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 on Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky

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 Biography Sources

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