You will go straight – you will lose your wife

Traveling these days is mostly a way to relax and have fun. But not so long ago, they were associated with hardships, uncertainty and serious risk. Going to distant lands, one should be prepared to literally lose one’s life. If not your own, then someone close to you. However, this did not stop scientists greedy for research, as well as those close to them who shared their passion.

Time to go

Grigory Potanin was impatient to set off again. He has already made two Mongolian expeditions and one Sino-Tibetan, but I would like to repeat the last one, too much was left unexplored there. In order to quickly prepare a report on previous trips, the scientist even left the post of head of the East Siberian Department of the Geographical Society, which he received at the end of his last trip in 1886.

The work in Irkutsk was interesting, we managed to do a lot, but it slowed down the processing of the collected materials and writing the report. In 1890, having handed over his affairs, Potanin and his wife moved to St. Petersburg, where in just a year he prepared a work on which he had been working unsuccessfully for four years. It was possible to apply to the Russian Geographical Society with a request for another expedition to China.

The traveler’s initiative was readily supported – the data he brought turned out to be extremely valuable, but the eastern outskirts of Tibet still required study. It was also worth paying attention to the Chinese province of Sichuan. The Geographical Society agreed to allocate part of the funds, the other part was covered by the Irkutsk industrialist and philanthropist Alexander Sibiryakov.

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The company for the expedition was glorious. So, in addition to the Potanins, the zoologist and ethnographer Mikhail Berezovsky, who had already been on two trips with them, went to explore the Asian lands. The talented self-taught Buda Rabdanov, who managed to master Chinese and Tibetan on his own, found himself on a trip as a translator from Mongolian. He wanted to study the eastern countries better and refused any remuneration for his work. Another participant was the geologist Vladimir Obruchev, who later became famous as the author of Sannikov Land and other novels.

On October 30, 1892, the comrades-in-arms left Kyakhta and headed along the postal route to Kalgan.

The hardships of the way

Travel conditions were far from comfortable. The Potanins’ spouses rode in a wagon, which was a large closed box with a tiny window, perched on a two-wheeled axle. I had to sit on a pillow with my legs stretched out.

“The horses were harnessed to the cart in an original way: a crossbar was attached to the front ends of the shaft, which two riders put on their saddles and thus raced this primitive carriage, regardless of bumps or stones on the road. <...> So I had to trot or jump from station to station; sometimes it seemed to the passengers that they were put in a barrel and lowered down the slope. At the stations it was possible to take a break from the shaking while the riders were changing.<…> Travelers put up with the shaking and forgave the drivers when, because of them sharp movements, they happened to hit each other with their foreheads or bite their tongues, hitting their heads on the ceiling of the wagon.

Vladimir Obruchev “Grigory Nikolaevich Potanin. Life and work”

The wagon drivers served as the main entertainment on the road. While driving through the desert, there was not much to see, so the travelers watched the cheerful young guides. Among them were not only men, but also girls. As Obruchev later recalled, “it all made noise, screamed and squealed. The youth cracked jokes, burst into loud laughter. It was fun to look at the flushed faces, cut with smiles from ear to ear. The movements of the riders were full of expression. Potanin regretted that he did not own a pencil and could not sketch any pose galloping Mongol”.

We stayed overnight in yurts, dined on mutton and local tea with milk and salt, slept on felt spread on the floor. We got to Kalgan in two weeks – this segment of the path did not require observations, since it had already been described in detail. Also quickly moved to Beijing. In the capital, however, I had to stay for a month – it was necessary to obtain passports, purchase provisions and local clothes. Alexandra Potanina did not feel well, showed signs of heart disease. However, despite the fact that doctors strongly advised her to stay in Beijing, she was determined to go further with her husband.

On December 16, they finally moved towards the city of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. Here, too, nothing was required to be explored, so in the morning they got up after dark and raced until nine in the evening, so that after a short rest they would continue the journey again. “They did not take the Chinese convoy, and this saved the crowd of curious people on the streets, as happened on the previous trip, Obruchev later noted. — Chinese soldiers always ran ahead and alerted the population: “Overseas devils are coming, go out into the street to watch them.”.

The journey took over a month. Without delay, we went to the next destination – the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. To get to it, I had to travel 1100 km through the mountains. Travelers hired mules, who also carried luggage, while the Potanins traveled on a stretcher. Ruined peasants, who walked in rags, contracted for such hellish work, so that when the head of the expedition first saw those who came to be hired, he was horrified. However, this method of transportation was much calmer than riding in local carts: the porters moved at a quick pace, without getting lost or stopping, doing about 6 km per hour. But even here it was not without stress.

“Five days later, the road turned into the mountains and went along the slope of a large valley, where it was sometimes carved with a cornice in the rock, and on the ascents and descents it was lined with slabs in the form of stairs. <...> Sometimes, when the road went high up a steep slope, in stretchers became terrifying, especially if they came across oncoming bundled mules – it seemed that the mule was about to touch the stretcher with its load and push them down, where the river was seething in the depths. In such places, Alexandra Viktorovna sometimes asked the porters to stop and let her get off, but they did not paid attention to her requests and cheerfully ran forward.

