Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/January 1887/Sketch of Nicholas Prejevalski



THE Russian explorer, Prejevalski, had returned, at the beginning of 1886, from his fourth journey of scientific investigation and military reconnaissance in Central Asia. His activity and its fruitfulness in the extension of knowledge are truly wonderful.

Nicholas Prejevalski is now in his forty-seventh year, having been born on the 31st of March, 1839. He was the son of an old Polish landholder in the province of Smolensk. Having attended the gymnasium of his native province for a time, he entered the Military Academy in St. Petersburg, and devoted himself to the natural sciences. He was engaged in the Polish campaign, and afterward resided at Warsaw, as teacher of history and geography, till 1867; then, at his own request, he was transferred to Irkutsk, in Eastern Siberia, whence he undertook journeys to the Amoor and Ussari. This remote region exercised such a power of fascination over the young man that the starting-point of his whole career may be dated from his residence there. It gave the first response to his natural taste for traveling in strange lands, and we therefore find it perfectly in course that he should have started in 1870 upon a longer journey through China. The expedition was undertaken under a commission from the Geographical Society of St. Petersburg, in company with Lieutenant Michael Pylzow and two Cossacks, and lasted three years. In its course it traversed Mongolia, Shan-Su, the basin of the Kuku-Nor, and Northern Thibet, for a distance of more than seven thousand miles. The literary fruit of this expedition was a book of "Travels in Mongolia in the Tangut Country, and the Solitudes of Northern Thibet, 1870-'73," which was published in London in 1876, translated by E. Delmar Morgan, and furnished with an introduction and notes by Colonel Henry Yule.

The journey was directed to the regions lying outside of the great Chinese wall, a country concerning which our data, derived chiefly from the accounts of Marco Polo in the thirteenth century and of a few missionaries, were so defective and inaccurate, that the whole table-land of Eastern Asia, extending from the Siberian mountains in the north to the Himalaya in the south, and from the Pamir Plain to China, was as little known to us as Central Africa or the interior of New Holland. This region, then a terra incognita, exceeding the whole of Eastern Europe in extent, situated, to borrow the words of the explorer, in the middle of the greatest continent, at an absolute height with which no other region on the globe could compare, here intersected by giant mountains, there spread out into illimitable desert plains, presented in every aspect features of scientific interest. But, he added, strongly as these regions attract us by the mysteries which they conceal, they equally deter us by the threat of all possible hardships. On one side looms up the desert, with its sand-storms, its dearth of water, its heat and cold; on another side, the European encounters a suspicious, barbarous people, who will meet him in ambush or be his open enemies. After three years of contention with these difficulties, he had the rare fortune of reaching the Kuku-Nor and the upper waters of the Yang-tse-Kiang River in Thibet. He had only to lament the insufficiency of his outfit, a matter of great importance in all explorations. Yet, with the means he had, he carried the line of his journey thirty-three hundred miles forward with the aid of a hand-compass, defined eighteen meridians on his map, and observed the magnetic variation at nine points and the horizontal deviation at seven. Meteorological observations were taken four times a day, the temperature of the ground was tested frequently, and hygrometric observations were taken several times. Special attention was given to physiographical investigations and the examination of the mammals and birds, and every opportunity for ethnographical research was improved. The expedition collected specimens of two hundred and thirty-eight species of birds, skins of forty-two species of mammals, a dozen amphibia, eleven species of fishes, and more than three thousand insects. These were all deposited in the Museum of the Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg. The botanical collections, which were handed over to the Imperial Botanical Gardens, included some four thousand examples, of five or six hundred species. The mineralogical collection comprised small specimens from all the ranges that were crossed.

