When the weather outside was frightful, Captain Fred Burnaby was pole-vaulting across the Volga and battling across the frozen Kazakh steppe in a sleigh drawn by three camels.

 Frederick Burnaby by James Tissot (1870) courtesy National Portrait Gallery

On a bitterly cold morning in December 1875, in his lodgings at Syzran on the Volga river, Captain Fred Burnaby was dressing himself for the rigours of a Russian winter. A flannel under-shirt was followed by another shirt, thick drawers and woollen trousers, a padded waistcoat, an overcoat, and then a shuba or fur cloak that skimmed the heels of his formidable six-foot-four-inch frame. His feet were encased in two pairs of thick socks, fur-lined inner shoes and leather galoshes, over which were pulled thigh-high cloth boots. On his head he placed a fur cap and then a bashlik, a kind of cone-shaped hood that enveloped the head and wrapped around the neck like a scarf.

Satisfied that he was ready to face the elements, he sallied forth from his dressing-room to see how his travelling companion was getting on. Similarly attired, this Russian man was sporting so many layers that he resembled “a very Colossus of Rhodes”. Burnaby found their appearance quite comical. “How people would have laughed if they could have seen us in Piccadilly in our costumes!” As an essential accessory the Russian strapped a revolver around his waist, but Burnaby was unable to follow suit because his belt would no longer fit. The gun would have to go in his saddle-bags instead. Optimistically, the two men went out into the freezing wind to look for a sleigh.

Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was a 33-year-old officer in the Royal Horse Guards. In his youth he’d excelled as a prize-fighter and a weight-lifter; he was reputed to be the strongest man in the British army, and it was said that he could carry a small pony under his arm. Fluent in seven languages, including Russian, Turkish and Arabic, he’d developed a flourishing sideline in journalism, writing as a foreign correspondent for The Times. He also had a strong adventurous spirit, and had tried hot-air ballooning as an outlet for his boundless energy.

Burnaby’s impulse to embark on a winter journey across the Russian steppe to the city of Khiva was (so he claimed) largely the result of the Russian Empire’s recent decree that foreigners were no longer welcome there, and he had an urge to flout the rules. But there was more to it than that. Russia had recently annexed the Khanate of Khiva, and from there, so it was rumoured, the Tsar’s forces were poised to invade India. Burnaby, with his nose for an exclusive story and his appetite for danger, just couldn’t keep away.

All that was very well, but nobody in their right mind would venture across the steppes of Central Asia in winter. Burnaby had already done some travelling in Russia, and he knew what horrors awaited him. He wrote: “The winds in those parts of Asia are unknown to the inhabitants of Europe. When they grumble at the so-called east wind, they can little imagine what that wind is like in those countries which lie exposed to the full fury of its first onslaught. For there you meet with no warm ocean to mollify its rigour, no trees, no rising land, no hills or mountains to check it in its course… It cuts the face of those exposed to its gusts. The sensation is more like the application of the edge of a razor than anything else to which it can be compared.”

When Burnaby stepped off his train at Syzran in early December, the longest and most gruelling part of his journey still lay ahead. He had got chatting on the train with a man who

was disembarking at the same station and intended to head for Samara, some 85 miles away. This lay on Burnaby’s route, and the two agreed to join forces in hiring a sleigh and driver. Burnaby’s companion, whom he never names (perhaps to protect his safety) knew a local farmer who could provide the necessary transport.

The farmer brought out two sleighs for inspection; the first proved far too small to accommodate both men with all their provisions. The second vehicle was slightly bigger, although they still had a job squeezing their sizeable bodies into the interior. A deal was struck. Burnaby was excited about the prospect of riding in a troika or three-horse sleigh, and took great interest in the way it worked. Three horses were harnessed abreast; the central horse stood in the shafts, wearing a brightly painted head collar from which a bell was suspended. The horses on either side were harnessed to splinter-bars attached to the sides of the sleigh. “Off we went at a brisk pace, the bell… jingling merrily at every stride of the team.”

