Into the heart of the Tien Shan

March 11th, 2015 Sections: History, Issyk Kul, Who's Who
Semenov in his old age

Semenov in his old age

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the Russian explorer Pyotr ‘Tianshansky’ Semenov in 1914.

In all he made six forays into the Tien Shan and I have already written postcards describing his first and second forays into the Issyk Kul basin in 1856, and the start of his journey into the heart of the range the following year … and decided that maybe it was an appropriate time to to continue the narrative:

In 1857, Pyotr Semenov ventured into the Heart of the Tien Shan … accompanied by 49 Cossacks, (there were supposed to have been 50, but one fell ill and had to be left behind in the care of a servant), one of whom  served as an interpreter as he had an excellent command of the language, a dozen local guides and camel drivers, (as well as a horse for each of the men, they had twelve camels … and “a whole flock of sheep), … and the artist Kasharov.

They crossed over the San Tash pass between the Ili and Issyk Kul basins.  In passing he recounts the story about the mound of stones being created by the army of Tamerlane, which had been passed down by the Kyrgyz through generations.

From the pass they continued into the Issyk Kul basin, proper and by the Tyup River he discovered a specimen of a new species of plant which was later named after him … just one of many such discoveries that he was to make.  As it happens, he already knew some of the country as he had visited it the year before on his first foray in the Issyk Kul basin.

From the valley of the Tyup the party headed into new territory, up the Dzhargalan valley towards the Mustag – the Snowy Mountains – through what he thought should have coniferous forest but turned out to have so little woodland that it was similar to agricultural land that had already been settled by Russians such as at Verniy, (Almaty), and was to become the site of what was to become Karakol.

It was at this point that the party encountered refugees from the Bogintsy tribe, hungry, emaciated and half-clothed, who had recently been defeated by the Sarybagish … who had, in turn, abandoned their newly won territory in the face of the advancing Russian party.

They continued through bushes of sea buckthorn, (oblapica), black barberry and willow into the valley of the Altyn Arashan – although he refers to it as Alma Arashan – where they were to camp by the hot springs, renowned among the Kyrgyz for its medicinal qualities.

The journey took them through the Ak-Suu valley from which they got magnificent views of the blue waters of Lake Issyk Kul.  Ak Suu means “white water”, and he comments how the rapid, noisy and foaming waters flowing between the steep overgrown mountain slopes justified the name.  The entrance to the Arashan basin itself was blocked with wooden gates and there they found some Tibetan inscriptions similar to the ones they had seen at Tamgaly Tash in Kazakhstan – about 120 miles Northwest of Almaty.

Rising early the next day, he sent most of the detachment up into the mountains and over a pass while he, his interpreter and a local guide went up the river. They planned to meet later down by the Karakol River.

He was particularly interested to explore the theory that the Tian Shan had volcanic origins and so he spent some time climbing up the right hand side of the valley, investigating the boulders carried down from the high mountains by the rapid river waters.  He had already described some of the rock formations he had encountered, outcrops of granite and limestone, and he found no volcanic rocks in the valley.  So, he concentrated on collecting plant samples, which he spends some time describing.

They then crossed the river and descended down the left bank, which was hard going as it was overgrown until the valley widened and a panorama of the lake below opened up.  In the distance they saw a group of horsemen which they took for the rest of their party down at a ford across the Karakol River where they had arranged to meet, but it soon became clear that, instead, it was a group of Sarybagysh tribesmen.   The rest of the detachment were nowhere to be seen.

Half a dozen tribesmen rode up and a standoff occurred … fortunately, however, before the situation could turn ugly, the detachment finally appeared over the horizon, just in the nick of time, and the tribesmen made a hasty retreat.  The party had been delayed because the road over the pass had been particularly difficult, requiring the camels to be unloaded and repacked several times and one of the packhorses fell into a crevasse.

They moved off from their camp and travelled along the foothills until they met the River Djeti Oguz … and as he had some time, he explored up the valley a little way while the rest of the group set camp, and describes the scene in graphic flowing terms.