Vladimir Obruchev “Grigory Nikolaevich Potanin. Life and work”

The pass to the basin of the Han River, which flows into the Yangtze, was the steepest. Having looked at a series of stairs laid out with large slabs, zigzagging upwards, the Potanins decided to go on foot.

local customs

The New Year was celebrated at an inn in a small mountain village. The hosts congratulated the travelers, treating them to meat dishes and sweet biscuits. It was possible to relax during the day, watching how the locals cook and eat festive dishes, launch lanterns and fireworks, and play. But the next morning, the researchers moved on.

Again ladders, mountains, passes, valleys with wide spreading rice fields. Finally, we stopped in Yazhou. From there, Grigory Potanin went to the sacred Mount Emeishan.

“On the way there, one often came across “o-mi-to-fo” – stone pillars with statues of a human head, placed along the roads. These, apparently, are spirits – the patrons of roads. A purse with some kind of another had glasses cut out of paper put on his eyes, and the third had blackened lips from the oil that fans or petitioners smeared on them.Potanin, together with Rabdanov, made part of this journey on a bamboo raft, on which 20 coffins of white wood were fused and a few passengers down the Ya River.”

Vladimir Obruchev “Grigory Nikolaevich Potanin. Life and work”

The 3300 m high mountain was considered sacred, because sometimes false suns could be seen above it – iridescent halos framing the rising star. The locals were sure that it was the Buddha himself in a halo of glory. It is not surprising that the whole mountain was densely crowded with shrines and monasteries, more than half of which were visited by researchers. Here it was already necessary to climb on foot, without mules and stretchers.

“This walking is not so easy. You need to climb about 50 miles on stone steps, in places climbing as if on a bell tower … a stone ladder climbs high ridged rocks or slopes, so that at the slightest slip there is a constant danger of flying God knows where, into a bottomless abyss”– said Buda Rabdanov in a letter to Gombozhab Tsybikov.

In one of the shrines, travelers were lucky enough to get to the night service. The monks, with their hands folded, walked along a certain trajectory and read a prayer “for the human race.” This made such an impression on the believing Buddhist Rabdanov that he involuntarily joined the monks in their movements, “walked like them, with his palms folded over his head, and sang “oh-mi-to-fo””.

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heart beat

From Yazhou through two high passes we reached the city of Dajiang on the outskirts of Tibet, where we spent three months. The Tibetan inn amazed travelers with real glass in window frames – in China they were sealed with paper. An intriguing inscription in Russian was carved on one glass: “Princess Yusupova.”

Grigory Potanin planned to travel lightly from the city deep into Tibet, visit Litang and Batang. Alas, his wife’s illness worsened, the matter was no longer limited to heart attacks. Alexandra had a stroke, after which she lost the ability to speak for some time. The head of the expedition hurriedly made his way back. Slowly, Alexandra Potanina began to recover, she could not leave, but she painted with oil with pleasure – the flowers that her husband brought her, the surrounding landscapes along the banks of the local stormy river. Finally, she recovered enough to start on the road.

Wanting to collect more material, Grigory Potanin sent his wife and accompanying people to Beijing by a direct route through Yazhou, while he himself went there on foot through the outskirts of Tibet. Traveling through the valleys of mountain rivers, he stopped either in local villages, or in a plague on the ground with rhubarb pickers, or even in an impromptu apiary.

“In one of the villages, Potanin was given such an upper floor, which was turned into a bee house by the owner of the house – decks with bees stood on a flat roof. Not knowing this, the travelers sat on the decks and were attacked by bees that climbed into sleeves under linen and sting. the rooms of the mezzanine brought juniper and set up a smokestack to drive the bees at least out of the rooms, but a lot of them flew into the plants brought by the travelers, and from the smoke they went crazy and, having stopped flying, crawled everywhere, circled and crawled on people. floor”.

Vladimir Obruchev “Grigory Nikolaevich Potanin. Life and work”

On August 6, Potanin overtook his wife, and then they rode together. The conditions of the path left much to be desired, and now and then we had to overcome the passes. Buda Rabdanov wrote to Tsybikov: “It turns out that we have now fallen into such a gorge that neither back nor forward nor to the sides. There are snowy mountains all around. It will be difficult for our patient … “

Alas, Alexandra Potanina’s heart gave out. The blow was repeated, the woman was paralyzed, her tongue was taken away again. It was necessary to urgently get to one of the cities where one could find European doctors. In order to save time and not disturb the patient with shaking, they hired a boat to go down the river to the city of Chongqing, where there was a hospital. But they did not have time – on September 19, 1893, Alexandra Potanina died. Her body was taken to Kyakhta, where she was buried on January 23, 1894.

Grigory Potanin took the death of his wife very hard. She was his reliable friend and faithful travel assistant, one of the first women to become a member of the Russian Geographical Society. The expedition ended, Potanin returned to St. Petersburg, prepared a short report on its results and focused mainly on ethnographic work.

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But a few years later, the craving for Asia again did its job, and the scientist went on another trip – to the northeast of China. So the expedition, which, it would seem, did not bring any special discoveries, became the prologue for the following research. In each of them, Russian travelers reached places hitherto unknown to Europeans. From each brought new information on geography, geology, zoology, ethnography. Even from the one that had to be hurriedly rolled up.

Olga Ladygina

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