Mapping Francis Younghusband in the Gobi Desert, 1887: Introduction

In 1887, Francis Younghusband travelled across China, a tale he told in his 1896 book, The Heart of a Continent. Although the book describes Younghusband’s entire journey overland journey from Peking to British India, the part we’re going to look at is specifically the first leg of his trip, the crossing of the Gobi desert from Peking to the town of Hami.

At this point in his life, Younghusband is only 24 years old. He will later—much later—be remembered as the leader of the ill-fated 1903 British military incursion into Tibet, but at this point he is merely a lieutenant, and has taken a leave of absence from his regiment in the Indian Army so that he can travel in China. In Peking he meets a senior British officer—one wonders to what extent these things are actually chance—named Colonel Mark Bell, who tells him of his plan to return to India by travelling overland through regions of western China, areas the British at this time call Chinese Turkestan and Kashgaria. Younghusband asks him if he can accompany him, and Bell offers him one better. Bell would like to take the southern route to Turkestan, going through the city of Xi’an and up through the Gansu corridor, the standard route, if you will, for travel out to Turkestan. Younghusband, he proposes, should take the caravan trade route across the Gobi and meet him in Hami, and then will continue on together from there.

This meets Younghusband’s agenda perfectly, inasmuch as he now has both the blessing of a senior officer for this adventure, and he gets to go on his own. In the end, Bell and Younghusband arrive in Hami on different days, and each completes the journey on to India on his own, an arrangement that, you get the impression, both of them preferred anyway.

Younghusband makes quite a lot out of how he is heading into unknown territory and a blank upon the map, but in reality he wasn’t doing anything new at all—and certainly not “exploring” or “discovering” anything. He hires a camel driver who has been doing the route for the past twenty years, and along the way they find themselves camping with other large caravans going to Hami, or to Guchen, a town northwest of Hami. It’s apparently rather a beaten track across the Gobi. In fact, Bell probably knew all this: his main purpose in sending Younghusband this way was perhaps actually just to document the route. In 1890 we find Colonel Bell giving a paper to the Royal Geographic Society on “The Great Central Asian Trade Route from Peking to Kashgaria,” and there, on his map, is more or less the caravan route Younghusband took to Hami.

Nor is Francis the first European to venture into this area. In 1870, seventeen years before, Nikolai Przhevalsky (Никола́й Пржева́льский) and a party of Cossacks had spent three years knocking about in much the same area, although emphasizing north-south routes rather than east-west. Younghusband had in fact read Przhevalsky’s book, Mongolia and the Tangut Country, which had already been translated into English. So, for all the bold, “Into the unknown” tone he puts on it, Younghusband is really just trying be the first to see this caravan route for his team, as it were.

Nonetheless, The Heart of a Continent is a good read, and he did do a useful thing by making the journey and writing about it. Younghusband is, not surprisingly, a classic Victorian traveller: he is inclined to make sweeping generalizations about the Mongols and the Chinese, invariably thinking of them as having racial characteristics and then comparing them unfavourably with Europeans and the British in particular. But this kind of nonsense is so common in the nineteenth century that we don’t really need to focus on it.

It is doubtful that Younghusband could have imagined that he was leaving, for the 21st century armchair traveller, a wonderful geographical puzzle. We can not only download his book to read for free from archive.org, but we can also open up Google maps, OpenTopoMap or Google Earth and compare it with his map. We can try to figure out exactly where he went, and along the way we learn a great deal about the geography of this area. We can ask What’s in those places today? and If I went there, where would I tell people I was going?

In particular, tracing the Gobi portion his journey is a a challenge, the part where he travels from Kwei-hwa-cheng to Hami, crossing what is today southern Mongolia.

There are eight camels and four men (the camel-man and assistant, plus Younghusband and his Chinese servant) and they are on the journey for seventy days, from April 26th to July 24th. He names many places on the way, but when we go to follow his route on, say, Google maps, we can find almost none of them. Only Hami and the Altai Mountains are there. We cannot find Kwei-hwa-cheng, nor the city of Kalgan, which is his first stop after leaving Beijing. There is no river called the Moli-ho, no desert called the Galpin Gobi.

There are multiple reasons for this. For one, there was no standardized transcription method for converting Mandarin into Roman characters in 1887. It looks like Younghusband uses the Wade method, which was coming into use among Europeans at the time, but he may also simply be copying names off the European maps he has, and making the spelling up when he learns new names. In any case it looks rather different from the pinyin transcription method we use today. He writes Peking; we write Beijing.

Second, many place names have changed. Kalgan isn’t Kalgan anymore: it’s Zhangjiakou. Kwei-hwa-cheng is called Hohhot. A reference work on the changing names of places in China over the past hundred and fifty years would be terrifically useful, but as far as I know it does not yet exist.

Finally, the 21st century online mapping services, point-oriented and focused on the wired world as they are, don’t have a lot of labelling on the linear and areal features (rivers, deserts and mountain ranges) of what is today the Chinese province of Nei Mongol (Inner Mongolia), or of southern Mongolia proper.

But, by working back and forth between old maps and new, we can figure out a lot of the details of this journey.

Go on to Part 1: From Kwei-hwa-cheng to the Galpin Gobi.

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