Sunday, August 30


I wake early. The memory of Basshi's heat is distant, at this altitude in the Tien Shan a quilt is handy in the wee hours. Parting the curtains of the mountain cabin, I look down at Kolsay lake.

Clouds swirling in from the West have darkened this dawn. Sharp rain is angling in on the Kolsay, the surface ripples in protest. A bee-keeper trudges up the trail on the other side of the lake, his hives on a yoke on his shoulders. In the high-up valleys, spring will arrive only in October; the bees are being carried to where the wildflowers are to come as soon as snow melts next week, with a promise of bee-loud glades to come in the days after.

The creak-creak of the beekeeper's yoke floats clearly across the Kolsay, for there is no other human sound in this place of snowmelt and wildflowers.

In 1827, a son was born to Pyotr Semenov, an officer in the Tsar's army who occupied several estates in Ryazan (about 200 kms SE of Moscow) and "owned many serfs." This boy, also named Pyotr, was to go on to become one of Russia's eminent explorers and botanists - who devoted many years  exploring these parts of the Tien-Shans, and, who, towards the end of his life, successfully applied to Tsar Nikolas II to formally change his family name to Tien-shanski.

Pyotr Semenov, the future Tien-Shanski, went to university in St. Petersburg and soon found himself in a circle of thinkers led by Mikhail Petrashevsky.  The Petrashevsky Circle was a Russian literary discussion group of progressive commoner-intellectuals, on the lines of French utopian socialists like Charles Fourier (who coined the term feminism.) Among the members were writers, teachers, students, minor government officials, and army officers. While differing in political views, several  were sons of serf-holders opposing Russian serfdom. Among those connected to the circle were the writers Dostoyevsky and Saltykov-Shchedrin, the poets Pleshcheyev, Apollon Maikov, Taras Shevchenko. Semenov was one of the more nationalist-minded of the circle, and as such he was spared the wrath of the Tsar, who saw freethinkers as seeds of insurrection.

The previous generation of Russian nationalist elites had internalized this lesson from Napoleon's invasion - as long as Russia remained inferior in military terms to France, Prussia and Austro-Hungary, it was imperative to retain strategic geographic depth. Napoleon had been defeated chasing the Russian army deeper and deeper into the steppe till winter overcame his supply lines. For Semenov's generation, the Crimean War was to teach another lesson - as long as Russia remained inferior in naval terms to Britain and France, it was imperative to secure free water ports from which counterattacks might be launched in international waters. The Crimean War had been lost because the western navies had bottled up Sebastopol, and Russia's Black Sea fleet had been unable to break free, even as her Baltic fleet remained snow-bound.

The two lessons combined to form a new strategic quest - to colonize Central Asia: both to secure strategic depth and secure east-flowing waterways such as the Amur from Central Asia to the Sea of Japan and on to warm-water ports in Korea.

To this calculus, Russian nationalists added another motive, a version of Russia's mission civilisatrice: that the exploration and study of the 'Russian East' contributed to samopoznanie - Russia's self-discovery - not only geographically as a great Eurasian nation, but also as a civilizing force on the 'Tatars.' Semenov wrote of explorations around the Caspian, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia:

"By all these routes Russia moves forward, as Providence itself has ordained, in the general interest of humanity: the civilizing of Asia."

"Just let the children of [the] West say now that we still stand on a low level of civilization! If this low level is already producing such marvelous fruits for the interests of humanity in general, then we are fully justified in expecting even more from a higher [level of civilization], which will quickly develop in view of the rapid pace characterizing the history of our development."

In 1856, Semenov sets off for Central Asia, passing through the area around the Kolsay on his way to Issyk-Kul.  In the course of the trip he finds that the river Chu doesn’t flow from the lake Issyk-Kul, and thus Issyk-Kul has no drainage. The winter of 1856 Semenov spends in Barnaul, where he classifies his collected material and writes reports to the Russian Geographical Society.

His botanical collection grows: 70 plant species, several (including the Semenov mountain ash, the Semenov fir and the Semenov maple) never described before, hundreds of thousands of specimens of insects (including hundreds named after him.) In Barnaul, Semenov meets Dostoevsky. The summer of 1857 he launches himself anew into the high Tien-Shan. More plant species are discovered, but not a trace of volcanic ash is found. Semenov concludes von Humboldt’s theory of the Tien Shan’s volcanic origin is false; he reclassifies the range as comprising of fold mountains - the Tien Shan was uplifted prior to the Cenozoic Indo-Asia collision, but the intracontinental weakness of Asia's interior has caused further deformation and upliftment in the range after the collision of India into Asia. Semenov studies the natural altitudinal belts of Tien Shan and the level of the ridges’ snow lines; he explores territories of three out of four largest river systems of Central Asia and describes the riparian geology of one of the Tien Shan’s peculiar aspects – differentiation on parallel chains and formation of very long lateral valleys.

At the end of his exploring years, Semenov goes on to become the head of Russian Geographic Society for over 40 years (1873-1914). In 1897 he organizes the first Russian population census. In the year of 50th anniversary of his first trip to Tien Shan, Pyotr Petrovich Semenov applies for, and  is awarded, the title of Tien-Shanski. He presents his vast collection of paintings of Dutch masters to the Hermitage. At his death in 1914, people remember him as saying “Our glory is the glory of Russia."

The wind shifts, the clouds are now scudding in from over China. Rain, sun, rain over the lake, all in one hour. On our hikes we furl and unfurl umbrellas.

The White Cat Toqtamish

In 568 AD, a Sogdian
came to Istami’s Western Turkic Khaganate
from Khosrau the First’s Sassanids, to serve as a guide
to a caravan of traders from Khrurasan.
On the tired banks of the Ili River he saw
a white cat crouching in the color of night
like a patch of snow in Talas, surrounded
by clean meadows and friendly darkness.
He saw several worlds on the white cat’s body
calmly swirling. Arrows, bloodshed,
cries from the slaughtered city all disappeared
in its white whirlpool. After a few moments,
he gave up on Manichaeism.
One thousand four hundred thirty-nine years later,
in the middle of the night, my wife and I
also see a white cat,
about three months old, small but dignified as he strolls
by the dried-up pool of the Weixiu Garden,
like the crown prince of the last dynasty, crossing
time and space in the lamp’s shadow, returning to the old garden
to survey his obscure but noble memories.
He doesn’t avoid our touch, but
won’t respond to our babbled cat-speak; separated
by a leaf, a flower,
the polite night breeze, he concentrates
on taking in the scents of many worlds.
He tries to use his liquid eyes
to tell us something, but in the end
he leaves us like flowing water.
We think he went to the White Horde
of 1382, what we call Toqtamish,
wanting to set out at night
to conquer the Golden Horde and rule over Russia.

                                                                                 - Hu Xudong

Tokhtamysh (Tatar. Tuqtamış, died 1406), descended from Chingis Khan's grandson Tugha-Timur, was the khan of the Blue Horde, who briefly unified the White and Blue Horde divisions of the Golden Horde into a single ulus.


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