Karakol is a tourist centre. In the winter it has a well developed ski centre with apparently five separate ski lifts. It is possible to ski downhill, ski cross country, ski back country and helicopter-ski from Karakol.
Sadly none of this is available in September. Instead the tourist attractions are trekking – on foot or on horseback. Many of the shops are aimed at the trekking community, and there is even a trekking workers association or union.
Karakol is named after a robber baron, a local khan who was also “flexible with the law”. He also had a black hand, which is the Kyrgyz translation of Karakol – the black hand town. It boasts of a mosque, a church, and a museum each of which in their own way were quite interesting. The mosque has elements of Arabic and Chinese culture since its congregation are mixed race Kyrgyz. The mixed race Kyrgyz are called Dhungans, and go back over 100 years when it was considered expedient for Russian men to have Chinese wives. The mosque was designed by a Chinese architect and he used the Chinese style of building and design, which involves “tongue and groove” and the use of no nails.
The church is Russian Orthodox and was also built over 100 years ago, to serve the Russians that were sent to Kyrgyzstan. The relationship between Russia and Kyrgyzstan is complex: at times the Russians have been very supportive of their poor neighbour, and certainly recently have written off a considerable national debt. Earlier in the relationship some 300 years ago they sent Cossacks to conquer the country. During the First World War Cossacks were again sent to Kyrgyzstan to quell a developing rebellion of the nomads. This led to an exodus of the northern area of Kyrgyzstan and a loss of 25% of the entire population. This was after the country had to send at least one man from each family to Russia to take the place of those sent to the Western Front to fight the Germans.
The church itself is built of wood, and embellished as only Russian Orthodox can be. There was a service taking place when we arrived so our visit was short. The congregation was almost entirely women – and it was hard to know if that is typical or if there was a special service going on. There were a number of children who attended as well, dressed up to the nines, and bringing in special harvest creations.
The museum, as would be expected in a small town of 50,000 souls, was about Kyrgyz culture. Very predicatable. But in the back room, was a separate exhibition about Ella Maillart. She was a 1920s Swiss explorer who wrote about Central Asia, and ended up living and dying in India. She travelled extensively in the ‘Stans, Nepal and Tibet and wrote many books of her travels. Not only was she a renown explorer, she was also in the Swiss Olympic ski team. The exhibition of her photographs are absolutely stunning. Some of the most revealing pictures I have ever seen.
Having completed the tour of the town’s highlights we drove out into the country to a national park called Jeti Oghuz. A massive rock had cracked in two, which looked like a broken heart. So inevitably there was a complex fable involving a maiden, her true love and (another) evil khan. Further on there was a massive outcrop of the local red clay cliffs that looked like bulls. It was originally called the Seven Bulls, but rain and erosion have exerted their influence and the seven bulls have bred two or three more, so that there are now about ten or eleven bulls.
Further on, 10km along a rough track and in the heart of the national park is Yuri Gagarin’s house. After he had returned to earth (for those of you too young to know better Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space) he was rewarded with a house in this tranquil setting to recuperate form the rigours of his travels.
We walked for about half an hour into the hills to get to a waterfall. A waterfalls go, it was very pleasing to the eye but nothing special; the walk however was beautiful, getting a real sense as to what an extraordinary and beautiful country Kyrgyzstan is.
The following day was a long drive across the border into Kazakhstan and its capital of Almaty. I am writing this in the car – which explains all the typos and the drive has so far been relatively uneventful. With one exception.
Border crossings are always slightly difficult and the border that we were crossing was very isolated. The Kyrgyz border guards were lounging around, with nothing to do. One of the guards was repainting the red and white barrier he was so bored. They dealt with us politely and we walked across no-mans land to the Kazakh customs office. Our guide was dealt with first – no problem. Then my turn; hand over the passport. The first question that the customs officer asked me was about my watch. The watch was (note, not “is”) a very cheap Swatch, that loses about 5 minutes every 12 hours. The custom officer wanted to see it, and tried it on. Needless to say I didn’t get it back. It did look very good on him though – it matched his uniform beautifully. Did I give it to him, or did he take it? Not entirely sure, but I am sure that Anglo Kazakh relations have improved considerably! Boris take note.