April 20, 1873, Gombojab Tsybikov, an ethnographer, orientalist, famous photographer and the first Russian scientist who visited Central Tibet, was born.
Gombojab Tsybikov was born in in the Trans-Baikal (Urdo-Aga) region. At the age of 5, he was taught to read and write in Mongolian by his father. And then in 1880 the father gave him to school where the Mongolian and Russian languages were studied. In 1895, Gombojab entered the Chinese-Mongolian-Manchurian department of the Faculty of Oriental Languages of St. Petersburg University and graduated from it with a first degree diploma and a gold medal in 1899.
Soon after his graduation, Gombojab Tsybikov went to his famous trip to Central Tibet. It started November 25 1899 and finished April 4 1902. It was financed by the Russian Geographical Society.
At that time, Tibet was closed to foreigners, except for those born in Asian countries and practicing Buddhism. Gombojab Tsybikov became the first scientist from Russia to visit Central Tibet and its capital Lhasa, as well as other largest cities and religious centers of the region.
"Central Tibet, by which we mean two provinces Ü-Tsang, was not known to have been visited by Europeans after 1845, at least its main parts <...>. No Russian travelers have traveled there either in the old days, when Europeans were allowed to come there, nor at this new taboo time", Gombojab Tsybikov wrote in his report on the trip.
The scientist published the results of his mission in the book ‘A Buddhist pilgrim to the holy places of Tibet’. This book is considered a prominent work on the history, ethnography, religion and culture of the Tibetan people. His journey opened a new page in the history of Russian and Western European oriental studies.
Gombojab Tsybikov also became a famous photographer. In 1905, National Geographic, then the little-known American scientific journal founded in October 1888, decided to publish a report on Tibet. The journal took Tibetan photographs, donated by Gombojab Tsybikov and Ovshe Norzunov (a Kalmyk traveler), and published them with short comments. Such an unusual presentation of interesting material brought unexpected success. In fact, these pictures saved the journal from bankruptcy and helped it find its corporate identity. From that moment, National Geographic got the worldwide fame.
From 1902 to 1917, Gombojab Tsybikov worked at the Eastern Institute in Vladivostok. Thanks to the scientist’s efforts, in 1907 the teaching of Tibetan began at the institute, and in 1908 he published a ‘Manual for Learning the Tibetan language’ for students.
In 1917, the researcher returned to Transbaikal. He taught at Buryat Pedagogical College, published textbooks on the Mongolian language, wrote ethnographic monographs.
From 1928 to 1930 Gombojab Tsybikov was a professor at Irkutsk State University. He took part in the foundation of the Buryat section of the East Siberian branch of the Soviet Geographical Society, which published the famous "Buryat History Vestnik (news)".
The scientist died in his homeland, in Urdo-Aga, on September 20, 1930.
In 2015, a documentary ‘A Pilgrim of Special Assignment’ was released, dedicated to the journey of Gombojab Tsybikov to Tibet. The film was produced by Zvezda TV channel with the support of the Russian Geographical Society. The team of the channel repeated the researcher’ path, this time with Gombojab’s great-grandson Jamsaran. You can watch the historical film on our film portal.