Even in the modern world – a satellite mapped, hyper-digital, highly interconnected world – the region of Siberia still retains a tantalising air of other worldly, other timely mystery. It is a land frozen not just in weather but in tradition.
And the lure of the vast expanses of the icy north is, it seems, a venerable tradition. In a previous article, I wrote about William of Rubruck, a 13th Century monk who travelled across modern Russia to the Mongols at the behest of the French King; his travel notes were recorded for posterity. Five hundred years later, a French king once again dispatched a religious man eastwards, and this man would once again relay his observations. He was the astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe D’Auteroche, known as Chappe or the Abbot Chappe, the latter for his embrace of the church.
The timeless sense of intrigue surrounding Siberia is well encapsulated by Chappe, who notes that “It is a matter of astonishment that we should know so little of the Tartars [a term used to denote the local Turco-Mongol people] inhabiting the southern parts of Siberia”. The exoticism is heightened by such names which seem to have wandered in from science-fiction, like the “Kalmuck Zongors” – a particular grouping of peoples – and the leader “Tsagan-Araptan-chon-taidji”.
Chappe travelled to Siberia in 1760 after the St Petersburg academy requested a French astronomer to aid with the observation of the “Transit of Venus over the Sun”. This purpose is evident in Chappe’s account, which he entitled “A Journey into Siberia”; it was published in France in 1761, then translated and published in Britain in 1770. The work mixes travel narrative with ethnography and scientific observation. Thus, accounts of the journey sit next to a blend of commentary on clothing and customs, for instance, and (quite literally) dry material like soil and mineral analysis. Chappe also offers an account of the bloody recent history of the Siberian people, full of tribal warfare, plotting, and the ever looming presences of Russia and China.
It is fair to say that Chappe had mixed opinions on what he saw in the frozen north. It emerges as a land full of extremes – an often beautiful area of snow and light with many different flora and fauna, but also a bitterly cold and dangerous landscape with threats at every turn. A chapter on the climate can be summarised as weather which veers between “cold” and “very cold” – a constant theme in the book is the recording of freezing temperatures by Chappe’s thermometer.
The locals, too, appeared to Chappe to be a mixed bag. While evidently hospitable enough to welcome him and his party, and viewed as rather quaint in their traditional ways, Chappe is nevertheless often critical. These were, to him, “barbarous regions” where the “polished manners of the rest of Europe have not yet prevailed”. Among the subjects of his distaste are how women tended to be repressed and dominated by men, and how children were beaten into becoming disciplined and right-handed. He maybe veers into the realm of a stereotypical French food expert, too, when he attacks local food and drink. There was “bad black bread, ill made and ill baked” at one town (he later notes that Russians “in general know not how to make bread”) and alcohol “more sour than vinegar”.
The journey itself was, by all accounts, a colourful one. It had a less than perfect start. Having intended to make the journey to his destination of Tobolsky overseas from Holland, Chappe felt- as anyone who has rushed to a railway platform to see the train just setting off can testify – crushing disappointment to have found that the last vessel heading that way had recently set sail soon after he arrived in the Netherlands.
So the journey was to be made overland. He joined a Frenchman, a Monsieur Durieul, a colonel serving the King of Poland who was travelling to Russia. The annoyance felt at missing the boat swiftly gave way to relief. In a twist of fate, he soon learned that his intended vessel had been wrecked off the coast of Sweden.
However, land travel was in no way an easy matter. Endless rain had ruined the roads, and “such a number of accidents befell us” that many long detours became necessary (both phenomena again recognisable to any modern traveller who has been laid low by the M5). All this, and the party had still got no further than Germany.
Slow progress was hence made across Europe. Along the journey, Chappe made many scientific and geographic observations, recording, for instance, the longitude and latitude of all the towns he passed and the distance between them. The group also had time for some impromptu archaeology near Ratisbon (modern Regensburg, in Germany) on the Danube. They dug up an old stone with mysterious engravings – it turned out to be a Jewish tombstone with Hebrew characters carved in. Chappe seems disappointed not to have found something more exotic and exciting. He was likewise underwhelmed by Christmas Eve in a large (but unnamed) village. He went to a church service “which was very long”, and to worsen matters he lost a case “containing a great part of my linen” into the bargain.
The narrative is peppered with anecdotes such as these – some positive, some much less so (including a stint in a Russian bath, more like a sauna, which burned his feet, turned his stomach, and smashed his balance and trusty thermometer when he fell) – until western Russia is reached. Here, Chappe encountered some travellers from St Petersburg, who warned against travelling in such snow in carriages. Chappe and his companions thus duly switched to sledges, with which he was very impressed.
Nevertheless, despite the speed on these sledges, the travellers met many accidents so that “everyday, I despaired of reaching Siberia in time”. This doubt, this panic was to stay with Chappe right up until the Transit of Venus over the Sun that he had gone to observe and analyse. The group did reach Tobolsky in time, but Chappe still felt terrified of “returning to France after a fruitless voyage”. He records how, the night before the astronomical event, he barely got a wink of sleep, such was the importance of what was to follow – after all, “the whole learned world had taken all possible measures to assist the observation”, and Chappe feared the wrath that would follow failure.
But then, eventually, the morning arrived, poetic metaphor came to life, and the bright rays of the Arctic sun washed out the terrors of the night. The transit occurred across a “perfectly serene sky” and Chappe was seized with rhapsody. All was well; all was successful. The journey – worthy of the term ‘epic’ – had met triumph at last. As Chappe reflected in a brief but insightful piece of philosophy, “such trials must be experienced” to have heightened “the exceeding pleasures I felt, when my hopes were revived by the rising of the sun”.