They moved off the next day travelling East – past the Malaya Kyzyk Suu to the Zuaka, where they met a reconnaissance band of Bogintsy.  Based on information they gave him he decided to ascend to the Zauka Pass which led over to the source of the Naryn,  even though there was a group led by Tiuregel’dy, one of the junior manaps of the Sarybagysh, was known to camped out.  He sent the main party along the direct route to the pass while he, his interpreter and the head of the reconnaissance party, he set out to investigate the surroundings.

They explored the region called Kyzyl Dzhar (Red cliff) from an outcrop of red sandstone, some 20 versts, (a verst is an old Russian measurement of distance equal to just over a kilometer, about two thirds of a mile – so 20 versts is about six miles), from the lake and considerably higher than the current water levels of the lake.

As well as describing the geography of the region, he also tells about some of the historical connections; the travels of Hsuan Tsang, the ancient ruins that were still visible, and the overgrown ancient orchards.

They rejoined the rest of their party and headed up the valley which in the lower reaches was wide and thickly covered by fir forest, and high, snow covered peaks towering above.    Apparently, it a difficult ascent, and he decided to make the final part alone with just Kashaov for company.  They climbed encountered lots of wildlife.

After an hour and a half, they came across a aquamarine coloured alpine lake which was the source of the river.  Skirting the lake they ascended further to a higher green coloured one.  Camping overnight, they continued their ascent the next day.  The ascent was slow, partly hampered because the path was littered with well preserved carcasses of animals, (and a couple of human corpses), that were the result of a intertribal battle the month before, and partly because the terrain was treacherous – where “one careless step could have cost us our lives”.    Indeed, an encounter with one of the corpses startled his horse, which almost threw him.  To add to that, he started to suffer from the altitude, having to continually stop and struggled to breathe … and, when they finally reached the pass, he began “to feel noises” in his ears.

Mind you, he was greeted by a spectacular panorama hilly upland littered with lakes, luxuriant vegetation with large bright flowers, alpine meadows with a populated by a “hitherto unknown” breed of onion, which was destined to, later, be another species to be named after him.  (He tells us that one of the Chinese names for the Tien Shan was Tsun Lin – Onion Mountains.)

From the summit he also managed to catch a glimpse in the distance, of the Naryn, and they descended to explore a little of the environs but did not venture further as the horses were exhausted and several had suffered serious injuries.

This was the site of the last major battle between the Sarybagysh and Bogintsy tribes … which had involved some 6000 horsemen from both sides and resulted in a resounding defeat of the Bogintsy, (who were now allies of the Russians).  Having already encountered some examples of the detritus of battle, they now came across the ‘field of the dead’, littered with bones and frozen carcasses.  In some moving narrative, he describes the scene and tells how a pack of dogs that had lived there since the battle joyfully attached themselves to the party and followed them for the rest of their journey until they eventually returned to Verniy.

They descended and rejoined their party, and descended the valley.  On the way he undertook more investigation of the geological formations he found in Kyzyl Dzhar.

Returning to the shore, they decided to take the opportunity to go swimming in the warm, beautifully transparent blue waters.  Ever the scientific observer, Semenov noted the marine plants … and the abundance of fish, for which the lake was famous.  The Cossacks took their sabres and slashed at the waters, and thus were able to catch some 11 puds of fish, (a pud is an old Russian measure of weight equal to just over 16 kilograms … so that amounted to about 180 kilograms of fish(!)), some of which they used to make fish soup and the rest they pickled.

Semenov then devoted some time to exploring the coastal region.,  Because there were no boats available he wasn’t able to venture into the waters and, for example, measure the depths or water temperatures away from the shore.  It’s at this point that he makes his famous reference to Lake Issyk Kul in comparison to Lake Geneva.

From the shore he notices the underwater terraces … and explored them finding all sorts of things that had been thrown away or abandoned by the locals (such as utensils and weapons),  or washed down from the mountains, (but once again failed to turn up any examples of volcanic rocks), and was even shown a Bronze Age copper cauldron that had been fished out of the lake.

He heard stories from some of the locals of ruins under the waters and at one point they pointed out one of the spots where ruins were sometimes visible under the waters.

Now it was time for the group to retrace their steps, East along the coast, round to the Tyup river and then back along the Northern shore.



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