Kyrgyzstan has organized a not-for-profit tourist agency with several locations in Kyrgyzstan: Destination Karakol, Destination Osh, Destination Jyrgalan, etc. They are a very useful connection for travelers.
The office in Karakol offers a free walking tour. The young man who led our group spoke very good English, a quality I have come to appreciate more and more as I travel through these countries. If you plan to travel around these countries, Russian would be handy.
One of the most beautiful buildings in Karakol is the Eastern Orthodox Church. Photos were not allowed on the inside. The inside is traditional – worshipers stand, so there are no pews, the walls are covered with icons of various saints and patriarchs, and there are places provided for you to light a candle and pray to a particular saint or to Jesus or Mary:
The cathedral dates back to 1869, when Karakol was merely a garrison town outpost on the edge of the Russian Empire. Then, the cathedral served as a chapel for the Cossacks and other troops posted in Karakol. When the Soviets took over, the cathedral was used as a dance hall.
In the past, Kyrgyzstan has been subject to some severe earthquakes. The cathedral, according to tradition, was built without nails, but rather using wooden pegs for joining. They attribute the survival of the building to the greater flexibility of the pegs rather than iron nails. The guide said the cathedral members are discussing painting the cathedral’s exterior. They’re afraid that without painting, the building will deteriorate. I rather like the bare wood, but their concern is legitimate, and it also would be a more traditional treatment.
The other outstanding building in Karakol is the Dungin Mosque:
The Dungin Muslims were from China, and came to Kyrgyzstan to escape persecution in 1862. The mosque was built between 1907 and 1910. While Islam prohibits the use of human or animal images to prevent any resemblance to worshipping humans or animals, the Dungin Muslims bent the rules. In the corners of the eaves are quiet images of dragons, an ancient symbol of good luck in China. The woodwork in the eaves is beautiful, and once again, it is free of nails, but purportedly also free of pegs, fitted together like puzzle pieces.
It is an interesting combination of Chinese and Russian design elements – the windows are very much like the windows in the Russian houses in Karakol.
The interior was also a mixture of style, although the elements of a mosque were all there:
The tour covered the Russian quarter and the Russian antique vendor that I have mentioned previously, but we also went to the university campus in Karakol, whose students were friendly, too. This young man volunteered for a photo so he could send his greetings to the U.S.
This is the young man who led the tour, explaining about the historical figure depicted by the statue. There are a ton of statues and memorials throughout Kyrgyzstan, mainly Russians. This one is for Mikhail Przhevalsky, a 19th century Russian explorer who was sent by the Tsar to explore the Central Asia region.
The tour ended in “Ashlan-Fu Alley” in the Karakol Small Bazaar near the University, where there were several vendors of Ashlan-Fu. Ashlan-Fu is a spicy, cold soup made with a combination of thick rice noodles, wheat noodles, a vinegar-chili sauce and a topping of chopped herbs. Traditionally, it is served with piroshki (fried potato-stuffed dough pockets) so as to enable mopping up the broth. A large portion will cost about fifty cents USD. Ashlan-fu can be served with or without meat – but without meat is the exception, so you must specify when ordering. Either way, it is very refreshing on a hot day, and a “must-try.”
There is a museum in honor of Mikhail Prezhevalsky outside of Karakol, too far to walk, but an easy trip by taxi. It doesn’t take long to go through (and you should hire your taxi to wait for you to return to Karakol unless you don’t mind waiting by the road for a marshrutka) and it is interesting, both for its exposition of Prezhevalsky’s life and for the maps of the regions he explored.
The maps are important because they give a real visual of the area he explored, from Kyrgyzstan to Tibet to Mongolia. While I could pick them all out on a map, the mountain ranges are a jumble to me, and the Silk Road more a concept than a reality. The location of the mountain passes, i.e. where human traffic naturally directed itself, had an impact on the invasions and migrations, along with the land elevations, because most of it is substantially above sea level. Looking at a map focused on Central Asia, with Przhevalsky’s routes laid out, focuses attention.
Other than exploring and mapping, Przhevalsky discovered a new breed of horse, which is called “Przhevalsky’s Horse.” It is also known as the Mongolian wild horse or the Dzungarian horse. It lives on the steppes of Central Asia, is rare, and considered endangered. Interestingly, it also has 66 chromosomes, or 2 more than most horses. Like most of the preserved animals I found in these museums, it is in sad condition, and much healthier-looking horses can be found in photos on the internet.
While I was in the museum, there were a husband and wife and their guide, who I guessed was a Karakol university student. Discovering they spoke English, I asked where they were from. They were from Des Moines, Iowa. It turned out that they had emigrated from Syria to the U.S. a few years ago, and spent much of their time traveling the world.
Their guide, who was very nice and indeed a university student, and who later helped me figure out how to catch the marshrutka, told them how some local historians believe that Przhevalsky was the illegitimate son of the Tsar. They supported this by his appearance, his emotionally distant father, and the fact that he was shown an unusual amount of favor by the Tsar, who financially supported Przhevalsky’s expeditions, gave him several awards, and invited him often to court.
She embellished this further by saying that it was also rumored that Przhevalsky was the father of an illegitimate child, Josef Stalin! Again, the appearance and a distant father played into this theory. It was also rumored, however, that Przhevalsky brought young male lovers along on his expeditions (I read this in Wikipedia,) so, who knows? I have to say, though, it was hard for me to buy the idea of Josef Stalin being the illegitimate grandson of a tsar.
As for Przhevalsky himself, he fell in love with Karakol and the lake, Issyk-kul, which at that time lapped the shores near the museum. He is buried there, with a large memorial.