Return to the Great Steppe

1One family’s return to Kazakhstan to visit the birthplace of their ancestor.

Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, the son of British explorers Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, was born on 4th November 1848 in the tiny settlement of Kapal in the Zhetysu region of what is now Eastern Kazakhstan. 168 years later ten of his British, American and New Zealander descendants returned to Kapal to visit the places after which he had been named. This is the story of that remarkable visit.

By Nick Fielding

Return to the Great Steppe

In July 2016 ten descendants of the British explorers, Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, travelled to Kazakhstan to visit the place wherein November 1848 Lucy gave birth to a son, whom she called Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson. Five descendants from England, three from Hawaii and one each from Florida and New Zealand decided to join the group.

From the moment we arrived at Astana airport, it was clear that this was going to be a special trip. We were greeted with songs, dances and special sweets and bread, organised by Mrs Umutkan Munalbayeva, general director of the National Academic Library.

by-david-oneillOur first day was spent sight-seeing. Several members of the group were also taken to a meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister, Mr Karim Massimov, who told the family how delighted he was that the Atkinson delegation had arrived in Astana. As the meeting got underway, one of the relatives, Paul Dahlquist, gave a traditional Hawaiian greeting which was highly appreciated by the gathering.

Our second day started with a meeting with the mayor of Astana, Mr Asset Assekeshev, who told the delegation that he would be interested in discussing the possibility of opening a special museum dedicated to the Atkinsons. Two members of the Atkinson family delegation dressed in character as Thomas and Lucy Atkinson for the meeting, wearing costumes they had obtained at the National Theatre in London.

The meeting with the mayor was followed by the launch of South to the Great Steppe at the National Academic Library in front of an audience of around 150 people. Press interest was overwhelming, with dozens of journalists covering the event.

Following a slide-show presentation of the book, numerous Kazakh academics and experts – including Director for the Institute of State History of the Ministry of Education of Kazakhstan, Mr Burkit Ayagan, and renowned writer, Sharbanu Beisenova, as well as Mr. Darkhan Mynbay, Mr Sherubay Kurmanbayuly.

Mr Zhambyl Artykbayev – spoke to express support for the book and its importance for providing new information about the early modern history of the Kazakh people. Leading ideologue Professor Myrzatay Zholdasbekov said it was important that the book was translated into Kazakh and Russian so that young people could learn about this important period in history.

Arrival in Almaty

On Tuesday 26th July, we flew to Almaty, courtesy of Air Astana. Outside the airport we were greeted with vans decked out in special livery and by the KazGeo representatives all wearing special T-shirts marked with the slogan ‘Alatau Tamchiboulac: From Great Britain to the Great Steppe’.

From Shymbulak it was on to the British Council in Almaty where Nick Fielding gave a slide presentation based on his book to a packed room. Most of those attending had responded to a social media campaign informing them about the talk.

There followed a long journey by road to Taldykorgan, a large city close to Kapal, the little town where the following day we were due to commemorate the birth of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson in 1848.

Celebrations in Kapal – Thursday 28 th July

Before leaving Taldykorgan for Kapal, the descendants met with Mr Amandyk Batalov, the governor of Almaty region who was well informed about the story of the Atkinsons and spoke of his honour in receiving their descendants as guests. He told the family members that Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had taken a personal interest in the story and asked rhetorically if it could be the case that the Atkinson family members were in fact Kazakh citizens, as their ancestor had been born in the country. He then presented a beautiful dombra – Kazakhstan’s national instrument – to the party, as well as books extolling the landscape of the region, in particular the Djungar Alatau National Park.

The meeting with the governor was followed by a press conference at which all the national networks were present.Then it was time to make the 75km journey to Kapal. On the way the party stopped at the statue of Batyr Kapal, the founder of the town, for a photograph. Once again Steve Brown and Pippa Smith were in costume, this time with the added surprise of a ’babe in arms’.

Nothing could have prepared the group for the sight which met their eyes as they drove into Kapal, now a mainly agricultural village, tucked beneath the Djungar Alatau Mountains. A large crowd had assembled in front of the covered memorial, which was flanked by a display illustrating the lives of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson. A group of dombra players stood on one side of the memorial, as the master of ceremonies and two assistants, all splendidly dressed in national costume, stood on the other side.

