Karakol (Kyrgyz or Russian: Каракол) is a peaceful, low-rise town with backstreets full of Russian gingerbread cottages, shaded by rows of huge white poplars. It is the 4th largest city in Kyrgyzstan, near the eastern tip of Lake Issyk-Kul, about 150 kilometres (93 mi) from the Kyrgyzstan-China border and 380 kilometres (240 mi) from the capital Bishkek (6 hour drive). The administrative capital of Issyk-Kul Region is 44 square kilometres (17 sq mi), and its resident population was 66,294 in 2009 and close to 75,000 now. To the north, on highway A363, is Tyup (Tup) and to the southwest Jeti-Ögüz resort. The city is situated in the east of the Issyk-Kul Basin at the mouth of the Karakol river, in the foothills of the Terskey Ala-Too mountains, at the altitude of 1770 m above sea level, 13 km from the coast of the Issyk-Kul lake. Around the town are sweet apple orchards, for which the area is famous. Watered by rain blown west by the prevailing winds, it is a fertile town, with gardens that overflow with fresh plums, pears, cherries, peaches and apricots. In addition to poplars, the Tien Shan spruce stands tall and magnificent with dainty Russian birch trees in central Pushkin Park. With the high elevation summer in Karakol is moderate with an average temperature 18° C in July, while in winter it often snows a lot. For about 140 days in winter, the snow pack averages between 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). The average temperature in January is a modest (for the region) -10° C.
For many centuries here, the Tien Shan, enveloped in legend and strictly out of bounds in Soviet times, remained one of the most unexplored and remote places in the world. And yet, as a series of brave Russian explorers (like Przhevalsk) put these valleys and peaks on the map, Karakol, initially a military garrison, burgeoned as a town of explorers, professionals and merchants. After a military garrison was established at nearby Teploklyuchenka (Ak-Suu) in 1864, and it dawned on everybody that the area near the lake was a fine spot-mild climate, rich soil, a lake full of fish, and mountains full of hot springs-the garrison commander was told to scout out a place for a full-sized town. The name Karakol literally means ‘black wrist’, which is possibly a reference to the immigrant Russian peasants hands’, turned black from the valley’s rich soil.
Karakol city was founded on July 1st, 1869, with streets laid out in a European-style checkerboard. Planned by Russian topographers as the administrative center on the caravan route from Chuy Valley to Kashgar, the city was divided into rectangular blocks with straight streets. In 1881 construction of only 6 blocks was fully complete. There is a nice story related to Karakol’s founding. The cartographers appointed to survey the site had just finished their work when a ferocious storm (typical of the region) swooped in from the mountains, carrying away the contents of their yurts, including their precious maps and plans. The following day the local Kyrgyz people offered to lend a hand. Hand in hand, they and the Russians formed a line towards the Jergalan river to comb the valley in the direction the storm had taken and found all but a few pages of the surveys. Thus the friendship between Kyrgyz and Russian inhabitants is said to spring from the very founding of the town.
The city is located on the Silk Road that leads to Kulja. Qaraqol grew in the 19th century after explorers came to map the peaks and valleys separating Kyrgyzstan from China. In the 1880s Karakol’s population surged with an influx of Dungans as Chinese Muslims fled warfare and persecution in China. The population of the city later increased because Uzbek, Tatar, Uygur, Russian and Ukranian migrants also settled here. At the beginning of the 20th century Przhevalsk had 3 brewery factories, 7 soap factories, 2 saw mills, 12 flour mills, more than 1000 houses, 2 wooden churches, 9 mosques, 4 madrasas or medreses, 7 schools, a girls’ gymnasium, a library, and hospital for soldiers. At the end of the 19th century the Orthodox Church was built here. People have traditionally been engaged in agriculture, trade, and cattle breeding. Construction quickly developed even further after the Great Patriotic World War 2.
In 1888, the Russian explorer Nicholay Przhevalsky died in Karakol of typhoid, while preparing for an expedition to Tibet, the city was renamed Przhevalsk in his honor. After local protests, the town was given its original name which means “Black Hand” back in 1921 in a decision which was reversed in 1939 by Stalin to celebrate the centenary of the explorer’s birth. Karakol then remained Przhevalsk until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 when the city’s traditional name, Karakol, was again restored. However, the name has been retained by nearby Pristan’-Przheval’sk suburb villages. Nearby Issyk Kul Lake was later used by the Soviet military as a testing site for torpedo propulsion and guidance systems, and Karakol was thus home to a sizable population of military personnel and their families.
