Peter Semenov in Central Asia, 1856-1857

During the 1850s, writes W. Bruce Lincoln, an intrepid Russian traveller penetrated hitherto almost unknown territory, making large collections of botanical and geographical specimens, and exploring twenty-three difficult mountain passes.

On the morning of May 15th, 1856, a young man travelling in a small springless carriage and accompanied by a single servant, was ferried across the Volga River, that great body of water which separates the more settled portions of European Russia from its wilder, more sparsely settled regions which soon blend into the vastness of Asia. The traveller was Peter Semenov, a young Russian explorer who, unknown to the Imperial Russian authorities, intended to explore a mysterious mountain region in Central Asia. His goal was the mountains of Tien Shan, known to some in the West as the Celestial Mountains, where no European explorer had yet set foot. So unknown was this region to western scientists that the German explorer Wilhelm von Humboldt had once compared geographers’ knowledge of it with their information about the moon.

To explore these hostile and uncharted regions was a formidable task, especially for a young man who was not yet thirty years of age. For Semenov, his passage across the Volga that May morning was the beginning of a journey into the unknown.

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