On 23 May 1851, the English explorer Thomas Witlam Atkinson, along with his wife Lucy and two-year-old son Alatau – along with several Cossacks and Buryat guides – set out from Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia on a journey that would take them to some of the remotest and wildest places in the world. Their first goal was to travel east to the Sayan Mountains of Western Buryatia and from there to make their way south towards Lake Khovsgul in northern Mongolia.
The Atkinsons’ journey lasted all summer, with the couple not returning to Irkutsk until the beginning of September. For several years I had wanted to retrace parts of this journey into regions which, even today, are remote. I had already traced the Atkinsons’ travels in what is now Eastern Kazakhstan, but this would be far more daunting, involving riding on horseback, negotiating high mountain passes and travelling in areas where the only trails that exist are those made by indigenous hunters.
Slowly the plan came together. I found a company in Irkutsk that could organise transport and local guides and horses. When I sent them details of the Atkinsons’ journey through the mountains, they responded with a route that took in most of the important places the couple visited – and which Thomas painted. It seemed logical to offer the chance of participating in this journey to the living descendants of the Atkinsons and I was delighted when Steve Brown – a great-great-great grandson of the travellers – and his family agreed to come along. Together with my friend, the photographer David O’Neill, we set off from London for Irkutsk at the beginning of July.
The goal of our journey was a remarkable valley in the Eastern Sayan Mountains called Khi-Gol, or the Jombolok Volcano Field. Thomas Atkinson had noticed a massive trail of lava as he had ascended a river valley and deciding to follow it to its source, had come across this remarkable valley. A gigantic eruption about 7,000 years ago had led to the lava trail, which is over 70kms in length, but the most recent eruption had taken place in about 750CE and is even mentioned in The Secret History of the Mongols, as being the reason that the ancestors of Genghis Khan had left this region and moved further south onto the Mongolian Steppes.
To get to the valley is not easy. The first part of our journey was over 400kms by road to Mondy, a small Buryat town on the Mongolian border. From here we turned off the main road for another 150kms down a track to the small town of Orlik, following the course of the Irkout River. En route we caught our first glimpse of Munkhu Sardyk, which at 3491m is the highest mountain in the region. After a night in huts, we set off in a 10-tonne Zil truck for the remaining 63kms to Khoyto-Gol, a camp based around some remarkable thermal springs, which are sacred to the local Soyot people. Despite the comparatively short distance, this was a nine-hour marathon across very rough terrain, including a substantial bog where we had to use winches to pull our truck out of the deep mud.
Finally, late at night, we reached Khoyto-Gol, where our Soyot horsemen were waiting for us. The Soyots are a Turkic people, similar to the nearby Tuvans and are mostly shamanists. There are around 3,000 of these people in the Eastern Sayan who live mostly by hunting and cattle farming. Some of them still keep and ride reindeer.
Our first challenge on leaving camp was the 2420-metre Cherby Pass, which was so steep that we had to lead our horses up to the treeless tops, from where we could see the snow lying in sheltered gullies. Summer is very short here and all around wild flowers were in bloom, making the most of the warmer temperatures. From here we travelled down the other side, past Lake Kelead Zaram and on towards the Jombolok Volcano Field.
Before long, we got our first sight of the valley, with the distinctive upturned-bowl shape of the Peretolchin Volcano. Named after a Russian geologist who disappeared in the valley in 1914, the cone is beautifully proportioned and sits alongside the less clearly defined Atkinson Volcano, thus named by Russian geologists in 2011. They decided to give the name to Atkinson “to restore historical fairness”, according to their scientific paper on the valley. Thomas Atkinson was certainly the first outsider to visit the valley and so it is only just.
This is how Atkinson described the approach to the valley in his book, Oriental and Western Siberia:
“About noon on the second day we reached a point where another deep and narrow valley joined the Djem-a-louk from the south; and in this there was also a bed of lava evidently produced by the same eruption, which was so rugged, and intersected by such deep fissures, that it was impossible to take our horses across to explore the valley. Our difficulties became greater as we proceeded forward; in some places, the lava filled the valley up to the perpendicular face of the precipices, which compelled us to take our horses over its broken surface.”
Soon he had reached the Jombolok Volcano Field itself:
“On the afternoon of the second day, we beheld the top of a huge cone, and, as the sun was setting, stood on its summit looking upon the terrific scene around. I at once began sketching a view of this wonderful region, and gave orders to a Cossack to have a fire and preparations made for our night’s encampment. Large trees were growing on the sides of the cone, wood was close at hand, and water could be got at no great distance.”
Three kilometres across the valley from Peretolchin lies another volcano cone called Kropotkin – named after the famous Russian anarchist, Prince Peter Kropotkin. Many people know about his writings on anarchy, but less known is his work as a geologist in the service of the Russian Tsars. Kropotkin, when stationed in Irkutsk, read one of Thomas Atkinson’s articles about his visit to the Jombolok Volcano Field and in 1865 decided himself to make the journey, partly in search of a huge waterfall that was rumoured to exist.
Having reached the valley and set up our camp, our next task was to find somewhere to mount a plaque recording Thomas Atkinson’s initial visit and the visit by his descendants almost 170 years later to the same spot. We found a rock outcrop at the base of the Atkinson Volcano and bolted to it the plaque we had brought with us, engraved in both Russian and English. We held a moving ceremony to mark this wonderful moment.
We spent some time exploring the valley, most of which is covered in a huge lava field in which myriads of wonderful flowers flourish during the summer. Then several of us rode on again in search of the Kara Noor Lake. The lake, formed as a result of the original volcanic eruption, is the subject of one of Thomas Atkinson’s paintings. The 25km journey there was very tough, with the horses struggling through bogs, rivers and forests. But after more than six hours hard riding we made it to the lake, arriving at exactly the place that the Atkinsons made their camp in 1851. Our Soyot guide, Rinchin, assured us that no other outsiders had visited this place, probably since the Atkinson’s visit all those years ago.
From the nearby river that ran into the lake we were quickly able to catch half-a-dozen grayling for dinner and to reflect on the beauty of this isolated spot.
All too quickly it was time to return from this remarkable valley. We packed up our camp and made our horses ready for the journey, back over the Cherby Pass to Khoyto-Gol. We left with strong memories of this extraordinary place, a valley unlike anywhere else in Siberia. During our journey we met no other travellers except for a couple of Soyot hunters and their dogs. The Jombolok Volcano Field remains almost an isolated today as it was during the time of the Atkinsons.
On our way out, as we once again crossed the bog where we had had to use winches, we had a remarkable meeting with a Russian geographer who was also on his way to Jombolok. Vladimir Chernikov and his companion, Sergei Izupov, had cycled all the way from Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia in order to lay a plaque at the base of the Kropotkin Volcano celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Peter Kropotkin’s paper on his visit to the valley.
No-one who took part in this expedition will ever forget it. And now that a plaque has been placed there, travellers to this remote spot will be reminded of the role played by an English couple in bringing it to the attention of the world.
WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #26 SUMMER 2017 text by Nick Fielding