Karakol continues to be a major hub for visitors of Issyk Kul Lake and the most popular ski resort area during Kyrgyzstan’s long winters. That being said, Karakol remains low-key in the extreme; as yet, there are no lavish hotels, fancy restaurants or lurid nightclubs contrasting it with nearby Cholpon Ata on the shores of Lake Issyk Kol. Karakol is one of Kyrgyzstan’s major tourist destinations, serving as a good starting point for the excellent hiking, trekking, skiing and mountaineering in the high central Tian Shan to the south and east. Of all the towns in Kyrgyzstan, Karakol tends to be the one in which the majority of foreign visitors spend the most time. This is due to the fact that as well as possessing a number of sights and monuments worth seeing, Karakol is also ideally situated for forays into the mountains to the south that beckon so tantalizingly from the town. The town streets, set in a typical Russian grid plan, are long, straight and lined with poplar trees. Most of the homes are old and wooden giving the appearance of a ‘gingerbread house’, complete with neat flower gardens, picket fences and fruit-laden orchards. Speaking of flowers, the surrounding hills are now blue with bugloss, brought over from the Caucasus by the meteorologist and keen botanist General Korolkov at the turn of the century. Some describe Karakol as resembling a Siberian village, or at least an idealized version of one.
Karakol is spread-out without much of an obvious center, although the area immediately around Jakshylyk bazaar and the central square south of the university would be considered just that. All that you’ll find here though are pine trees, some broken benches, a scattering of memorials and a statue of Soviet hero, Yusup Abdrakhmanov, 1901-1938, who was the First Secretary of the Kyrgyz Communist Party from 1924-25. As another post Soviet essential to any city, you can find the Lenin statue at the nearby junction of Gebze and Tynystanova streets. In addition to the sites listed below, much of Karakol is pleasant enough to wander at will characterized by the wooden Russian domestic architecture adorning the town. The area along Lenina and Gorkovo streets (southeast of the Holy Trinity Cathedral) is a particularly pleasant quarter to explore. You should not be suprised to see horse-drawn carts and herds of sheep parading down the streets and flowing around the traffic. Due to economic stresses, the town has somewhat returned a kind of frontier atmosphere to this old boundary post so be vigilant walking around especially during the dark nights.
Karakol is famous among skiers and snowboarders both local and foreign and from all over the former USSR for its ski resorts. Located just 20 minutes from town, the Karakol Ski Base provides services significantly better than those available at Shymbulak, a resort outside Almaty, and has cheaper prices. Unlike Shymbulak resort, the riding at Karakol includes forest areas as well as cleared trails.
Sights Of KARAKOL CITY
Russian Orthodox Cathedral
The story of the church goes back to July 1869, when Karakol was a garrison town on the edges of the Tsarist Russian Empire. The cathedral was originally built of stone in 1872, but was destroyed in 1890 by an earthquake which caused havoc in the town and took several lives. It took six years to complete, and was finally consecrated in 1895. During the period of construction, a yurt served the congregation as a church. During an anti-Russian uprising in 1916 its monks were brutally murdered.It has seen considerable service, not just as a church. Over the years, particularly following the Revolution in 1917, the Holy Trinity Cathedral has been used as an educational centre housing a school, ladies’ gymnasium, an institution of higher education, a sports hall, a theater, a dance hall, and as a coal store. http://www.kyrgyz-travel.com/wp-admin/media-upload.php?post_id=1252&type=image&TB_iframe=1Then, in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Kyrgyzstan, the local authority once again gave the building back to the church, with the proviso that all further restorations were their responsibility. The painting’s and symbols inside the church are different than churches in Europe and uniquely interesting. It’s a great place to take pictures and have a rest from the noise of the city.The building consists of wooden walls on a stone foundation with a brick base, and it is highly decorative. The five onion domes, which used to adorn it, were destroyed in Soviet days. Inside there are a number of icons – including some saved from Svetly Myz, and a copy of one of Saint Troitzy by Andrei Rublev (who lived in the 13th Century). The church has now been returned to active service after some reconstruction was begun in 1961 and recent renovation work.
