Nicholas Michailovitch Prejevalsky(1839-1888)

from Prejevalsky, Mongolia:The Tangut Country and the Solitudes of Northern Tibet

Nicholas Michailovitch Prejevalsky was born in the government of Smolensk of parents belonging to the class of landed gentry. He received his education at the gymnasium or public school of Smolensk, finishing his studies at the Academy of the Staff Corps. From early life he displayed a strong love for natural science, and it was to gratify these tastes that he applied for and obtained permission to serve in Eastern Siberia. Thither he proceeded in 1867, and there he remained two years, occupying all the time he could spare from his official duties in hunting, shooting, and collecting objects of natural history. On his return to St. Petersburg in 1869 he published his ‘Notes on the Ussuri,’ containing a great deal of information on the eastern boundaries of Russia in Asia. Soon after its appearance in 1870 Prejevalsky prepared for his second greater expedition, for his previous travels and studies had served as a preparation. (Prejevalsky vi-vii)

Prejevalsky’s expeditions to Tibet

In 1871-73 Prejevalsky made his first expedition in Mongolia and Tibet. After crossing the Gobi Desert he turned westward and followed nearly in the footsteps of Abbe Huc to the province of Gansu in Western China, visiting Lake Koko-nor. He then entered Tsaidam. Hence he passed into northern Tibet, but owing to the want of resources he was unable to prosecute his journey to Lhasa, and was obliged to turn back. (Morgan 213-214)
During his first expedition, word spread among the locals that Prejevalsky was a khubilgan, or saint, on his way to see the Dalai Lama. He was even expected to bless the sick and predict the future, receiving kneeling in prayer of Tibetans. This made him and his party passing by unmolested by brigands, but they were forced to return due to the privation. (Hopkirk 59)
In 1876 Prejevalsky advanced from Kulja, crossed the Tianshan and turning southwards, struck the Tarim and followed this river down to its outflow in Lop-nor, being the first European to visit this lake in modern times. (Morgan 214)
In 1879 Prejevalsky undertook what he himself called his third “scientific reconnaissance” into the heart of Asia. This time he was well prepared, and with his prominence as a traveler and observer, he obtained the backing of the Tsar who personally ordered the Treasury to support him. He was also accompanied by an escort of seven carefully chosen Cossacks, all expert in rifle shots. He took a mass of cutting-edge instruments and other apparatus of his day, and also carried gifts for local officials. Through the Tsar’s personal influence, he obtained a Chinese passport for Tibet.
Prejevalsky and his thirteen-strong expedition made their way to the upper Yangzi River, crossed this river and the Tangla range, besides exploring the upper Huanghe to the south of Koko-nor. Then the journey through Tibet’s great northern mountain ranges and on to the high Changthang was uneventful. However, when only one hundred and fifty miles short of Lhasa, Prejevalsky was halted by two Tibetan officials who asked him to proceed no further but await instructions from the capital. After waiting for about three weeks, to his disappointment, he received the orders from the Potala that he could not be allowed to advance any further, and that he and his men must leave Tibet at once. According to Chandra Das who was traveling in Tibet at this time, he was told that three thousand warrior monks had been sent north to lie in wait for the Russians. Although Prejevalsky had a long argument with Tibetan officials, he had no choice but to accept Lhasa’s verdict. (Morgan 221; Hopkirk 59-62)
In 1884 and 1885 Prejevalsky accomplished his fourth journey in Tibet. He went to Xining, eastern city of the Koko-nor, and arrived in eastern Tsaidam. He also reached to Lob-nor once again. (Morgan 227-228)

In 1888, at the age of forty-nine, Prejevalsky died after drinking typhoid-infected water. He was buried on the shores of Lake Issik Kol, high in the Tianshan mountains, and the Tsar ordered the nearby town of Karakol to be renamed after him. (Hopkirk 62)


E. Delmar Morgan, “Prejevalsky’s Journeys and Discoveries in Central Asia,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, Vol.9, No.4.(Apr.,1887), pp.213-232
N. Prejevalsky, E. Delmar Morgan trans., Mongolia: The Tangut Country and the Solitudes of Northern Tibet, (London: Sampson Low, Masrston, Searle, & Rivington, 1876)
Peter Hopkirk, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet,(New York: Kodansha International, 1995)