Kate Marsden (1859 – 1931) was a battle-hardened nurse who had cared for the wounded during the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878. Yet even those wartime experiences had not prepared her for the grueling equestrian journey she undertook in 1891. Having learned of the horrific conditions under which Russian lepers were forced to live, she resolutely sought out the imperial assistance of England’s Queen Victoria, as well as the Empress of Russia, then set off to ride thousands of miles across the wilds of Siberia.
This nurse, turned equestrian explorer, was intent on bringing medical relief to Russia’s forgotten wounded, as well as finding a herb which was allegedly a cure for leprosy. After having completed one of the most difficult equestrian journeys of the late 19th century, Kate returned to England where the intrepid “Long Rider” became one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. After stepping down from the saddle, she founded the St. Francis Leprosy Guild in London.
This portion of Kate’s remarkable story was extracted from her book, Riding through Siberia:
Résumé of some of the difficulties of my journey among the lepers. Being a translation of a document written by myself in French, and signed by the tchinovnick [official] who acted as my interpreter.
We left Yakutsk for Viluisk June 22nd, 1891, to begin our long journey of three thousand versts (2000 miles) on horseback, for the purpose of visiting the lepers living in forests unknown, even to the Russians. Our cavalcade was somewhat curious, consisting of about fifteen men and thirty horses; all those around me were talking in a language which I could not understand, though Mr. Petroff did, who also knew a little French. The photographer in Yakutsk took our photograph; but someone moved before it was finished, and therefore it was a failure. It might have given an idea of our costumes. As to mine, it was not very elegant : a sun-hat, over it a network arrangement as a protection from the mosquitoes, a jacket with very long sleeves, with the badge of the red cross on my left arm. Very full trousers down to my knees, and high boots above my knees. A revolver, a whip, and a little travelling bag. I was obliged to ride as a man for many reasons. First, because the Yakutsk horses were so wild that it was impossible for me to ride otherwise; second, no woman could ride on a lady's saddle for 3000 versts; and thirdly, as there were no roads, the horse constantly stumbles on the roots that are in the forest, threatening to throw the rider over its head; then it sinks into the mud till the rider's feet are on earth; having somehow recovered its footing, it rushes along between the branches of the trees and shrubs, utterly regardless of the fact that they were tearing and making mincemeat of the rider's dress. The first day we did five versts (3.3 miles); the second, fifteen (10); the third, twenty (13.3); and after that, 80 versts without stopping for sleep. One's sufferings were far worse than even when travelling in the tarantass [springless carriage]; the stiffened position of my body being altogether contrary to its usual free and easy habit; and the jerky movements of the untrained horse gave me dreadful pain.
We were obliged to take food with us for three months; some black and white dried bread, some dried prunes, some tea and sugar, and other indispensable articles for so long a journey; for, excepting at Viluisk, you can get absolutely nothing, not even bread and tea.
Before leaving Yakutsk, His Grace the Archbishop asked us to go to his house, that he might give us his blessing. When we went, His Grace, dressed in all his most brilliant robes, blessed us and pronounced over us his benediction. All the time I was in Yakutsk he took care of me like a father, tenderly and lovingly. We left there very quietly, so as not to attract attention. I had a very great objection to make any parade of our starting to my work, for it was serious; and it is my desire that it should be finished as it was begun, with the blessing of God on us at every step, whether that step be difficult or easy.
When you are travelling through marshes in which your horse, without a moment's warning, sinks up to his stomach, you are obliged to hold on by the reins and by your knees and hands and every way, as best you can. The only thought in my mind at the time was to keep on and not fall off, and to keep my horse on his feet, for if my horse fell I must fall with it, and find myself in the mud. The first ten marshes it was not so difficult; but after we had passed hundreds of them all the body ached; I felt as though I had spent fifty years on the tread-mill. It was then, that, to keep in the saddle, was a feat worthy of a hero.
On the official maps there is a road traced leading from Yakutsk to Viluisk, but in reality there is no such road—so do not be misled by official maps if you should go there. You will have to pass through unnamed marshes, and never find any such road.