Issyk-kul Central Mosque of Karakol city (located at the intersection of Abdrakhmanova/Bektenova streets) was built by the initiative of Ibrahim Aji. He commissioned the famous Beijing architect Chou Seu and 20 Chinese artisans with the skills of traditional Chinese architecture and composition carving techniques to build the mosque; however, the construction of outbuildings and other work involved local craftsmen. Construction of the mosque began in 1904 and was completed in 1910. An ingenious system allowed builders to build the mosque with no metal reinforcement tools and not a single metal nail! Karakol suffered from the Bolshevik Revolution and of nine original mosques (founded by Tatars, Dungans and various Kyrgyz clans), all but the Dungan’s were wrecked. From 1929 to 1947, during the Soviet era, the mosque was used as a storehouse. Despite being closed by the government from 1933-43, the building was later given to the Muslim community in 1947.
To the present day the mosque continues to function as a place of worship, but is open to visitors. It is registered as a historical monument and protected by the law. These days worshippers are not exclusively Dungan and include a large Kyrgyz contingent. The ‘Dungan Mosque’ has therefore become simply ‘The Mosque’ in local parlance. Women are not always allowed to enter, but the friendly caretaker, who lives in the grounds, will often open its doors and allow you to peer inside. Signs inside the complex are written in a variety of languages, including English and German.The Dungans first arrived in Karakol, as refugees, in 1877 and created a small community. This exotic-looking, incongruous, blue building in central Karakol resembles a Buddhist temple, but is in fact a mosque. The mosque was built to serve Karakol’s community of Dungans (Chinese Muslims who fled persecution in the 1880s). Much of its imagery, including a wheel of fire, reflects the Dungans’ pre-Islamic, Buddhist past. Instead of a minaret the mosque has a wooden pagoda. The mosque is held up by 42 based pillars, and encircling the building is a multi-tiered wooden cornice, decorated with images of plants like grapes, pomegranates, pears and peaches. The distinctive decoration (it is painted in bright colors – red, green and yellow – and bears reliefs depicting various types of flora and mythical animals such as dragons and the phoenix) really catch your eyes with fantastically carved latticework resembling fruit and flowers. The Mosque is very beautiful and interesting as it’s the only example of traditional Chinese architecture in all of Kyrgyzstan.
Karakol Historical Museum
This small museum, housed in a pretty chocolate-box cottage in central Karakol, was the pre-revolutionary summer home of the Iliana merchant family. During the turbulent years of 1918-20 the building earned its socialist stripes as headquarters of the Regional Revolutionary Committee, and was subsequently transformed into a museum by order of the Soviet Council of Ministers in 1948. The museum has several interesting displays (labeled in English, Russian and Kyrgyz). Scythian artifacts include enormous bronze pots retrieved from Lake Issyk-Kul, displayed alongside exhibits on petroglyphs in the area. Besides a comprehensive display of traditional Kyrgyz punched leather work, felt wall hangings and woven yurt decorations, the museum has a colorful collection of national costumes, examples of finely worked silver jewelry and a good exhibition of Kyrgyz applied art. One hall covers the region’s flora and fauna – much of which is endangered and listed in the ‘Red Book’ (a Soviet inventory of protected species). The museum is also worth visiting to gain a Soviet perspective of history in the region and great pictures by Ella Millart (a famous Swiss traveler). A couple of walls relating to Kyrgyz union with Russia and the subsequent revolution are now historical artifacts in themselves. It’s a great place to see pictures and artifacts if you are interested in Karakol’s history and if not, well….. there are many stuffed animals inside!
The Karakol Zoo located near the stadium at the intersection of Koenkozov/Parkovaya streets is the only permanent zoo in all of Kyrgyzstan. Karakol Zoological Park was founded in 1987. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the economics of the country quickly fell into disrepair in 2001, there was a question about closing the zoo. However, sponsors were found to preserve the wildlife area and keep it in a relatively prosperous state. Nowadays the buildings, cages and cells are not new, but still in very good condition. Admittedly, most of the animals in the Bugu-Enye zoo are local fauna; but many are native mountain dwellers and would be difficult to spot simply hiking around. Here, you can see the Kyrgyz ‘wild’ animals all in one place! The zoo houses an assortment of local bears, wolves, deer, camels, peacocks and many other animals. There are also, of course, several Przhevalsky horses, named after the intrepid Russian explorer. It’s a great place to spend one hour and relax with the wildlife. The zoo is a fun and interesting place it’s definitely worth a stop if you have the time.