Women in traditional costume handed out a special bread and threw sweets into the crowd. Speeches were made and Paul Dahlquist was asked to cut the ribbon on the imposing monument commemorating the birth of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson. Over two metres high and carved in solid granite, the monument’s inscription in Kazakh, Russian and English says: ““Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, the son of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, who were the first British explorers to come to Kazakhstan in the 19th century, was born here on 4th November 1848.”

dav_0287From the newly installed memorial, it was only a short walk to the Tamchiboulac Spring, after which Alatau was named. For the next hour or so dozens of people crammed into the space around the spring, where the water falls directly from the rocks in front of you, tasting the water and bottling it to take away.

Once they had visited the spring, the descendants were in for a shock. They had no idea what was still in store for them. Close by, the inhabitants of Kapal had prepared a wonderful shildekhana pageant detailing the story of the birth of Alatau. Performed by actors, singers and dancers, it was fully choreographed and even included a splendid example of horsemanship.

We were then invited to take part in a special feast, given in celebration of the birth of a child. Dish followed dish, including Kazakh favourites such as beshbarmak, manti, chorba, laghman and, of course, koumis – the slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented horse milk.

A fine feast had been prepared for the descendants, accompanied by singers and musicians. Soon after, we said our goodbyes and left Kapal, and we headed north-east towards Sarcand, travelling along the same road used by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson as they left in the spring of 1849. We passed through Arasan where the residents of Kapal had held a party for the Atkinsons and where Thomas had bathed in the hot springs for which it is famous. And we were able to take in some of the glorious views towards the Djungar Alatau Mountains. Everywhere we looked we could see the mounds of kurgans – ancient burial chambers built more than 2,500 years ago that testify to the long period of occupancy of this remote region.

Soon we were crossing the Hasford Pass on an unmetalled road, heading toward Zhansugarov and then on to Sarcand, where we arrived at our hotel late in the evening. We were now in the heart of the Zhetysu (or Semirechye) region, the home of the seven rivers. Thomas and Lucy, along with the baby Alatau, had systematically explored each of these river valleys during the summer of 1849 and we were here to see something of the sights that greeted them – almost unchanged today, despite the passage of time.

Zhetysu – 29th July

Sarcand is home to the headquarters of the Djungar Alatau National Park, a remarkable wilderness covering tens of thousands of hectares and stretching up from the steppe to snow-capped peaks of around 4,500m. Large parts of the lower slopes of the mountains are covered in dense apple forest, home of the famous Sievers apple, which is thought to be the ancestor of all eating apples. We drove out to the Terekte River – painted by Thomas Atkinson – where some of us mounted horses, whilst others took to jeeps to ride deep into the apple forest to visit a lodge. It was a spectacular ride, at first though open ground and then in the dense forest.

Soon after we headed north-east to Lake Alakol, the most northern part of our journey, where we arrived late in the evening of Friday 29 th July.

Lake Alakol – 30th July

As we had arrived on the shores of Lake Alakol, it was clear that the weather was going to be a problem. The clouds had darkened and it was beginning to rain. By the following morning, the bad weather had set in and we decided to adjust our plans. We had originally intended to spend time on the black beaches of the slightly salty lake, but that was now unthinkable. Instead, we went to the shoreline to take in its sheer size – 1,020 sqms.

By the time Thomas and Lucy reached the lake in the late summer of 1849 they had traversed much of the Zhetysu region, watching and travelling with the nomads as they took their herds from their winter pastures alongside Lake Balkash high up into the pastures of the Djungar Alatau. From now on they would be facing the flat steppelands as they made their way north to the Altai Mountains and Barnaul, the town where they would spend the following winter.

We stayed in Kazakhstan for another two days, but to all intents and purposes this was the end of our journey. The days had been filled with wonderful sights and fascinating meetings that it will doubtless take some time to digest. Thank you Kazakhstan for making this such a memorable and moving experience!

(Picture credits: David O’Neill)

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