Nikolai Przhevalsky

Nikolai Przhevalsky
(1839 - 1888)

Przhevalsky is known as the man after whom the breed of horses was named. Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky was born in Smolensk in 1939 into a noble Polish family (the original, Polish name is Przewalski). He is not a Kyrgyz person but he won the trust of the locals and is revered by still by the people especially in the Issyk Kul area. He studied in Smolensk and at the military academy in St. Petersburg prior spending a period as a geography teacher at the Warsaw Military School in 1864. His first exploratory trip to Asia was sponsored by the Russian Geographical Society in 1867, when he was sent to Irkutsk and Siberia to investigate the highlands of the Ussuri River. It opened the door to the next trips to the inner Asia, leading geographical exploration of a region which was unknown to the west. 

In total Przhevalsky made four journeys across Asia, visiting Gobi Desert to Peking, region of Chinese Turkestan and Lake Lop Nor and China’s Qaidam basin. Such extensive explorations had at the time more military goals than geographical but they also served as scientific explorations. Przhevalsky’s main obsession was to reach Lhasa, the mysterious and forbidden capital of Tibet. However, he never made it due to the illness during his last journey. 

Despite, his military sponsored journeys, Przhevalsky made many zoological discoveries within this journeys, for instance discovering native species of horse and gazelle which were subsequently named after him as the “Przhevalsky horse” and “Przhevalsky gazelle. He contributed significantly to European knowledge of Central Asia and was the first known European to describe the only extant species. The outcomes of these expanded journeys started a new era for the study of Central Asian geography and studies of the fauna and flora of this extensive region. Among other things, he reported on the wild population of Bactrian camels. 

Przhevalsky died of typhus before the beginning of his fifth journey at Karakol on the shore of Issyk Kul. He got typhoid from the Chu River, which was acknowledged as being infected with the disease. To honor the explorer, the Tsar quickly changed the name of the town to Przhevalsky (current Karakol). There are monuments to him near Karakol with a museum about his life and work. There is also another monument for his memory in St. Petersburg.

Page updated 17.1.2021

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