Przhevalsky, Nikolay Mikhaylovich

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(b.Kimbarovo, Smolensk guberniya, Russia, 12 April 1839; d. Karakol [now Przhevalsk], Russia, 1 November 1888)

geography, natural science.

Przhevalsky studied at the Smolensk Gymnasium from 1849 to 1855 before entering the army as a cadet. From 1861 to 1863 he studied at the General Staff Academy in St. Petersburg; his graduation thesis, Voeimo-statistkheskoe ohozrenie Priamurskogo kraya (“A Military-Statistical Survey of the Amur Region,” 1862) attracted the attention of the Russian Geographical Society. Commissioned a lieutenant upon graduation, he was appointed in 1864 to the Warsaw Military School, where he taught history and geography. While in Warsaw he also gave public lectures on the history of geographical discoveries and published a textbook on general geography (1867). In it he divided geography into physical and political geography; the former he considered as the science of the phenomena and processes of the three spheres of the earth’s surface: lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. To prepare himself for travel he studied the works of Humboldt and Karl Ritter on Asia, mastered avian taxidermy, and acquired a sound knowledge of plants.

At the end of 1866 Przhevalsky was assigned to eastern Siberia; and the following May he was sent by the Russian Geographical Society to the Ussuri region, where he remained until 1869 studying the area and correcting existing maps. In exploring the southern part of the Maritime Territory, he traveled by foot and boat along the Ussuri River and its tributaries, visited Lake Khanka, reached the Sea of Japan, and explored the Poseta and Amur bays, from which he went on foot along the shore to the Gulf of Olga and the lower reaches of the Tadusha River. Returning to the Ussuri he crossed the Sikhote-Alin mountain range. In his account of the expedition (1870) Przhevalsky described in detail the natural history, climate, and population of the area. He amassed a collection of great scientific interest, comprising 310 bird specimens, about 2,000 plants, 552 eggs of 42 bird species, and seeds of 83 plant species.

In 1870 the Russian Geographical Society sent Przhevalsky to Mongolia and northern China on a three-year expedition that covered about 12,000 kilometers. Setting out from Irkutsk, he passed through Kyakhta, Urga (now Ulan Bator), and Kalgan (Changkiakow) and visited Peking. From there he traveled to Lake Dalai Nor (Hulun Nor) in the north. He then explored the Ordos, the valley of the Yellow River, and the desert and mountains of Ala Shan, stopping at Lake Kuku Nor before reaching the upper Yangtze-T’ien-shui. On the return journey from Ala Shan to Urga the expedition crossed the eastern Gobi. The published results of the expedition (1875— 1876) brought Przhevalsky an international reputation as an authority on Asia and attracted worldwide scientific attention.

Przhevalsky’s second journey to central Asia (1876-1877)—to Lob Nor—began from Kuldja. Traveling along the valleys of the Hi and Tarima rivers to Lake Lob Nor and the Astin Tagh Mountains, the expedition returned to Kuldja after having explored Dzungaria. Przhevalsky intended to travel to Lhasa across Khama and Tsaidam, but illness prevented him from continuing and he returned to Zaisan. After having recovered he was ordered to postpone the expedition because of deteriorating relations with China. Przhevalsky wrote that although the ultimate purpose of the expedition, to reach Lhasa, was not achieved, the trip yielded rich results in both physical geography and natural history. One of the most important was the discovery and description of Lake Lob Nor, which, it later became clear, had changed position because of the migration of the channels that fed it. Przhevalsky described in detail his studies and discoveries (1877) and was subsequently elected an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

In the spring of 1879 Przhevalsky embarked on his first Tibetan expedition, which lasted until the late autumn of 1880. He went on foot across Dzungaria, the western part of the Nan Shan (Kunlun) system, the eastern Tsaidam, the upper reaches of the Yangtze-T’ien-shui, and a series of mountain ranges to central Tibet. On the return journey the expedition again explored the upper Yangtze-Tien-shui, the Yellow River, and Lake Kuku Nor, before returning by caravan road across Urga into Kyakhta. Przhevalsky’s skilled and original description of the trip (1883) confirmed his reputation as one of the most distinguished explorers of central Asia.