Karakol Livestock Market / Animal Bazaar
Early every Sunday mornings you have the unique free opportunity to visit one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest animal markets. It’s best to get there early, as it tends to start at around dawn and is all over by 10:00am. Starting long before the crack of dawn, one of Central Asia’s largest animal markets (Kyrgyz “Mal Bazaar” or Russian: “Skotniy Bazaar”) takes shape where you can observe scenes at once sad and comical, with locals improbably bundling voluptuous fat-tailed sheep and even cows into the back seats of Lada cars. The setting amid semi-derelict flour mills might seem unprepossessing, but on clear days the backdrop of white-topped mountains is more striking from here than from the town center. The golden light of the rising sun makes it a very special experience and creates some memorable photos. Whether you’re interested in the animals or not, the weekly bazaar gives a good insight into the culture and the livelihood of the people here. Scattered among stands of tightly tethered (with nylon string) complaining livestock, are Kyrgyz who have come to examine and bargain for the goods on offer, trying out horses with a short test trot or assessing the weight of the fat on the behind of a fat-tailed sheep with their massaging palms. The market is a vast concentration of horse, sheep and cattle, but mostly the first two, which are traded in two separate enclosures. Kyrgyz (men mostly) come from all over the region to visit the market, and to buy, sell and socialize, sometimes traveling for days with their livestock to reach it. This is Kyrgyz rural life in its unadorned form and here, as much as anywhere in the region, will you see wizened Methuselahs with straggly beards and white kalpaks going about their everybody business.The market, which is remarkably calm and dignified given all the activity going on, is as much as a country fair as it is a place of commerce. It is a great place to wander, take pictures and watch the morning unfold. It is also a good place to buy a horse or a sheep if you know what you are doing (take a helpful local along for advice). Those who have visited the Sunday market in Kashgar, across the border in Xinjiang, may find the scale of the Karakol market a little disappointing, but there is certainly nowhere else in Kyrgyzstan where such old style commerce can be witnessed in such a hassle-free, tourist-friendly manner. Then be sure to have a fresh feast of boiled mutton in a traditional Kyrgyz meal like “Besh Barmak” (‘Five Fingered Food’) complete with fatty broth to drink (“shorpo”), oily noodles, braided intestines, and the entire sheep’s head!
Prjevalski Museum & Memorial Grave
Nikolay Mikhailovich Przhevalsky was an officer in the tsarist army who trained in cartography, botany, geology, and many other subjects, but he is most famous for his exploratory expeditions across Central Asia where he mapped and cataloged his adventures that began in his discovery of Karakol. The Memorial Museum of Przhevalsky was opened on April 29th, 1957, in Pristan Prjevalski Village, 7 kilometres (5 mi) north of Karakol to commemorate his adventures and discoveries. The Przhevalsky Museum preserves many of his instruments as well as some of his manuscripts, maps, drawings, and specimens of flora and fauna that Przhevalsky collected during his journeys. They also display 7 works of his published between 1883 and 1947. Today the exhibits feature his personal things, documents, photos and articles some of which have English translations.
Przhevalsky’s grave, a memorial park and the small museum dedicated to his and other Russian explorations in Central Asia are overlooking the Mikhailovka inlet of Issyk Kul Lake. To the rear of his resting place lies the remnants of a Soviet torpedo testing facility; facilities themselves are still a closed, military area. Przhevalsky is buried at the edge of the museum grounds in the 10 hectare (25 acre) park grounds overlooking an inlet on Issyk-Kul. In addition, in 1998 Hussein Karasaw, a famous Kyrgyz linguist, was buried there, too. The traveler’s tomb and large monument built on the site faces in the direction of Lhasa, which was always Prjewalsky’s final destination.N. M. Przhewalsky was one of the first Russian scientists/geographers who started studying in detail the geography, flora and fauna of Central Asian countries. Beginning from 1870, he arranged 4 large expeditions to what was then (to Europeans) the uncharted wild of inner Asia: Mongolia, China and Tibet. And he made Karakol his staging point for these forays into the unknown. During his expeditions he revealed the exact directions of the mountain ranges and borders of the Tibetan Mountains. Przhewalsky collected an enormous zoological collection, which comprised several thousand of species of plants, animals, birds, fishes and insects. He also discovered over 200 plant species. He is considered one of the greatest explorers of inner Asia in the late 19th century and is mentioned in several of the books of Peter Hopkirk, who chronicled the explorers and adventurers of the Great Game era.