.

In 1871, a modest surveying expedition funded by these two organizations left Kyakhta, south of Lake Baikal, and proceeded across Mongolia toward Beijing, intent on securing permission from the Chinese government to explore Western China and Tibet. At its head was Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, an adventurous young military officer who had already made a name exploring along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers in extreme eastern Siberia Siberia;exploration of . His Siberian expedition had established Przhevalsky as someone able to amass prodigious amounts of accurate physical data and plant and animal specimens with minimal assistance in the face of great physical hardship. However, working in a region populated mainly by Chinese outlaws and adventurers had also instilled in him an attitude of contempt and hostility toward the Chinese in general.

After procuring the necessary documents, Przhevalsky, accompanied by the first of a series of young protégés and two Cossacks, proceeded north and westward to the Qilian Shan mountains at the northeastern extremity of Tibet. They were able to survey these mountains and to sample rich flora and fauna from a base in the Lamasery at Choibseng. Storing their specimens, the party turned southward along a treacherous pilgrim route toward Lhasa. Their camels Camels;in Central Asia[Central Asia] proved unequal to the elevation, fires could not be lit, and the party, pursued by ravenous wolves, was forced to turn back. The return route traversed areas devastated by the Tungan rebellion, a nightmare of poisoned wells and abandoned settlements.

Przhevalsky’s bravado and reputation as a crack shot at times served him in good stead. Caravans welcomed him as an escort, supposing him to be effective protection against bandits. Use of Western medical knowledge and the ability to predict weather from a barometer led some to call him a magician. This was sometimes a hindrance; surveying became a furtive venture, because local nomads suspected there was some sinister magical purpose to it. Despite his failure to reach Lhasa, Przhevalsky mapped three thousand miles of route and collected several tons of specimens that still furnish botanists and zoologists with material for analysis. Back in Irkutsk, Przhevalsky published an account of his travels. Combining a flair for drama with a lively writing style, he captured the Russian public’s imagination; this helped secure better funding for subsequent expeditions.

Central Asia During the Late Nineteenth Century

A second expedition originated in Kashgar and proceeded up the Ili Valley, then temporarily under Russian jurisdiction, across the Tian Shan Mountains, and into the Tarim Basin, aiming to enter Tibet from the northwest. Przhavelsky determined that the rivers running southward and eastward from Tian Shan terminated in a large brackish lake, Lop Nur, reported by Marco Polo to be at a different location. Subsequent surveying vindicated both explorers’ observations: The rivers of the Taklimakan Desert periodically shift their courses, accounting for the change in the lake’s position. Polo’s Lop Nur is today a barren salt pan. Ill health forced Przhevalsky to cut his second expedition short.

A third expedition, in 1876-1877, produced the discovery of the primitive horse that now bears Przhevalsky’s name. A relict population of the wild forebear of domestic horses roamed the Junggar Desert near Urumqi. When native hunters brought him a skin and skull from one of these horses, Przhevalsky immediately recognized their significance. He subsequently saw, but failed to capture, living specimens. He also assiduously sought the fabled yeti or ape-man, no authentic specimens of which were forthcoming.

Proceeding across the Taklimakan Desert, Przhevalsky entered Tibet from the north, crossed the Plateau of Tibet, and reached a point twenty-six miles from Lhasa before being turned back by the Chinese authorities, who feared that the supposedly purely scientific expedition was a prelude to Christian evangelism, military conquest, or both. The British had probably encouraged this suspicion in order to prevent the Russians from gaining an advantage over them in the region. Przhevalsky was able to repay the British for this stratagem: He showed the Chinese maps of Tibet that had been prepared by Indian surveyors disguised as pilgrims.

In 1884, Przhevalsky again returned to the Tarim Basin and northern Tibet, surveying additional territory and collecting more biological specimens. His survey was the first general account of northern Tibet to reach the West. Upon his return in 1885, he published an outline of conditions in Central Asia that was so ardent in its Eurocentric chauvinism and imperialistic designs that Russian policy makers were quick to repudiate it.

In 1888, Przhevalsky was in the process of organizing a fifth expedition. Then forty-nine years old and losing some of his legendary physical stamina, he expressed a wish not to live to see old age and retirement in Russia. A bout of typhoid obliged: He died on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, in Kyrgyzstan, surrounded by his companions of the field. These included Pyotr Kozlov, Kozlov, Pyotr a former clerk who accompanied Przhevalsky on his last two expeditions and later became a distinguished explorer in his own right.


To Russians of his generation, Przhevalsky was a hero. A young Anton Chekhov wrote a glowing obituary; later, he modified his opinions, as firsthand accounts of the Chinese and indigenous Siberian peoples exposed hero’s arrogance and narrow chauvinism. Soviet-era Russian sources emphasized the contributions of the progressive liberal Semenov-Tianshansky, Pyotr Semenov-Tianshansky and downplayed the role of Przhevalsky in the exploration of Central Asia.

Two aspects of the Przhevalsky’s narrative, one probably false, have attracted the attention of popular historians. Based on his dogged determination, aggressive character, residence in the Caucasus at the relevant time, and a certain facial resemblance, a rumor arose that Przhevalsky was Joseph Stalin’s Stalin, Joseph natural father. Serious biographers of both men doubt this. Rather, his never having married and his close relationship with a series of handsome young protégés are seen as evidence that he was homosexual, although no direct evidence exists to confirm this theory.

Przhevalsky’s scientific discoveries, including but by no means limited to the famous wild horse, are probably his most lasting contribution to posterity. The laboriously completed surveys of physical geography would have facilitated military incursions and Russian development of the region, but these never materialized. The assassination of Alexander Alexander II
[p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];assassination of II and resignation of Miliutin Miliutin, Dmitrii Alekseevich introduced a more conservative spirit into the Russian administration, putting a stop to further expansion into Chinese Turkestan.

Further Reading

  • Meyer, Karl E., and Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. Broad in scope, covering the entire nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; puts Przhevalsky’s explorations in the context of Anglo-Russian rivalries.
  • Przhevalsky, Nikolai. From Kulja Across the Tian Shan to Lob-Nor. Translated by E. Delmar Morgan. 1879. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. This firsthand account conveys a sense of the explorer’s style; includes a large foldout map.
  • Rayfield, Donald. The Dream of Lhasa: The Life of Nikolay Przhevalsky, 1839-1888, Explorer of Central Asia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976. Well-researched, thorough, and vividly written; provides necessary background and technical detail.
  • Stockwell, Foster. Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient Times Through the Present. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Includes a chapter on Przhevalsky, drawn largely from work done by Rayfield.
  • Wieczynski, Joseph, ed. Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic Press, 1975-1983. Good source for biographies of Kozlov, Miliutin, and Semenov-Tianshansky.

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