As leader of the second Tibetan expedition (1883-1885) Przhevalsky paid special attention to the sources of the Yellow River on the borders of northern Tibet and Kozhgaria. The expedition discovered an entire mountain area that included the Tsaidam, Marco-Polo, Zagadochnaya (now Przhevalsky), Russian, and Moscovite ranges. After his return, Przhevalsky immediately began to prepare the results of the expedition for publication (1888).

In October 1888 Przhevalsky was in the foothills of the Tien Shan, at Lake Issyk Kul; Karakola (now Przhevalsk) had been chosen as the starting point for the expedition. But the indefatigable explorer was soon dead of typhus, contracted by drinking water from a river. Following his request, he was buried on the banks of Lake Issyk Kul, and the exploration was continued under the leadership of M. V. Pevtsov.

Przhevalsky was influenced by Humboldt and shared his ideas on the universal interrelationship of natural phenomena and process. Considering his main task to be the study of nature, he made many original contributions to the study of the orography and hydrography, climate, vegetation, and fauna of central Asia. By providing scientific analysis that explained many natural phenomena of the region, his expeditions made it possible to solve problems that were confronting scientists throughout the world. His research was based on compiling maps and describing characteristic landscapes and entire physicogeographi-cal areas, such as the Gobi, Ordos, Ala Shan, and northern Tibet. He asserted that the Gobi Desert is concave—not convex, as scientists had believed. As a result of his research the northern border of the Tibetan upland was shifted 300 kilometers to the north.

Przhevalsky showed the error of the widely held belief that the mountain systems of central Asia had a lattice structure and ascertained that the mountain ranges lay in a primarily east-west direction. He was the first to visit and describe the mountainous regions of Nan Shan (Kunlun), and he discovered the Burkhan-buda, Humboldt, Ritter, Marco-Polo, Columbus, Zagadochnaya, Moscovite, and Tsaidam ranges. His orographical and hydrographical diagrams provided the foundation for present ideas on the directions of the main mountain ranges and river networks and on their interrelationships.

Przhevalsky amassed an impressive herbarium of more than 15,000 plants (1,700 species), including 218 new species and seven new genera. His zoological collection consisted of 702 specimens of small mammals, 5,010 birds, l,200 reptiles and amphibians, and 643 specimens of fish. He discovered and described a wild camel and a wild horse, now named after him, and studied the growth conditions of plants and the habitats and habits of animals.

His meteorological observations provided the first basis for a climatology of central Asia. He obtained empirical data on maxim and minima and amplitudes of variation of temperature and winds in the Gobi Desert and northern Tibet; and by describing certain regularities of atmospheric processes he increased knowledge of the atmospheric circulation patterns. He also pointed out the influence of Indian and Chinese monsoons and western winds on the climate of central Asia.

Although he did not conduct systematic geological research, Przhevalsky collected rock samples, described the composition of mountain-forming rocks, and studied the topography and the activity of the exogenous factors that alter the contours of the earth’s surface. His conclusions on the acolian origin of the Kuzupchi Hills in Or Dos are especially interesting.

The results of Przhevalsky’s scientific expeditions were prepared for publication after his death by members of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and the Russian Geographical Society. Six volumes on the zoology, botany, and meteorology of central Asia, based on the accounts of his travels, appeared between 1888 and 1912.

Przhevalsky was the founder of a school of Russian explorer-researchers of Central Asia through whose work the nature of the region was relatively well known by the end of the nineteenth century. He received gold and silver medals from many Russian and foreign scientific societies and academies. In 1891 the Russian Geographical Society established to be awarded by the Geographical Society of the U.S.S.R.


I. Original Works. Przhevalsky’s writings include Zapiski vseobshchey geografii (“Notes on General Geography” Warsaw, 1867; 2nd ed., 1870); Puteshestvie v Ussuryskom kraen 1867-1869 (“Journey to the Ussuri Region;” St. Petersburg, 1870; 2nd ed., moscow, 1947; 2nd ed., repr. Vladivostok, 1949); Mongolia i strana tangutov (“Mongolia and the Land of the Tanguts”) 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1875-1876; 2nd ed., vol. I. Moscow, 1946); “Ot Kuldzhi za Tyan-Shan i na Lobnor” (“From Kuldja Past the Tien Shan to Lob Nor”), Izvestiya Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva, 13 , no.5 (1877), also repr. separataley (Moscow, 1947); Iz Zaysana cherez Khami i Tibet i na verkhovya Zheltoy reki (“From Zaisan Across the Khama to Tibet and the Upper Reaches of the Yellow River” St. Petersburg, 1883; 2nd ed., Moscow 1948); “Avtobiograficheskie zapiski N.M.Przhevaskogo” (“Autobiographical Notes…”), Russkaya starina (1888), no. 11; Ot Kyakhty na istoki Zheltoy reki. Issledovania severnoy okrainy Tibeta i put cherez Lobnor po basseynu Tarima (“From Kyakhta to the Sources of the Yellow River. Research on the Northern Border Regions of Tibet and the Route Across Lob Nor Along the Basin of the Tarim” St. Petersburg, 1888; 2nd ed., Moscow, 1948).

