I’m wrapping up my work on Gottfried Merzbacher—a sort of back-burner project that’s been active and then dormant, on and off, for about seven years. It’s been a pleasure to learn about places like the Bayumkol valley, the relationship between the Saryzhaz and Kum-erik Rivers, and the placement of peaks around the head of the amazingly long Enylchek Glacier. This geography, while not unknown to residents of the Kyrgyz Republic or the Chinese province of Xinjiang, is downright obscure for North Americans—except perhaps among mountaineers and specialist geographers—so it’s been exotic and, during the COVID-19 epidemic, a pleasant way to spend my additional time.
I first discovered Mr. Merzbacher when I encountered a satellite photo of Lake Merzbacher. It might have been one of those puzzles where someone shows you a bit of a satellite image and you have to figure out where it is. This is a lake on a glacier in Kyrgyzstan that comes and goes according to how the ice impedes the flow of meltwater. Some years it’s there, and some years it’s not.
The lake is named for the German geologist, Gottfired Merzbacher, who first described it in the European press when he returned in 1904 from a two-year expedition in the Tian-Shan mountains. He had been there, trekking through alpine valleys, over passes, and up and down glaciers, to answer a deceptively simple geographic question: “Where the hell is the base of Khan Tengri?”
Khan Tengri is a major world peak. Its name means “Lord of the Sky” in Kyrgyz, and at 7010 metres, it rises above the centre of the Tian Shan range, towering over nearby summits, and is distinctively visible from great distances. Yet only a hundred years ago the location of its base was a mystery, because Khan Tengri had the frustratingly elusive property of disappearing from view as one entered the range.
Did Khan-Tengri rise at the spot, where in the forty-verst map and in all other maps, it is represented, its pyramid must inevitably have been seen from our standpoint. All we learned by our excursion was therefore only the confirmation of the opinion, previously suggested, namely, that in this cardinal point the maps were all of them at fault. The task therefore devolved on us to determine the actual situation of Khan-Tengri. [Merzbacher, pp. 17-18]
In the summer of the second year, in a complex maze of steep walled valleys, he finally stood at the foot of Khan Tengri.
We had now been traversing the icefield for nearly five hours at high speed ; the enclosing escarpments began to fall away; the lateral glacial valleys grew shorter, broader, mostly rounded off at their heads, and still the dark bluff mysteriously concealed the riddle of Khan- Tengri from our prying eyes. Then, suddenly, something white began to assume prominence behind the black edge of the promontory — nothing yet very conspicuous, but with every step forward the white object grew bigger and bigger. A fine snowy summit, glittering in the sun, appeared aloft, colossal white marble buttresses projecting from it ; a few steps farther, and a huge pyramid stood out freely, its base also soon coming into view. The giant mountain, the monarch of the Tian-Shan, revealed himself to my enraptured gaze in all his naked majesty, from his feet, rooted in the glacier ice, up to his crown, wrapt in sunlit shifting mists. Nothing whatever intervened to conceal any part of the so long mysteriously masked base of the mountain. I found myself standing close to its southern foot, and contemplated in wonder, with amazed and searching glance, the sublime spectacle. The strain of the last few weeks, which had at last grown almost unbearable, was relieved in an instant ; the goal had been reached, which I had eagerly struggled for with all the strength of mind and will. My feelings at that moment baffled all description. [pp. 207-8]
Merzbacher told of these adventures in his 1904 book, Forschungsreise in den zentralen Tian-Sehan, which was translated into English and published in London the following year as The Central Tian-Shan Mountains, 1902-3. Although it sounds dry and technical, it is a delightful read, especially if you happen to enjoy a bit of geologic observation thrown in with your travelogue.
The downward route from Narynkol through the Tekes valley leads through one of the best-defined basins of the old frontal lakes which formerly lay at the base of the mountain range. On the southern border the outlines of the old terraced beaches have been excellently preserved. At the wide entrance to the Musart valley beds of fluvioglacial deposit form five ancient terraces, and for several miles, follow the course of the valley as longitudinal banks, nearly up to the foot of the mountain mass. (p. 82)
Yes, it’s a bit like travelling with Professor Calculus from Tin-Tin. Merzbacher also has an endearing and obtuse fussiness about logistics that probably made him a bit difficult to live with.
This mound of detritus necessarily makes the exploration of the lower section of the glacier extremely toilsome and fatiguing. In a day’s march one can cover only a few miles. Being unmindful of this circumstance, and also unprepared for the vast dimensions of the glacier from the hitherto published reports of its magnitude, and moreover unaware that at this season the valley is not even visited by the nomad Kirghiz, I had not brought sufficient supplies to meet the wants of the party for eight or ten days, the minimum of the time, required for profitable work on the glacier. The number of porters was also insufficient for such undertakings, while these fellows themselves struck work at critical moments, and broke out into open revolt against me. Under such circumstances I was fain to confine myself to a short excursion in the region of ice. [p. 73]
However imperial all this sounds, Merzbacher distinguishes himself from other contemporary explorers in that not a single person or animal dies on his Central Asian expedition. (Sven Hedin, in contrast, loses all his men and camels just a decade later).
To follow Merzbacher’s journey, though, is a little bit tricky. He is intimately familiar with this part of Central Asia, and assumes his readers are as well. He sets off from Przhevalsk (the book begins with the sentence, “A serious drawback to the progress of our expedition was the delay for nearly a week of the arrival of our luggage at Przhevalsk…”), and we immediately reach for the atlas to find out where that is. And we have trouble, because Przhevalsk, the main town at the east end of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, has been renamed to Karakol.
The map Merzbacher includes in his book is not very detailed, and of course uses these older names. (It also, understandably, contains a few errors that today we can easily see with the help of satellite images.) So we need a better map. Being a superb observer and detail-oriented, Merzbacher gives us the names of many small valleys, passes and plateaux. It’s not easy to find maps that show where these features are today. His transcriptions of Kyrgyz and Turki names (Kyrgyz being spoken on the north side of the Tian Shan range, and Turki, or Uyghur, being spoken on the south side) are often different from those used today. So a little detective work is needed, a little linguistic knowledge, and a pile of maps from the last century.
As well, Merzbacher is not your casual travel writer who mentions the names of some landmarks and towns. Merzbacher is there to map, and he describes everything: every ridge, river, plateau, mountain, lake, glacier and pass. This makes it easier to follow where he went, but the number of named places in the end is much larger.
Although he was 60 years old, Merzbacher covered a ridiculous amount of ground in two years. Keeping up with his team, which included Austrian mountain guides, would have been a challenge. Not only does he explore all of the glaciers that seem to lead up to Khan Tengri, but he then crosses over into China and surveys the mountain ranges and basins on the north side of the Tarim Basin. His goal is nothing short of a complete understanding of the geology of the central Tian-Shan.