Monday, December 19, 2011

Karakol: A Frontier Town in Kyrgyzstan

Roof detail Dungan mosque; image Sue Byrne
Karakol, wedged between the eastern tip of Issyk Kul lake and the Tian Shan mountain range, began life as a garrison town for the Russian Imperial Army in 1869. Settlers followed, drawn to the fertile lands of the region.

The Russian explorer and Great Game player Nikolai Przhevalsky used Karakol as a base camp for his expeditions into Central Asia and China. (The town is 150kms from the Chinese border). He died of typhoid here in 1888 and the town was renamed after him in honour of his life and work.

In 1921 Lenin renamed it Karakol, then Stalin changed it back to Przhevalsky in 1939, the centenary of the explorer's birth. In 1957 a small museum and garden were built as a tribute to Przhevalsky. At Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991 its name reverted to Karakol.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Karakol
The wooden Holy Trinity Cathedral, constructed in 1895, has been restored and reconsecrated. In Soviet days it was a dance hall and later a school. It holds several important icons salvaged from nearby Svetly Mys, the nearby hamlet where the Christian apostle Matthew is said to be buried.

There is also a Chinese mosque in Karakol: Dungan mosque, built in 1910 entirely of wood without a single nail. The Dungans fled China during the Han Chinese retaliation after the Muslim uprising in the north west in the 19th century. Instead of a minaret the mosque has a wooden pagoda. A Dungan community still lives in Karakol.

Khan Tengi, sunset
The town retains a small section of Russian colonial 'gingerbread' buildings and, with its parks and poplar-lined streets, there is a gracious air.  Not so gracious, perhaps, but very exciting, is Karakol's famous Sunday livestock market to which nomads flock to trade sheep and horses.

Today Karakol serves a base for various outdoor activities, especially mountaineering expeditions to the Enlichek glacier and the mighty peaks of Jengish Chokusu (formerly known as Pobeda, 7439 metres) and Khan Tengi (7,010 metres). In winter Karakol is a popular resort for skiing and snow boarding.

Uzbek Journeys arranges excursions to Kyrgyzstan before or after the Uzbek tours; these include a visit to Karakol. In 2013, I plan to offer a combined Uzbek-Kyrgyz tour that will include visits to the felting and design studios of Kyrgyzstan as well as time in the mountains.

Related post: Jamilia: A Kyrgyz Love Story
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan