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Central Asia: Early Travelers -- Sven Hedin, A Lifetime Of Exploring (Part 2)

  • Charles Carlson

Despite the Franciscan missions to the Mongols in the 13th century and the voyages of Marco Polo, Central Asia was to a very large extent still unknown as late as the middle of the 19th century. Only in the last quarter of the 19th century did geographical exploration of Central Asia really begin, chiefly by Russians but also by European geographers such as Sven Hedin.

Prague, 28 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sven Hedin was born in Stockholm in 1865. At an early age he became fascinated with the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Jules Verne and the exploits of Livingstone. At the age of 12, Sven Hedin decided he would pursue the life of an adventurer.

Between 1893 and 1935, Hedin made four expeditions to Central Asia during which he compiled maps of the Pamirs, Taklamakan, Tibet, and Trans-Himalaya. Those maps eventually proved of significant help in interpreting satellite photographs of the region. "The whole of Asia was open before me," he wrote in his book "My Life as an Explorer."

Professor Daniel Waugh is a specialist on medieval Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus at the University of Washington in Seattle. He spoke to RFE/RL about Hedin's mapping skills: "I think he is most important as a physical geographer, which is what his training was. That is, he did very extensive mapping. He always made a point of going to areas where people -- Europeans, that is -- had not previously been. His mapping skills -- which he developed, basically, I think, without a huge amount of formal training -- really became quite extraordinary."

In one expedition, Hedin traveled across Russian Central Asia, crossing the Pamirs, exploring and attempting to climb the peaks, and then crossing part of the Taklamakan Desert, where he nearly lost his life for lack of water. Hedin was taken by local guides to a ruined city in the desert northeast of Khotan where he found not only the remains of buildings, orchards, and avenues preserved in the sand, but also Buddhist stucco figures and wall paintings. Hedin was no archaeologist, but he realized that he had been brought to one of the old cities of the Silk Road.

Waugh told RFE/RL about Hedin's archeological contributions: "He is also known for being the first European to bring attention to some of the archeological treasures of Central Asia in the sense that he came across the ancient cities buried in the sand, and this then alerted others, such as Aurel Stein, to their importance, and that really began the process of what we might call the competition for gathering archeological treasures in Central Asia."

Later Hedin came across a number of old wooden ruins set high on the hillocks in the heart of the Taklamakan Desert. Here he found coins, iron axes, beautifully carved wooden boards, and manuscripts. From those manuscripts, Hedin later identified the Chinese town of Lou-lan -- a Chinese garrison whose purpose was to protect the Chinese rear as they probed their way westward from the 1st century BC on.

Professor Uli Schamiloglu, a professor and historian at the University of Wisconsin, commented to RFE/RL on the life of Sven Hedin: "Sven Hedin, who was born in 1865 and died in 1952, is considered to be one of the leading explorers and geographers of Central Asia, not just thinking of the five republics of Central Asia today, but in his contributions to the study of the sources of the Brahma-Putra-Indus rivers, his explorations in Tibet, in the Gobi Desert, and other places that are really well-known. Whenever you read about early modern history of this part of the world, it is invariable that people are referring to Hedin. Now in terms of Sinkiang today, he did do mapping in the 1890s in Sinkiang in the Tarim River Basin. He was the first person in 1895 to discover one of the lost cities in the Khotan region which he called Taklamakan, and in 1899 he also discovered the ancient Chinese city of Lou-lan which was a vibrant city 2,000 years ago."

In Sinkiang, Hedin had been overwhelmed by the "liberal doses of fiery spirits and the 46 courses" through which he had been obliged to sit. In his book "Through Asia," Hedin described a few dishes typical of such feasts: "the skin, fins, and cartilage of different varieties of fish found in the seas and rivers of the Chinese empire, fungi, salted mutton fat cut into oblong strips, lizards, ham with a great variety of different adjuncts, besides a multitude of strange preparations, the real constituents and names of which remained mysteries to me."

Despite British and Tibetan opposition, Hedin managed during another expedition to sneak into Tibet disguised as a Buddhist pilgrim and claimed the discovery of a previously unknown mountain system, which he called the Trans-Himalayas.

In 1913, Hedin became a member of the Swedish Academy. He then traveled in the Gobi Desert and Turkistan during which time he mapped out the old Silk Road of Marco Polo so that it could be motorized.

Waugh of the University of Washington said the size and complexity of Hedin's bibliography rival the scope of his explorations. "Well, Sven Hedin, a Swedish explorer who started traveling to Central Asia in the late 19th century and continued his travels and explorations down until the 1930s, was probably the most popular travel writer on Central Asia in his time. His books appeared in a multitude of editions, especially in Germany," Waugh said.

(This is the second of a three-part series on early travelers to Central Asia and Mongolia. The final piece will focus on Sir Aurel Stein)

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