Expedition Overviews

Kyrgyz in a bright gown, Drawn by Valikhanov, Color Pencil, 1856.

First Expedition, 1855-1856

In 1856, after a group of Kyrgyz nomads was officially incorporated into the Tsar’s empire, a diplomatic and geographical expedition embarked to the region of Lake Issyk-kul, deep in the Kyrgyz frontier. It was at this time that Valikhanov made the premier ethnographic documentation of Manas, a monumental oral epic of the Kyrgyz that Chokan named the “Iliad of the Steppe” and that is today formally recognized by UNESCO as part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. A recent recording of the same episode from the Manas which Valikhanov documented in the summer of 1856, called Kökötöidün Ashy (Kökötöi’s Memorial Feast), is now available on Volume 1 of the Music of Central Asia series published by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

While returning to Omsk in 1857, Chokan was sent to the city of Kulja on the Ili River in Chinese Turkestan. Dispatched to improve Sino-Russian economic relations, Chokan spent three months in direct contact with the Manchu government. Likewise, this time provided ample opportunity to observe first-hand the language and traditions of the Uyghurs: a local community of Muslim Turks that for centuries had settled in the six oases (in Uyghur, Altyshar) resting on the outskirts of the Taklamakan Desert in Northwestern China.