Additional works are Nauchnye rezultaty puteshestvy N. M. Przhevalsky’s po Tsentralnoy Azii (“Scientific Results of N. M. Przhevalsky’s Travels Through Central Asia”), zoological sec., 3 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1888-1912), edited by E. Vikhner, V. Zelensky, et al.; botanical sec., 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1889-1895): edited by K. Maksimovich: meteorological sec. edited by A. I. Voeykov; and “Stati, dnevniki, pisma” (“Articals, Diaries, Letters”), in Izvestiya Vsesoyuznogo goegraficheskogo obshchestva, 72 , nos. 4-5 (1940), 469-640.

II. Secondary Literature. See D. N. Anuchin, “N. M. Przhevalsky,” in O lyudyakh russkoy nauki i kultury (“People of Russian Science and Culture” Moscow, 1950), 65-89; N. F. Dubravin, Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky (St. Petersburg, 1890); V. A. Esakov, “Izperepiski M. I. Venyukova s N. M. Przhevalskim” (“From the Correspondence of … Venyukov and … Przhevalky”), in Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniya i tekhniki1 (1956), 207-212; M. G. Kadek, “N. M. Przhevalsky,” in Lyudi russkoy nauki (“People of Russian Science”), I (Moscow-Leningard, 1948), 569-578; N. M. Karataev, N. M. Przhevalsky—pervy issledovatel prirody Tsentralnoy Azii (“… First Investigator of the Nature of Central Asia”; Moscow-Leningard, 1948); S. I. Khmelnitsky, N. M. Przhevalsky. 1839-1888 (Leningard, 1950); P. K. Kozlov, Veliky russky puteshestvennik N. M. Przhevalsky (“The Great Russian Traveler …” Leningard, 1929); and E. M. Muzaev, N. M. Przhevalsky (Moscow, 1952; 2nd ed., Moscow, 1953).

See also V. A. Obruchev, “N. M. Przhevalsky kak puteshestvennik i issledovatel Tsentralnoy Azii” (“…Przhevalsky as Traveler and Investigator of Central Asia”), in Vestnik Akademii nauk SSSR (29390, no. 6, 71-77; Pamyati Nikolaya Mikhaylovicha Przhevalskogo (“Memories of … Przhevalsky” St. Petersburg, 1890); P. P. Semenov, Istoria poluvekovoy deyatelnosti Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva (“History of a Half-century of Activity of the Russian Geographical Society”), pt. 2 (st. Petersburg, 1896); P.P. Semenov et al., “Rechi, proiznesennye na chrzevychaynom sobranii imp. Russkogo geografisheskogo obshchestva 9 noyabrya 1888 g., posvyashchennye pamyati N. M. Przhevalsky” (“Speeches Given at the Extraordinary meeting of the Imperial Russian Goegraphical Society, 9 November 1888, Dedicated to the Memory of N. M. Przhevalsky”), in Izvestiya Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva, 24 , no. 4 (1888), 233-272; M. Shokalsky, L. S. Berg, et al., “Pamyati N. M. Przhevalsky” (Recollections of Przhevalsky”), ibid., 72 , no. 4-5 (1940); V. V. Potemkin, ed., Veliky russky geograf Przhevalsky. K stoletiyu so dnya rozhdenia 1839-1939 gg. (“The Great Russian Geographer Przhevalsky. on the Centenary of his Birth…” Moscow, 1939), a collection of articles with a bibliography; and A. V. Zelenin, Puteshestvuia N. M. Przhevalskogo (“The Travels of N. M. Przhevalsky”), 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1899-1900).