‘Troika’ by Aleksander Orlowski, 19th century

For the first stretch of their journey they found themselves gliding along the frozen surface of the Volga river. This was now a glistening highway, busy with traders pulling sledges of cotton and other produce to be loaded onto the railway. Troikas dashed by at top speed. Burnaby watched as fishermen caught sturgeon through trenches cut in the ice, and

marvelled at magnificent ice formations that reminded him of Roman temples. With ice crystals sparkling in the air and a clear blue sky above, the scene looked just like a winter fairy-tale.

This blissful atmosphere continued until they needed to get off the river and travel overland. Between themselves and the bank lay a strip of shallow water that was not yet fully frozen. The sleigh driver declared that the horses would pull them through if they would sit tight, but neither Burnaby nor his companion fancied getting themselves dunked in icy water. They got off the sleigh and inspected the gap. A bystander produced a long pole and suggested that they could vault across. Burnaby’s friend was initially keen, but then chickened out and opted to stay with the sleigh. He gave the pole to Burnaby.

By this time a whole party of onlookers had gathered, and Burnaby listened uneasily to their remarks. “‘How fat they are!’ said one. ‘No, it’s their furs,’ observed another. ‘How awkward he is,’ continued a third; ‘why, I could jump it myself!’” Now Burnaby’s reputation as a sportsman was at stake. He gripped the pole and took a running jump: “A sensation of flying through the air, a slip, a scramble, and I found myself on the other side, having got over with no more damage than one wet leg…” The sleigh was dragged through without mishap, and they continued on their way.

 Vaulting over the Volga (from ‘A Ride to Khiva’, 1876, illust. Gordon Browne)

Before entering Samara, they halted briefly so that the sleigh driver could tie up the bell. No sleigh bells were allowed to ring within a town, he explained, for fear of frightening other horses. In Samara, Burnaby and his companion parted ways, and the hire of the sleigh, along with its driver, came to an end. Burnaby now had to find another sleigh that would take him onwards as far as Orenburg or even Khiva.

The provisions that Burnaby had to carry would have daunted most travellers. Large quantities of bread had to be purchased in every town or village, in the hope that it would last out until the next stop. He carried buckets containing stchi (cabbage soup) which remained

conveniently frozen until they were heated up for eating. Barley was necessary to feed the horses, and in the absence of flowing water Burnaby collected snow that could be melted later over a fire. These bags of snow were taken with him, in case he stopped in an area where it was scarce; he even had to carry firewood, because the bleak landscape offered almost nothing in the way of kindling. Accommodation had to be taken wherever it was available. To Burnaby, it was all a huge and exciting adventure, but his optimism was about to be tested to the limit.

Between Samara and Orenburg the temperature dropped to -31°C. Towards nightfall, blizzards engulfed the sleigh until it floundered in a snowdrift, and one of the horses stumbled and broke its harness. They could go no further. Burnaby, along with his hired guide and driver, realised they would have to survive the storm out in the open. It was crucial to stay awake; huddling together, each one took turns to keep watch in case the others fell asleep. They were rescued in the morning by a local farmer, miraculously still alive.

 The steppe in winter

The winter of 1875 was so severe that even the Russian Cossacks whom he met along the route told Burnaby than he was insane. Most officials viewed his journey with astonishment rather than suspicion; a party of soldiers even saved his life when his hands became dangerously frostbitten. He’d forgotten to put on his gloves and then fallen asleep on the sleigh, with his hands exposed. They were miles from any shelter, so the men fetched some naphtha, a flammable liquid used for cooking, and rubbed his hands vigorously with it until the circulation returned. The pain was excruciating for several weeks.