The route of this expedition was from Kiakhta to Peking, where the outfit was completed, thence along the southeastern border of the Mongolian table-land north of Peking to the city of Dolon-Nor, across the Dulai-Nor Lake to Kalgan and the Yellow River, and thence over an Alpine region and across the Hoang-ho to Ordos in its valley. From this place it went to the marshy Zaidemin Lake, and thence to the Ala-Shan, or the southwestern part of the Desert of Gobi, a barren region, inhabited by a Mongolian tribe, the Oleuts, and to the Ala-Shan Mountains, a range in places exceeding ten thousand feet in height, and which is the home of the musk-ox. High as these mountains are, they possess an abundant animal life. Unfortunately, the explorer's funds were exhausted at this point, and his pass from the Chinese Government extending only to the province of Shan-Su, there seemed to be no alternative but to retire to Kalgan in Southeastern Mongolia. The expedition returned along the left shore of the Yellow River, through the country of the Urotes, visiting on the way the great salt lake Jaratai Dabaru, whence salt is carried to China. The return was beset with many difficulties, but Kalgan was reached at last, and the first part of the expedition was completed, with results on the whole so satisfactory that the travelers, though still in the interior of Asia, determined to undertake a journey to the farther shore of the Kuku-Nor. It was however necessary, first, to go to Peking and obtain a new outfit. A new pass was granted by the Chinese Government, extending to the Kuku-Nor and the borders of Thibet, and, with two fresh Cossack guardsmen, Prejevalski started back by the same route by which he had come from Ala-Shan to Kalgan. The party had the good fortune to attach itself to a Tangut caravan, which was going to the monastery of Chobsen, within a short distance of the Kuku-Nor, and would be to it as the best of guides, and also a defense against the Dungans, who were making parts of the country very uncomfortable. Having crossed the wilderness of Ala-Shan, to the border ranges of Shan-Su, they came upon a mountain-region, where the high elevation of the land, frequently rising above the snow-line, gave an abrupt and remarkable change to the character of the landscape. Fields and forests were laid out before the explorers, and the flora and fauna offered so many attractions to them that they spent the summer there. These mountains, which the Chinese call Nan-Shan or Sue-Shan, consist of three parallel ranges, and constitute a wild Alpine region, in the forests of which the Rheum palmatum, or rhubarb, which was for the first time in modern history seen in its native region, is the characteristic plant, while the belt between twelve and thirteen thousand feet of altitude abounds in rhododendrons. The mountains rise to the height of fourteen thousand feet, but there are no woods on their southern slopes. The Dungans pass for their most savage inhabitants, but they were not bold enough, with all the advantages of numbers on their side to attack our four travelers. All dangers were avoided by watchful care; and at last Prejevalski, getting a view of the Kuku-Nor, was able to say, as he has written in his account of the journey: "The dream of my life was fulfilled; the long-sought end was reached. What I had just before only dreamed of, had now become reality. It is true that this result had been bought only at the cost of many hard trials, but now all the sufferings we had endured were forgotten, and, full of joy, my companions and I stood on the shores of the great lake, and enjoyed the sight of its marvelously deep-blue waters." On the 12th of October, 1872, he pitched his tent on the shore of the lake, ten thousand five hundred feet above the sea, being the first European who had visited it, except the Jesuit Father Huc. Thibet lay before him as a new object of research, and he hoped to pass over Thibetan land to the upper waters of the Blue River, or Yang-tse-Kiang. He started on the 18th of November, and penetrated into that land along the lofty pass, till he was only about five hundred miles from Lassa, the residence of the Dalai Lama. But, again, the want of money compelled him to turn back. He retired to Zaidam, on the Kuku-Nor, where he remained till spring. In May, 1873, he was again in the Desert of Ala-Shan, which he succeeded in crossing without a guide, and reached the city of Dyu-Yuan-in after a hazardous march of fifteen days from Dajin. The people of this town, who had seen them before, complimented them on their having grown to look like themselves, or having become quite Mongolian. Prejevalski himself describes the party as exhausted by their arduous march, half starved, with ragged clothes and boots, looking like beggars. Here they entered upon the final stage of their journey through a land which no European had ever entered before them—the heart of the Desert of Gobi, a region "so terrible that, in comparison with it, the Desert of Northern Thibet may be called fruitful; there, at all events, you may find water and good pasture-land in the valleys; here there is neither one nor the other, not even a single oasis; everywhere the silence of the valley of death"—in order to reach the Russian city of Urga, on its border. Finally, Prejevalski reached Kiackta, his original starting-point, on the 19th of September, 1873.

