People go to Kyrgyzstan mainly because of the amazing nature. We had been on the road for a few days now, but apart from the capital Bishkek, we had not been to any other major city. Our journey continued along Lake Issyk-Kul. Karakol is located only 12 km from its eastern shore, at an altitude of 1750 m above sea level. It is the 4th largest city in the country, with more than 80,000 inhabitants.
The fields along the road were replaced by houses with front gardens, mostly with pale blue wooden shutters, wood carvings on the windows and verandas as well as a green-painted wooden gable under the roof. Some houses were almost falling apart, others demonstrated the wealth but also the peculiar taste of their owners. Simple roofs had been replaced by wavy lines and wooden doors by massive, heavy forged gates…
The excellent strategic position predestined this place for the establishment of a military base. Baron Alexander von Kaulbars, a high-ranking military representative of the Tsarist Russian army, was commissioned to build it in 1869. He undertook several exploratory expeditions, also in Central Asia. However, when choosing a name for the newly established military point, he did not show much imagination and named it after the river that flows here – Karakol. You can feel the military function of the city even today because of the rectangular arrangement of its streets.
Originally, houses made of unfired clay had been built here, but after a strong earthquake in 1887, wooden houses were preferred. The city became a center of relatively high culture, the first meteorological station in Kyrgyzstan was established here, and there was also a public library and a stud farm. Many travelers and researchers had started their exploration expeditions from here.
We focused on 4 things we wanted to do:
(1) Church of the Holy Trinity
While the houses along the road resembled sceneries from Russian villages, now we had in front of us an illustrative picture from a Russian fairy tale book – a wooden church with towers and turrets decorated with Orthodox crosses, rich wooden carvings and paintings of saints on the walls… our impression was ruined a little by an insensitively attached plastic roof to the back of the church.
Two older Russian women swept the paths around the church, large carpets were airing draped over benches, roses and lilies proudly demonstrated their striking colors in the garden and a small cute kitten ran along the sidewalk, demanding attention.
From the middle of the 19th century, Russian soldiers and commanders were the first to come to the region to complete their service at the new military base. But as early as the 1860s, the first settlers from the European part of Russia, Russians and Ukrainians who were mainly engaged in agriculture and less so in craft, arrived here as well. The climatic conditions and landscape around the lake reminded them of their homeland.
In 1869, when Karakol was founded, a temporary church with felt walls was brought here. The later church made of unfired bricks was destroyed by the earthquake, and a new church was built in its place, consecrated in November 1895.
During the Soviet era, the communists removed the crosses and used the building as a children’s sports school – until 1982. It took several more years before the original appearance began to be restored and the church was handed over to the Orthodox community. It currently contains a copy of the highly revered Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God. Today, the Russians are the second largest ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan.
(2) Central Dungan Mosque
The mosque was built on the initiative of Ibrahim Aji, who had invited renowned Beijing architect Chou Seu and 20 Chinese carvers. The construction lasted six years, it was completed in 1910.
At first glance, it seemed as if incompatible styles, colors and elements were mixed together here. The mosque with 42 columns has the form of a Buddhist pagoda, it is built exclusively of Tian Shan spruce wood and supposedly without a single nail.
The multi-layered wooden ledge of pale blue color is richly carved – white bunches of grapes or red pomegranates, pumpkins and other fruits stand out well on green plant motifs. The wooden beams are also painted red on the cut.
The waved roof with large red, white, yellow and black squares looks very modern but is lined with some special “lace”. In any case, this mosque is totally different from all those modern mosques that are extremely similar to each other.
The minaret is extraordinary as well – some say it resembles a church bell tower, others say it looks like the tower of the fire station…
A symbolic fee for the maintenance of the mosque is paid at the entrance to the complex. For those who are not properly dressed, clothing and headgear are available.
(3) Przewalsky Museum
Nikolai Przewalsky (1839-1888) was one of the first Russian geographers. Over the course of 16 years, he travelled almost 30,000 kilometers, often along inaccessible, dangerous routes, within four large expeditions to the Russian Far East, to western and central China, Mongolia, Tibet and Central Asia. The final station of his fourth expedition was Karakol.
Przewalsky was the first European to describe a wild horse. In the museum (a building in the style of a Greek temple), visitors will get acquainted in detail with his expeditions, detailed maps, descriptions of nature and the locals in the areas he had studied. Przewalsky’s geographical, zoological, botanical and mineralogical documents, studies and collections have received recognition not only in Russia but also in the world, Przewalsky has become an honorary member of the Hungarian and Austrian Geographical Society. Of course, there is also a horse named after him in the museum, today the only living representative of an extinct wild horse.
Przewalsky was preparing for his fifth expedition, which he wanted to start in Karakol. During the hunt, however, he recklessly drank water from the Kara-Balta River and caught typhoid fever. He died at the age of 49. He was so enthusiastic about the beauty of the local nature that he wished to be buried in a simple grave near Lake Issyk-Kul.
His wish was fulfilled, the grave is simple, but later, a monumental monument was erected next to it – on an eight-meter high rock, there is a huge bronze eagle (wingspan 2.5 m). As a symbol of wisdom and courage, he stands on a map of Central Asia with the routes of the Przewalsky’s expeditions marked and is about to take off to heights. The monument also has an Orthodox cross, a copy of the medal of the Tsarist Academy of Sciences and the inscription “The first observer of nature in Central Asia.” Similarly, above the entrance to the complex, the inscription announces that Nikolai Przewalsky was “an eternal prisoner of roads who left his heart at Issyk-Kul”…
After his death, Tsar Alexander III. ordered to rename the city to Przewalsk. In 1922, they returned the original name Karakol, but in 1939, when 100 years had passed since the death of the popular traveler, the city became Przewalsk again – until 1992. So I hope that the name Karakol will remain for a longer time.
At the end of the complex, there is another monument dedicated to Kusein Karasev – a Kyrgyz philosopher and lexicographer, author of several dictionaries, also Russian-Kyrgyz. Tündük on a symbolic yurt throws interesting shadows…
While there were only us and two women in the church, only one boy who came to pray in the mosque, and only a few other people in the museum, the area near the entrance to the museum was busy. There was a long white limousine with a Kyrgyz flag, with several Kyrgyz girls were milling around. But most of all, they were milling around their friend – the bride. The girls giggled and shed tears at the same time and were willing to be photographed. Then they got into the limousine and drove off to a happy future.
Whoever visits Karakol should definitely taste the local speciality called Ashlan-Fu. And best at the local bazaar. At first, we had to cross the alleys, where mainly gold was sold, but then we found ourselves in the part where Ashlan-Fu was offered almost everywhere. We had already been used to the fact that most shops and restaurants are called “At somebody’s”, in Karakol, we ate “At Mira’s”.
This traditional dish was brought here by the Dungans, members of a Chinese Muslim group that had to flee from China after a failed uprising in the late 1870s. Ashlan-Fu is a spicy soup, usually served cold and is said to be an excellent remedy for a hangover. The main ingredients of this hearty soup are: Laghman noodles, grated starch strips, eggs, meat, garlic, tomatoes, ground red pepper, spices, herbs and vinegar. In a special bowl, they brought us a mixture of chilli and fried bread stuffed with potatoes on a plate.
Although it is always the same ingredients that are added to the soup, each family has its own recipe, perfected over several generations.
Handmade Laghman noodles are also sold at the market. They should be quite long to symbolize a long life…
More articles about Kyrgyzstan: Category Kyrgyzstan
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid and Katka, Travelpotpourri