During the summer the mosquitoes are frightful, both in the night and in the day; and when you arrive at a yourta [yurt], which serves as a post-station, the dirt and vermin and smell are simply disgusting; bugs, lice, fleas, etc., cover the walls, as well as the benches on which you have to sleep. Even on the ground you will find them, and, as soon as a stranger comes in, it seems as if the insects make a combined assault on him in large battalions; and, of course, sleep is a thing never dreamed of. After a few days the body swells from their bites into a form that can neither be imagined nor described. They attack your eyes and your face, so that you would hardly be recognised by your dearest friend. Yet with all these pains and penalties we had still to continue riding from forty to eighty versts in one day; we did even 100 versts without sleep. The fatigue, and the want of rest were dreadful. Cows and calves were in the same yourta with us, and the smell from them and from everything else was horrible. We would, indeed, have made very funny pictures of miserable travellers. As there is only one yourta at a post-station, ladies and gentlemen are obliged to sleep all together, and any traveller that may be present at the same time; a gentleman might put up with it, but it is impossible for a lady. After riding on horseback for the first time, my body was in constant pain, and complete rest with the possibility of undressing was indispensable; but as they say in French, "à la guerre comme à la guerre." As undressing was not possible, I was obliged to rest the best way I could. The Cossack was also ill that day, and Mr. Petroff and myself had our heads bound up so as to ease the pain a little, having been badly burnt by the sun. To have even five minutes' rest we were obliged to have a fire made up of cow dung in this disgusting yourta, and, to prevent the smoke from escaping, as that is the only way to have any rest, we were obliged to cover the opening of the chimney. The mosquitoes left us alone; but as to our eyes, they were so irritated by the smoke that they were bathed in tears; and my head suffered even worse. The other animals, however, did not cease to attack us all the time. I would indeed have presented an original picture. To remain five minutes longer within was not possible, we could do nothing at all because of the smoke; and this continued all day.
Really, I think the sufferings of this journey have added twenty years to my age. But I would willingly do it ten times over to aid my poor lepers who are placed in the depths of' these unknown forests.
You are always running the risk of being attacked by bears here, so that we always kept our revolvers ready at our side or under our heads; and two Yakuts as sentinels, with large fires at each end of the little encampment.
Soon after we started on our journey, we were obliged to travel in the night, because our horses had no rest in the day time from the terrible horse-flies that were quite dangerous there. They instantly attacked the wretched beasts, so that it was an awful sight to see our horses with the blood running down their sides, many of them becoming so exhausted that they were not able to carry our luggage.
At one place the bears might have attacked us with impunity. It was a very dangerous spot, as we were in the depths of a thick forest; we could hardly see two yards off, and the Yakuts saw eleven bears as we passed. Before starting, we all grasped our revolvers and guns, and we always had a large box filled with stones, which made a great clatter as we travelled; the bells also of some of our horses made a considerable noise. One of the Cossacks was in front of me, Mr. Petroff was on one side, the other Cossack and the rest of the escort, the horses and luggage, being behind. In the less dangerous parts of the forest everyone used to sing, making noise enough to frighten fifty bears. The horses are in such a fearful dread of the bears that they smell them afar off; and, as soon as they know they are near, they become almost unmanageable, dragging you through the forests, between the trees, flying like the wind. One thing was perfectly clear, that had the bears come near, it is quite certain some of us would have been killed, if not by the bears, then by the horses, who were almost mad.
One further danger must be related, so that readers of this document may have some notion of the many trials that had to be endured. After having left Viluisk one night we entered an immense forest, where the horses made a peculiar noise with their feet, as if they were walking over hollow ground. Having asked what it meant, I was told that we were near a place where the forest was burning. In about half an hour there was seen in the distance a small body of flames; but on getting nearer it seemed almost a picture of the infernal regions, so terrible was it to the sight, and yet we were obliged to go right into it. Far as could be seen there were flames and smoke rising from the ground, which was everywhere, apparently, burning. One of the Yakuts was in front; I was next, my horse picking its way; but sometimes it would get into a hole where there was fire, when it became terrified, throwing itself from right to left, becoming restive and wild till one became almost exhausted; for, in addition to this, there was the effort to distinguish the path through the smoke with eyes smarting and almost blinded with the glare of the fire. However, we travelled on, but all at once we heard a dreadful noise behind us. Nothing could be seen through the flames and smoke, but the noise steadily kept coming nearer; our horses began to get still more restless, and before we could have any idea, where the sound came from, a horse with some luggage on it, mad with fright at the flames and the smoke, rushed into our midst. Mr. Petroff, who was behind, had just time to give it a slash with his whip, which made it turn a little to the right, otherwise it would have been on me, and certainly I would have been killed. It was quite mad, and dashed right into the flames, as it was impossible to stop it, having so much to do to manage our own horses.
This was the most terrible experience of the journey, and it was only through God's mercy that we were kept alive.
I have asked Mr. Petroff to sign this, as he was witness to these dangers, having been with me all the time.
(Signed) KATE MARSDEN. August 24th (September 6th), 1891. [The variation in dates reflects the difference between the Gregorian Calendar and the Orthodox (Julian) one since the Gregorian Calendar was adopted by Catholic Europe in 1582.]
(Signed) SERGE MICHAILOVITCH PETROFF, Tchinovnick for special services attached
to the Governor of Yakutsk.