Not satisfied with the results of this expedition, which he regarded as still incomplete, Prejevalsky engaged in the organization of a second one, to be more adequately prepared for its work, which he designated as intended for "a scientific reconnaissance of Central Asia." The objective points of this, his third journey into the interior of the continent, were the Lob-Nor, which no European had ever seen, and the exploration of Thibet. With two Russian companions he went to the valley of the Ili and to the Tarim River, by whose course he hoped to be led to the still mysterious lake. Hence his route was continued to the elevated Altyn-Dagh, the northern outpost of the Kuen-Lun, but he still failed to get into Thibet. To quote from his own narrative: "The examination of the Lob-Nor and of "Western Dungaria formed the conclusion of my second expedition into inner Asia. I had, in consequence of the severity of my efforts, and by the operation of climatic influences, brought upon myself a grave illness, which compelled me, instead of returning to Thibet and Hami, to stop at the end of 1877 in our border post of Saisan. After three months of good care, I was restored enough to undertake a new journey. But the expedition was now postponed by an order from St. Petersburg, because of the unpleasant relations that were existing with the Chinese. The delay, however, had its pleasant features for me. I could go to my own home, and there, in the undisturbed quiet of a country life, gain a complete recovery. Here, in this season of rest, the importance of making the still wholly unknown wild regions of the interior of Asia the object of a journey of discovery became clearly fixed in my mind." Thus it came about that he particularly emphasized the exploration of Thibet. His plan was supported by the Geographical Society, and approved by the Minister of War, and he was allowed a subsidy of twenty-nine thousand rubles. His company consisted of twelve persons besides himself: Ensign Ecklon for the zoölogical and Ensign Roborowski for the botanical work; three soldiers and five Cossacks; a subordinate officer and preparateur; and an interpreter from Kuldja for the Turkish and Chinese languages, who had been with him to the Lob-Nor. The baggage, arranged in forty-six packages, was loaded upon twenty-three camels. It included two Mongolian tents and arms of the best manufacture, in the use of which the whole company was carefully drilled. The soldiers and Cossacks were accommodated upon eight camels, and there were four reserve camels. Prejevalski, with the officers and the interpreter, rode on horseback. The party left Saisank on March 21, 1879, directing their course toward the Dungarian Desert, between the Altai and the Thian-Shan. At the latter range the salt-steppes abruptly give way to fragrant forests of larch; the mountains assume a wonderful grandeur, lifting their tops away above the snow-line, and rising like a steep wall out of the plain. Along the northern and southern Thian-Shan extends one of the many oases which wind along like a tortuous chain between the Kuen-Lun, the Altyn-Dagh, and the Nan-Shan—the oasis of Hami in the desert of that name. Through this oasis and that of Sa-cheu, the party proceeded to the foot-hills of the Nan-Shan and into those lofty mountains themselves. Two of the snow-covered outposts of the range, about eighteen thousand five hundred feet high, were named after Humboldt and Ritter. Prejevalski then entered the extensive district of Zaidam, inhabited by Oleuts, where he had formerly sought for the Kuku-Nor. This time it was Northern Thibet, with its table-lands standing at an elevation of from twelve to sixteen thousand feet, and its mountains towering above all their neighbors, that stood foremost in his vision. On his first journey he had struck the route of the Buddhist pilgrims, and had reached the point where the Napchi-Ulan-Muren enters the Mur-Usu, which from there is called the Yang-tse-Kiang. On his second journey he had reached only the northern borders of Thibet. On this third journey he reached the sources of the Blue River (the Mur-Usu), on the Tan-la, and a portion of the Yellow River, and the Kuku-Nor. The significance of this achievement is explained by himself when he writes: "European travelers have to encounter great difficulties in these regions, arising out of climatological and local circumstances. The great absolute height and the consequent rarefaction of the air, with sharp changes of temperature, make the ascent of the pathless heights a toilsome work. The opposition of Nature has to be overcome at every forward step, and the traveler must at all times be prepared for hindrances and hostility of every kind from the people. Only by the application of one's entire physical strength and of extreme energy is it possible to overcome the impediments of these mountains." He left Zaidam on the 12th of September, 1879, taking a route between his old one, over the Burchan-Budda, and the Nomachun-Gol, and along the latter into the home of the yak and the antelope. He purposed to pursue a straight course for Lassa; and the character of his march is sufficiently described when it is said that, during all the time he was in Thibet, he never moved at a less altitude than thirteen thousand five hundred feet! To the difficulties afforded by the elevation were added attacks from predatory tribes, the Jegrais, which had to be repelled by fighting. He was not allowed to visit Lassa, although he was granted an interview with a deputation from the Holy City, who came to his camp at the foot of the Bumsa Mountain, sixteen thousand four hundred feet above the sea. "Again," he sorrowfully writes, "was my effort to penetrate to the capital of Thibet baffled by barbarian prejudices and the fanaticism of a stupid people. Now, when the greatest obstacles had been overcome, when everything had been smoothed away, when I had the object of my desires so near to my eye, I had again to turn back without accomplishing my purpose. It was a severe trial to give it up." He returned, through a moderately high spur of the Kuen-Lun range—which he named the Marco Polo Mountains, after the old Venetian traveler—and another unknown range, to Zaidam. On the 31st of January, 1850, after four and a half months of wandering in Thibet, he entered the station of Dsun-Lassak. This ended the second period of his expedition. The third period was passed in Zaidam, and partly in the Kuku-Nor, whence he undertook a journey of exploration to the sources of the Chuan-Chi, or Yellow River, which he followed from the Kuku-Nor southward into the northeastern spurs of the Thibetan foot-hills. He wanted to solve what had always been a riddle even to the Chinese. He returned to the Kuku-Nor, and struck from it upon the old road from Ala-Shan to Urga, which he had traversed in 1873. The fullest and most accurate information which geography has gained of the regions through which he traveled is what he has given it.

