Sven Anders Hedin

Sven Anders Hedin (1865-1952) was a Swedish explorer and geographer whose investigations in Tibet and western China make him one of the most eminent explorers of Asia.

Sven Hedin was born on Feb. 19, 1865, in Stockholm to professional, middle-class parents. He received his undergraduate education at Uppsala and in 1881-1883 studied at Berlin and Halle. In Germany he became a staunch admirer of Prussian ways and culture and continued so throughout his life. Also, he came under the influence of the distinguished explorer of China, F. P. W. von Richthofen, and decided to devote his career to opening up unexplored areas of the map of Asia.

Hedin's first chance came in 1885, when he became a private tutor in Baku, a post that allowed him to travel in Mesopotamia and Persia. In 1890 he was appointed Sweden's ambassador to Persia and received support from King Oscar II for a trip to the Chinese border. Starting in 1891 from Teheran, he crossed the Khurasan region and Bukhara to Samarkand, reaching Kashgar in Sinkiang.


Early Explorations

Between 1893 and 1932 Hedin led five major expeditions and several lesser ones. The first (1893-1897) started from Orenburg, crossed the Ural and Pamir mountains, went over the Takla Maklan Desert twice, the second trip nearly proving fatal, and reached Lop Nor, the great salt lake of the ancient Chinese geographers. From kashgar he visited the Pamirs again and then made his first entry into Tibet. After returning to Khotan, he followed the Tarim River to Lop Nor, crossed Inner Mongolia, and arrived at Peking. He had covered 6,300 miles in 1,300 days.

On the second journey (1899-1902) Hedin followed the Tarim River, crossed the desert, visited Lop Nor, and discovered the ruins of the archeologically important ancient city Loulan. The Lama turned the expedition back before they reach Lhasa, and they had to cross the Karakoram Range to kashgar in order to return to Europe. The main achievement was to study the mystery of the "wandering" lake, Lop Nor. It had been visited first by Nikolai Przhevalsky and later by four other expeditions before Hedin offered his solution, now accepted, that the ancient lake had not changed its location but had dried up and been replaced by new, small lakes.

On Hedin's greatest journey (1906-1908) he crossed Persia and Afghanistan, entered Tibet, and identified the true sources of the Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra rivers. He discovered and mapped the Transhimalayan Mountains, crossing the range eight times and overcoming formidable obstacles of winter weather, mountain passes never crossed before, and hostile local tribesmen, who kept Hedin prisoner for a time.

Travel was not easy during World War I, but Hedin did make short trips in the Middle East. His vigorous support of the German cause lost him the confidence of the governments of India, Russia, and China and hampered his exploration for some years.


Last Travels

Hedin's fourth journey (1923-1924) was a trip around the world, through the United States, Mongolia, and the Soviet Union.

Hedin's last big expedition (1928-1932) was a joint Swedish-Chinese-German effort. It made surveys in Mongolia, western kansu, Sinkiang, and the Gobi Desert, making extensive use of motor vehicles. His last trip (1934, aged 69) was to retrace some of the old silk-caravan routes in China.

After 1934 Hedin ceased traveling in order to write. He also became involved politically in support of Germany and in 1944 traveled to Munich to receive an honorary doctorate. During his lifetime Hedin was recognized as a great explorer. He was given their highest awards by leading geographical societies; made a Swedish noble (1902); elected one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy; and knighted by India (1909).

Hedin's style of travel was to rely on small parties assisted by well-chosen natives. He had great physical strength and moral courage, with the originality to recognize great problems and the ingenuity to solve them. He never married, and he died in Stockholm on Nov. 26, 1952.


Further Reading on Sven Anders Hedin

Hedin's autobiography is My Life as an Explorer (1925). A biographical study of Hedin appears in John L. Cook, Six Great Travellers: Smith, Anson, Stanhope, Stanley, Fawcett, Hedin (1960). Charles E. Key, The Story of Twentieth-Century Exploration (1938), has a section of Hedin's Tibetan adventures.

Additional Biography Sources

Hedin, Sven Anders, My life as an explorer, Hong Kong; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Hedin, Sven Anders, Sven Hedin as artist: for the centenary of Sven Hedin's birth, Stockholm: Sven Hedins Stiftelse: Statens Etnografiska Museum, 1964.

Hedin, Sven Anders, Trans-Himalaya; discoveries and adventures in Tibet, New York, Greenwood Press 1968.

Kish, George, To the heart of Asia: the life of Sven Hedin, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.