Alexander von Humboldt
The father of the modern geography Alexander von Humboldt lived a long life. Long and eventful. He had dreamt of visiting Siberia and Central Asia since his youth, but he set his foot on this inviting part of the Earth when he was already a recognized traveler and explorer, author of the monumental 30-volume work on the Earth science and celebrated researcher of South America.
It happened in 1829, when 60-yeared Humboldt, being an internationally recognized scientist, together with the natural scientist Ehrenberg and the geologist Rose made a big fact-finding tour around Siberia on invitation of the Russian government.
Just at that time the great geographer visited the territory of the modern Kazakhstan, its western and eastern parts, which were merged in the Russian Empire by that time. In the east the expedition traveled to Semipalatinsk, Ridder, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Ziryanovsk, saw Altai mountains, sailed down Irtysh river. In the west it visited Uralsk where they watched a traditional night-time fishing of local Cossacks of Uralsk. And although the key goal of this comfortable expedition was to study nature, perhaps the brightest impression that Humboldt had was that of meeting Kazakhs.
“As bright points and pleasant memories, I should also mention horse races and Kirghiz musical festival in the steppe outside Orenburg”, he wrote in one of his letters. And then added in the other letter: “The big mass of nomads stirs more interest than magnificent rivers and snow-capped mountains. When you look at them, in your mind you are carried away to the past, to the Period of the great Migration”.
And in spring of 1876, one more celebrated German naturalist appeared in the steppe - Alfred Brehm, the author of the zoological bestseller Life of Animals, with his companions. This trip can hardly be called an expedition – it was rather a scientific tourism.
Enchanted with the free life of steppe residents, Brehm would rather watch people than nature. Anyhow, his summary work speaks about it, very modest in point of the science, but very valuable for its descriptions of life of Kazakhs in Semipalatinsk and Semirechensk (Jetisu) oblasts. Here is a typical quotation:
“Awareness of force and agility, dexterity in riding and hunting, poetical ability and brain competence in general, sense of independence and freedom that the vast steppe awakes, makes a Kirghiz look self-confident and dignified. That is why he creates a good impression on a biased observer, particularly when you get to know him closer”.