This journey was characterized by Dr. Petermann as the crown of Central Asiatic exploration, and as equal in importance to Stanley's journey down the Congo, or even to the attainment of the pole. Of its results, "Nature" said, in a summary of them, that the traveler's observations would be "of special value to the ethnologist, as containing important details concerning the various peoples he met with. The zoologist and botanist will also find much to interest him." In its notice of the book, the same journal referred to the part of the narrative describing what the author observed during his stay at Lob-Nor concerning the migrations of birds as being of exceptional value. The Royal Geographical Society, in April, 1879, awarded a gold medal to Colonel Prejevalski, "for the great additions he has made to our knowledge of Central and Eastern High Asia, by his successive expeditions into the unexplored parts of the great plateau of Mongolia and the lofty deserts of Western Thibet, and for the admirable way in which he has described the regions traversed by him in the published narratives of his journeys."

No amount of adventure satisfies a traveler, and Prejevalski was not satisfied with the excursions he had already made. At the close of his book, describing his third expedition, he says: "The joy with which I again saw my home, after my tedious travels, may be easily comprehended. But the more that every-day life demands its rights, the more actively does the pressure toward the far-off deserts of Asia, which once seen can never be forgotten, the longing to visit them again, rise in my soul. Yes, in those deserts," he added, "an unlimited freedom reigns. The traveler stands opposing the wild robber-hordes with the weapons of science and civilization. The dangers which he encounters every day for his love of science are quickly forgotten, while the recollection of the moment of success and of real happiness remains fixed and clear in the mind. The picture of those past joys floats before him day and night, and entices him, even from the midst of the enjoyment of the rest of civilization, to that life of labor and freedom." This book was published in London in 1879 as "From Kuldja, across the Thian-Shan, to Lob-Nor," translated by Mr. Morgan, with an introduction by Sir Douglas Forsyth.

In 1883, Colonel Prejevalski went on his fourth expedition to the same regions, having the country of the Yellow River as his objective point. He started in November, and, traveling in a cold under which quicksilver was frozen, found himself in February, 1884, again in Thibet. In May he went down to the south of Zaidam, whence, having left his baggage with a guard of Cossacks, he started again for the sources of the Yellow River. They were found to lie in a region uninhabited by man, but peopled by innumerable herds of yaks. Thence he turned to the shores of the Blue River where he suffered an attack from hostile Tanguts. He repelled them, but they succeeded in preventing his crossing the river, and forced him to turn back. They continued to annoy him for several weeks, when he again went back to the headwaters of the Yellow River and the lakes by which it is fed. Leaving Southern Zaidam, he went westward with thirteen persons into a desert where even camels could not live. He came at last to the shore of an impenetrable swamp, which was well inhabited by pheasants. He remained for three months at a place called Gaz, whence he penetrated to a part of Western Thibet, where he discovered three previously unknown mountain-ranges. From Gaz the road went on through a labyrinth of narrow passes and defiles to the Turkoman town of Loto, where the population was friendly. The people of Western China, where it borders on East Turkistan, were likewise well disposed toward him. The country is described as being very attractive, without winter, populous, and as yielding two crops of grain a year.

Colonel Prejevalski's return from his fourth journey was celebrated at St. Petersburg by a special session of the Geographical Society, on the 10th of February, which was attended by members of the imperial family, ministers of state, diplomates, and learned men, all eager to pay their respects to the energetic traveler, who, on this occasion, was made a major-general.