Vasiliy A. Esakov

Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky

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Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky

Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky (1839-1888) was a Russian general and traveler whose explorations were major contributions to the geography of central Asia.

Of Polish descent, Nikolai Przhevalsky was born on March 31, 1839, in Kimbory in the Smolensk district. His education was at the gymnasium in Smolensk. His military career started in 1855 with an appointment as a subaltern in an infantry regiment. In 1855 he was appointed as an officer, and in 1860 he entered the academy of the general staff. From 1864 to 1866 he taught geography at the military school in Warsaw. In 1867 he became a general officer and was assigned to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal.

Przhevalsky's first serious exploration was of the valley of the Ussuri River from its source at Lake Khanka in eastern Manchuria to its junction with the Amur River, with particular emphasis on the highlands of the Ussuri River and the foothills of the Sikhote Alin Range. The Vladivostok leg of the Trans-Siberian railway was laid out along this route.

Przhevalsky made five major expeditions. The first lasted from November 1870 to September 1873. With three men he set out from Kyakhta, south of Lake Baikal, traveled through Urga (Ulan Bator), crossed the Gobi Desert, and reached Kalgan, 100 miles northwest of Peking. On the return he explored the Ordos Plateau to the Ala Shan Range and Koko Nor and mapped parts of the upper Hwang Ho and the upper Yangtze. Finally he penetrated Tibet and reached the Drechu River.

The main objective of the second expedition (1877-1878) was to reach Lhasa through east Turkistan. Starting from Kuldja (44°N, 82°E), Przhevalsky went by way of the Tien Shan Range and Takla Makan Desert, traveling 200 miles along the foot of the Astin (Altyn) Tagh Range. He claimed to have rediscovered the great salt lake of the Chinese classical writers, Lop Nor, in the desert at 41°N, 91°E. This was one of the most interesting, yet controversial, of all his discoveries. Von Richthofen disputed the claim on the grounds that the lake was of fresh, not salt, water and that it was too far south. Sven Hedin, in two visits to Lop Nor (1895, 1900), established that Przhevalsky's lake shifts west as a result of wind and sandstorms. Hedin also found a dried salt basin, presumably the old original Lop Nor, and a number of lakes of recent origin. Kozlov dated some of these from 1750, thus agreeing with Hedin.

The third expedition tried to reach Lhasa (1879-1880). Setting out from Lake Zaysan near the northern border of Sinkiang, Przhevalsky crossed the Dzungaria region to Hami (43°N, 93°E). Thence he went south over the Astin Tagh Range and penetrated the Tsaidam swamp and the great valley of the Kyaring Tso. Reaching Nagchu Dzong, 170 miles north of Lhasa, he was turned back by order of the Lama. He went northeast, reached the upper Hwang Ho, and crossed the Gobi Desert to Kyakhta (51°N, 47°E).

Przhevalsky's fourth journey was in the mountains between Mongolia and Tibet (1883-1885). Starting from Urga, he crossed the Gobi Desert to Koko Nor and the Tsaidam region and thence to the Astin Tagh and the Shan Kunlun. He revisited Lop Nor and confirmed his previous findings of 1878 on this interesting region. He returned to Siberia by crossing the Tien Shan to Issyk Kul, a lake on the west border of Sinkiang.

Przhevalsky's fifth and final expedition was toward Lhasa (1888), a goal he always held but never reached. On Nov. 1, 1888, Przhevalsky died at Karakol on Issyk Kul. As a monument, a large cross was set up, and as a memorial, the town of Karakol was renamed Przhevalsk.

This explorer's success depended upon small parties, moving fast. For the first expedition he chose three Cossacks. In the fourth expedition, they logged some 15, 000 miles in 3 years, a tribute to their physical strength and resourcefulness in coping with severe environments, difficult terrain, and delicate relations with sometimes hostile natives.

Further Reading

Gerald Roe Crone, ed., The Explorers: Great Adventurers Tell Their Own Stories of Discovery (1962), has a short discussion of Przhevalsky and a selection of his writings. His career is briefly recounted in Percy Sykes, A History of Exploration: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1934; 3d ed. 1949), and Joachim G. Leithaüser, Worlds beyond the Horizon (trans. 1955).

Additional Sources

Rayfield, Donald, The dream of Lhasa: the life of Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-88) explorer of Central Asia, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976. □

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