Most of the settlements along the road had change-stations, with a small room where travellers could sleep, and stables which supplied a change of horses. But at one of these stations there were no horses available, and the driver had to accept three Bactrian camels as a substitute. Single camels were often used to pull sleighs, but Burnaby felt that three were excessive for his small vehicle. He watched in astonishment as they were harnessed up: the driver sat atop the central camel, while the others were arranged on either side.

The result was quite comical to look at, but the camels had the last laugh. Soon after getting going, the central camel decided that it had had enough of its burden and stopped abruptly, catapulting the driver over its head into a bank of soft snow. The driver, dusting himself off, decided to change the camels’ configuration, with a leader in front rather than three abreast; but after a while the leading camel felt that it was taking too much of the strain and promptly laid down in the snow. No amount of tugging, cajoling or bribery would make it get up. Burnaby cursed the legendary stubbornness of camels. Only when it felt the coldness of the frozen ground seeping up into its body did the animal grudgingly get back on its feet.

Bactrian camels

Accepting hospitality wherever he could find it, Burnaby continued southwards. At a place which he calls Kasala (now Kazaly), he was so close to the Aral Sea that he could smell the salt in the wind; it parched his skin and made him extremely thirsty. As the lying snow became thinner, the sleigh (pulled again by horses) bumped over the rough ground, and he was forced to change it for a wheeled carriage at the next stop. All the time he was comparing his route carefully with recent maps, including Wyld’s map of Khiva, which he was carrying with him. In particular, for the benefit of summer travellers he was careful to note the position of wells,

the quality of their water (when flowing!) and the distances between them, as he felt that the map was inaccurate in several respects.

Burnaby entered Khiva on horseback towards the end of January 1876, accompanied by a guide and two Khivan noblemen who had ridden out to greet him. His arrival caused a sensation. Despite Russian control, the Khan of Khiva retained a certain degree of independence, and he sent word that he would receive Burnaby in his palace. Most of the city’s inhabitants turned out to goggle at the British officer as he rode through the streets. He was ushered into a large tent or kibitka, where he found the Khan reclining on brilliantly coloured cushions and warming his feet by a charcoal fire. Burnaby thought that he detected a merry twinkle in the young man’s eyes; as they chatted over cups of tea, he discovered that his host had a lively interest in geography, but was rather misguided as to the relative position of various countries. Out came Wyld’s maps, and with the help of a compass Burnaby was able to correct his alignments. The Khan asked some piercing questions about Britain’s attitude towards Russia, which Burnaby did his best to answer; and soon the interview was over.

Burnaby’s audience with the Khan of Khiva (from ‘A Ride to Khiva’, 1876, illust. Gordon Browne)

Basking in an unexpectedly warm welcome, Burnaby spent several days in Khiva. Before he departed, the Khan pressed on him the gift of a long black robe lined with gorgeous silks. Burnaby wrote: “I was afterwards informed that this is the highest honour that can be paid a stranger, and a halat or dressing-gown from the Khan is looked upon at Khiva much as the Order of the Garter would be in England.”

On his return to Britain, Burnaby was acclaimed as a celebrity. His book, ‘A Ride to Khiva’, quickly became a bestseller and it is still considered to be one of the ‘Great Game’ classics. Burnaby believed that he was the first foreign national to complete that particular route in winter, so perhaps he should also be acknowledged as a pioneer of extreme sleigh travel.

Footnote re. the maps that Burnaby carried

Burnaby makes frequent reference to Wyld’s Map of Khiva. This was published by James Wyld, Geographer to Queen Victoria, in 1873. During his visit to the Khan of Khiva he pulled out Wyld’s Map of the Countries Between England and India, and he also mentions the Russian official map of Turkestan, several editions of which were published in the 1870s.

This image of Wyld’s map of Khiva courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.


Captain Fred Burnaby, A Ride to Khiva (1876)

Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game - On Secret Service in High Asia (1990)

With thanks to Andrew Cook and Margaret Wilkes of RSGS’ Collections Team and Katherine Parker of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps