Nikolay Przhevalsky was a Russian explorer who contributed significantly to European knowledge of Central Asia. Even though he was unable to reach his ultimate goal, the holy city of Lhasa in Tibet, he successfully explored many areas in Northern Tibet, including many places hitherto unknown to the Western world. With the help of his meticulously drafted route surveys and vast plants and animals collections, he greatly enriched the geographic knowledge of east-central Asia in the European nations. Born into a noble family in Russian Empire, he studied at the military academy in St. Petersburg following which he became a geography teacher at the Warsaw Military School. His love for geography was so intense that he also gave public lectures on the history of geographical discoveries. Determined to explore the world, he successfully petitioned the Russian Geographical Society to send him on an expedition to Irkutsk, in central Siberia. His first expedition was immensely successful following which the Russian Geographical Society sent Przhevalsky to Mongolia and northern China on a three-year expedition. He explored many areas then unknown to the West and was determined to reach the holy city of Lhasa in Tibet, a feat he could not accomplish. He fell ill and died of typhus in 1888 after he drank contaminated water from a river.
Childhood & Early Life
Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky was born on April 12, 1839, in Kimborovo, Smolensk Governorate, Russian Empire, into a noble polonized Belarusian family.
He received his education at the gymnasium in Smolensk from 1849 to 1855 and later attended the General Staff Academy in St. Petersburg from 1861 to 1863. His graduation thesis was ‘Voeimo-statistkheskoe ohozrenie Priamurskogo kraya’ (“A Military-Statistical Survey of the Amur Region,” 1862).
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Upon his graduation, he was commissioned a lieutenant and appointed as a teacher at the Warsaw Military School in 1864, where he taught history and geography. During this time he also gave public lectures on the history of geographical discoveries and published a textbook on general geography (1867).
He had a very deep interest in travelling and petitioned the Russian Geographical Society to send him to Irkutsk, in central Siberia. He aimed to explore the basin of the Ussuri River, a major tributary of the Amur on the Russian-Chinese frontier.
This would be his first major expedition and he prepared himself by studying the works of Humboldt and Karl Ritter on Asia, and acquired considerable knowledge on plants and avian taxidermy. The expedition lasted two years from 1867-69. On his return, he published a memoir ‘Travels in the Ussuri Region, 1867-69’.
He gave a detailed account of the expedition in his records and had amassed a collection of 310 bird specimens, about 2,000 plants, 552 eggs of 42 bird species, and seeds of 83 plant species.
Impressed by his expedition to the Ussuri Region, the Russian Geographical Society sent Przhevalsky to Mongolia and northern China on a three-year expedition, starting in 1870. On this journey, he traveled through to Urga (now Ulaanbaatar), Mongolia, and crossed the Gobi to reach Kalgan (Zhangjiakou), China.
On this trip, he collected and brought back 5000 plants, 1000 birds and 3000 insect species, as well as 70 reptiles and the skins of 130 different mammals. The memoirs of this expedition were published in 1875-76 which brought Przhevalsky international acclaim as an explorer.
Following this expedition, he was promoted to lieutenant-general and appointed to the Tsar's General Staff. He embarked on yet another trip in 1876, starting from Kuldja in westernmost Xinjiang province, China, and travelling southeastward across the peaks of the Tien Shan. On this journey, he visited what he believed to be Qinghai Lake, which had reportedly not been visited by any European since Marco Polo.
He attempted to reach the holy city of Lhasa in Tibet but was not able to do so in any of his journeys. On his 1879-80 trip, he was able to enter Tibet and proceeded to within 260 km (160 mi) of Lhasa before being turned back by Tibetan officials.
Even though he could not reach Lhasa, his extensive trips greatly enriched the European knowledge of Central Asia. His studies and specimens of the flora and fauna of the regions he visited were of immense scientific importance. He was also the first known European to describe the only extant species of wild horse, which is named after him: Przewalski's horse.
Following his untimely death in 1888, the results of his scientific expeditions were prepared for publication by members of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and the Russian Geographical Society. Six volumes of scientific text, based on the accounts of his travels, were published between 1888 and 1912.
Awards & Achievements
Przehevalsky was awarded the Constantine Medal by the Imperial Geographical Society after his first expedition to Central Asia in the early 1870s.
In 1879, the Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Founder's Gold Medal in recognition of his achievements.
He was honored with the Vega Medal in 1884.
Personal Life & Legacy
Nikolay Przhevalsky had a relationship with Tasya Nuromskaya, whom he met in Smolensk. She died of sunstroke while Przhevalsky was on an expedition.
There was also another woman in his life, a mysterious young lady whose portrait, along with a fragment of poetry, was found in his album. There have also been claims that Przhevalsky was a homosexual who might have had relationships with his young male assistants.
In 1888, he was planning for another expedition with the aim of reaching Lhasa. However, he fell ill with typhus after drinking water from a contaminated river and died on 1 November 1888, at the age of 49.