The Karakol mosque is the only one of the original nine in Karakol to have survived the Soviet era. The green entrance doors to the compound are unmistakably Chinese, with a red pagoda roof and four red pillars. The Karakol Dungans (Hui Chinese), originally Budhist, had migrated across the Tien Shan in the winter of 1877/78 after the Hui Minorities War and settled in Yrdyk, a few miles west of Karakol. As soon as we entered the compound we were faced with trees whose branches bowed under the weight of beautiful shiny red apples. They were under-planted with deep red roses in abundant bloom. Dungans are renowned farmers and gardeners, so much so that a tidy Kyrgyz garden is described as ‘like a Dungan’s’.
In 1907 about 20 joiners, under the direction of the Chinese architect Chow Sze, started work on the mosque. It is constructed of elm, fir, poplar and walnut wood without the use of a single nail. Finished three years later it is painted in wonderful bright colours. In Dungan tradition each colour has a special significance. Yellow encourages wealth and importance; red protects against bad spirits and tragedy; green is for happiness and health. All are used to great effect in the mosque. A rope across the door prevented our entering the building itself but the caretaker told us of the dragons, lions and phoenix that protect the place. Next to it a squat three story blue pagoda serves as a minaret. The mosque was used as a warehouse in Soviet times but has been refurbished and now serves a thriving Muslim community that includes the Dungans’ descendants.
As religion is an anathema to communists the Russian Orthodox Christians had suffered as much as the Muslims. Karakol, established in 1869 as a military outpost was settled by Cossacks from Siberia and the cathedral is not the first. Initially a yurt was used and the one built as a more permanent place of worship was destroyed in the earthquake of 1890. In the years of the Soviet ‘stewardship’ of Kyrgyzstan the domes were removed and the cathedral relegated to a ladies’ gymnasium; school; dance hall and coal store. By the time it was handed back to the congregation in 1995 50% of it was reckoned to have been trashed. The timber Cathedral of the Holy Trinity that we saw looked resplendent with its green roof and gilded domes glinting against the sky. It has undergone almost total restoration, been reconsecrated, serves the diocese of Issyk-Kul and evidently is loved and well patronised.
About 6 miles north of Karakol is Pristan Przhevalsk the village where the explorer lived for a while and where he died. The most delightful middle-aged woman met us at the entrance to Przhevalsky’s memorial park. A native of Bishkek she was spending the summer in Karakol to guide tourists. I don’t think that I was the only one whose total knowledge of Przhevalsky was his identification of the wild horses only found in Mongolia. There was much more to him. The museum, built by the Soviets in 1957, has the appearance of a Greek temple. Gilded Marco Polo sheep flank the steps to its portico and on its pediment an eagle looks to be preparing for flight. Inside the entrance hall the rather dingy life-size portraits would have put us off had our guide not been so enthusiastic. She spoke perfect English, enthused about Przhevalsky and like the best of teachers soon had us concentrating. We learned that he had collected over 16,000 plants, 700 small mammals, 5,000 birds and 1,200 reptiles. Besides the horse had had a gazelle, a lizard, an ephedra and a rhododendron named after him. He was highly respected in Russia by both the Geographical Society and Czar Alexander III and did a bit of spying on the side – it was the time of the Great Game. A ceiling high relief map showed the routes of his numerous expeditions, many in unsuccessful attempts to gain access to Lhasa. There was an original camp bed (not his), photographs, stuffed birds and inevitably a stuffed horse that looked convincingly near extinction. The most impressive exhibits were his self-made surveying equipment and the resultant maps. Our guide proudly told us that they are as accurate as anything since made, even with GPS.
Przhevalsky died of typhoid near the spot and we walked along the avenue of Tien Shan Spruce to see his grave – that is modest, and the memorial that is anything but. Constructed with 21 granite rocks, to represent his 10 years exploring and 11 years writing up the expeditions. There are ten steps (exploring) and the rocks reputedly weigh 365 tonnes – the days in the year that he spent, one way and another, on his explorations. The memorial is topped by an eagle with spread wings and an olive branch in its beak to signify the peaceful occupation of nations. It is favourite spot for wedding photographs and we made way for another happy couple. Once overlooking the shores of Lake Issy-Kul it now seems a bit marooned as the lake’s water levels have dropped. Nothing other than derelict looking cranes on old wharves and abandoned buildings remain where the waters lapped. It is off limits as the Soviets still test submarines and torpedoes in the area. After Przhevalsky died Karakol was named Przhevalsk then in 1921 Lenin agreed to let it revert to Karakol. In 1939 Stalin had it renamed Przhevalsk to celebrate the centenary of his birth, which was how it remained until the demise of the Soviet Union. Having paid homage to the man there was nothing for it but to visit the zoo to see a pair of live Przhevalsky horses. It had been some Kyrgyz who had first alerted Przhevalsky to the existence of the horses by bringing him the pelt of one they called a Kurtag.
We were lucky. Not only did the few animals in the rather jaded but still poetically named Pushkin Park, seem a lot happier than the occupants of most zoos, but the two horses had been happy enough to produce a foal. They gave the impression of a contented family as they stood in the shade of a breezeblock wall in the grass compound, and swished their tails.
Before supper we sat on the floor of a little balcony, at the end of the landing near our bedrooms, with our feet sticking out between the pot plants. Overlooking back gardens stuffed with roses and African marigolds, to the snowy mountains beyond, we toasted the ride with vodka and Pringles. The next evening we would be up there, somewhere, with our horses. We dined in the back room of a local restaurant. The table was huge and had there been more than a handful of us in the room we wouldn’t have been able to hear what those on the far side of the table were saying. The room felt better suited for a company board meeting than a dining experience and may well have been designed to enable the otherwise modest restaurant to host toi. Shuhrat chose food for us and as always it was delicious and we did our best.