Stretching from the Volga River to the Caspian Sea, the Great Steppe is a vast region as mysterious today as it was a thousand years ago.

Travellers in the Great Steppe

From the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution

Nick Fielding

The Great Steppe stretches from the Volga River and the Caspian Sea in the west to the easternmost limits of Djungaria in Western China. Sometimes referred to as the biggest field in the world, this vast region is as mysterious today as it was a thousand years ago. Despite modern development it remains little visited and little known. This was once a land of nomads, barren and harsh at its centre, but with rich grasslands fed by the many rivers flowing from the surrounding mountains. It was home to a society that kept no records other than the epic poems and songs celebrating the stories of its great batyrs (warriors). Whatever is known of this society survives within local culture – desecrated as it is by years of Soviet cultural vandalism – or in the voices of outsiders who occasionally passed through. Usually they were on their way elsewhere – to India, China, Tibet – but occasionally there were visitors who took more than a passing interest in the lives of the steppe nomads. Their findings and impressions are collected in this book. 

Edited and told with relish by Nick Fielding, these are the stories of early papal emissaries like Friar William of Rubruck and Jean de Piano Carpini, sent to negotiate with the Mongols, and the merchant adventurers like Andrew Jenkinson and Jonas Hanway who tried to capture the Silk Road trade. Later came the early scientists and geographers associated with Peter Simon Pallas and the Russian explorers exemplified by Chokan Walikhanov and Petr Petrovich Semenov. Thomas and Lucy Atkinson became the earliest British visitors to spend time in the steppe. They were followed by military adventurers such as Captain Fred Burnaby and James Abbott, and journalists including the great Aloysius MacGahan and David Ker, the original purveyor of ‘fake news’. Besides Lucy Atkinson there were other determined women travellers including Adéle Hommaire de Hell and the remarkable Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon, both of whom documented life in the Great Steppe. Cambridge scientist William Bateson spent 18 months traversing the steppes looking for snail shells in the 1880s, and by the end of the 19th century the first tourists – some, like R L Jefferson, on bicycle – were arriving, to be followed by mining engineers and agricultural merchants. All have a tale to tell. 

Nick Fielding is a journalist and author. As well as working on the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday, he has travelled extensively in Central Asia, southern Siberia and Mongolia over the last 40 years, both on horseback and on foot. Some years ago he made his first visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains in Eastern Kazakhstan in order to retrace the journeys made in the mid-19th century by explorers Thomas and Lucy Atkinson. His 2015 book, South to the Great Steppe, explained the background to the Atkinsons’ travels and highlighted their achievements. He writes the blog Siberian Steppes

£16.99 hardback

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July 2020
336 pp, 16 pp colour illus
ISBN: 9781909930865